By Tom Paquin
As we are now only a few months away from a full year of living with COVID-19, it is safe to say that governments and businesses are starting to learn the nuanced strategies needed to open safely and make smart decisions to keep people and employees safe. Of course, these strategies and remedies are not distributed evenly across industries. Restaurants have struggled to offset losses, and many have permanently closed. Many other industries, including a great many in the service sector, have needed to think creatively in order to stay afloat.
One industry for which I care about very dearly—Movie Theaters—have been dramatically impacted by lowered attendance and closures. With no new releases and restrictions on guests, many theaters sit empty.
I’ve wracked my brain on how these organizations may be able to reinvent themselves for these times. There are a great variety of creative and innovative ideas, but this being a service-focused website, let’s consider the place that service may sit in the future of these endeavors.
I’ll start this by saying I love going to the movies. I find the dark quiet of a theater therapeutic. I love that, in a world of increasing distraction, we are all forced to pay attention to a single thing for an hour—a shared experience with a room full of strangers. I even love the smell of stale popcorn. Not being able to experience that over the last nine months has been a disappointment. So much so that over the summer I got myself a nice little projector and built a screen in my backyard. Watching Toy Story with friends and family safely social distancing was such a joy. It was a taste of normalcy.
Not everyone is as big of a sentimental baby as I am, of course, and theater profits have been declining now for decades. Theaters need to rethink their strategies, and I believe this starts with memberships. Some of the bigger chains are starting to see the importance of this, which is a key first step. Most theater profits come from concessions, so getting people through the door is ultimately the main goal.
I’d argue, though, that for this to be successful, movie theaters need to start thinking about channel distribution more holistically. Perhaps $15 a month gets you unlimited access to visit the theater, but $40 a month—the price for a family of three to go see a first-run film—gets you streaming rights to first-run movies at home. For many people who don’t enjoy sticky floors or remain concerned about the threat of the virus, that would be a way to offer products to an interested audience. There would naturally have to be exceptions for blockbuster films, and certain studios will object to showing their movies that way, but by diversifying and servitizing some of these offerings a lot more than they have already, there’s huge growth potential.
Another consideration that organizations like the Alamo Draft House have started to play with are full theater rentals. This has been useful for their businesses while their real estate has sat mostly unused over the last few months, but the space itself is just the beginning. Forward-thinking organizations should consider how to build service packages around these things, for their space. Sure—business meetings and birthday parties are a great start, but there are other packages that theaters could offer. I think about one of my favorite theaters—The AMC Loews in downtown Boston—which has sweeping views of Boston Common and beautiful art deco designs. The space, frankly, is primed for a cocktail party, even for a wedding. Creative thinking is the key here. Obviously there are resource considerations—Catering, liquor serving, and so on—but with the right combination of partnerships and technology, there’s a huge amount of potential.
One last idea, which goes back to my DIY backyard movie screen. If theaters created similar packages, and made them available to customers for pickup or guided setup through field operations, I think there’d be quite the market for it, especially for things like Birthday Parties. Imagine combining the screen and the film with branded decorations and concessions. Obviously we’ve been talking a lot about service, and this is explicitly field service, but it’s a simple idea to diversify revenue screens that I do feel has appeal—especially today. Most people don’t need a permanent backyard movie theater, but for special occasions, it can be a very fun diversion, especially if you can pay to have someone set it up and break it down for you.
I am certain more creative people than I are coming up with additional plans to save the film distribution industry, and I look forward to seeing their ideas come to fruition. Innovation in cinema is an existential need today, and getting it right has the potential to help struggling businesses not just survive, but to expand their business beyond its current bounds.