Drawcard or Distraction? Identifying cinema experiences that will really fly

I was traveling overseas when I first learned of German Bruce Willis.

Okay, some background is required. I was visiting a local friend in the German city of Bremen, and we were looking for a screening of The Hobbit. My friend, a self-confessed cinephile, revealed that he could only stand to watch movies in their original English. In a country where roughly 80% of foreign films are dubbed into German, this can present a unique challenge. For him, though, the inconvenience of finding an English screening, and sometimes straining to understand all of the dialogue, was well worth it. The payoff, he said, was being able to hear lines delivered by the original actors: a more authentic, immersive experience. 

A common complaint amongst anti-dubbing moviegoers in Germany is that it breaks your ‘suspension of disbelief’ — that quality of a film that allows us to put aside what we know to be fiction, and invest ourselves in the story. This complaint becomes especially valid when you start to recognize the German voice actors of their Hollywood counterparts. Manfred Lehmann, for instance, famously voices Bruce Willis in just about every role, and is a star in his own right. However, he’s also voiced actors as diverse as Steven Seagal, Gerard Depardieu, and Bill Murray. Hearing Bruce Willis’ voice come out of Bill Murray’s mouth can be quite a jarring experience!

Whatever your opinion on overdubbed films, it raises an interesting point: why is it that we can happily ignore some distractions to the filmic experience but not others? Why do I find it easier to get invested in characters when reading subtitles of their dialogue, rather than hearing it in overdubbed English?

This doesn’t just apply to foreign films, either. There are many idiosyncrasies to our ideas of what makes a moviegoing experience ‘immersive’. Just imagine you’re watching the latest blockbuster comedy at the movies, people roaring with laughter on every side of you. If anything, the interaction of the audience only enhances the experience. But if those teenagers sitting behind you whisper one more time, there’s going to be trouble.

So how do you identify the drawcards that will enhance the moviegoing experience and the distractions that detract from it? As cinemas introduce new features and technologies, there’s a growing need to spot the potential failures and successes in advance.

Thankfully, we have some tips to develop a sixth sense about what will succeed and what will die hard:

Know your audience

As the example of German cinema shows, being able to cater for different preferences is a key to success. What might be an immersive highlight for one person may very well be a distraction for someone else. Dress-up screenings of The Rocky Horror Picture Show aren’t for everyone!

Knowing your audience means researching what types of experience your moviegoers want, rather than resting on traditional assumptions. Polls and customer ratings are great ways of getting feedback, and loyalty programs are a powerful tool for learning about moviegoer demographics. Are you dedicating resources to knowing your audience?

Vista Mobile lets your customers rate their moviegoing experience

Vista Mobile lets your customers rate their moviegoing experience

Manage expectations

The better you know your audience, the better you’ll know what they expect from you. This is crucial because as a moviegoer, my ability to overlook distractions is bound by my expectations of the experience. In other words, if I know what to expect, I’ll go prepared for it.

Take the example of the time-old intermission. What bigger distraction could there be than pausing the film halfway though? And yet Quentin Tarantino, with 2015’s The Hateful Eight, pushed for cinemas to include an intermission as an enrichment of the experience. What gives?

Firstly, audiences were prepared. Premium screenings were set up to evoke the ‘good old days’ of cinema, complete with printed programs. Secondly, Tarantino managed the audience’s expectations even within the intermission — a musical overture introduced the second half of the film, reeling viewers in and using the theme music to give anticipation of the action to come.

If you’re offering a new feature, make sure your moviegoers know what they’re in for, and create an experience that will match and exceed their expectations.

Use the best tools on offer

With 2009’s Avatar, James Cameron sparked a revival of 3D cinema that has outlasted many expectations. How?

Part of Cameron’s success was using the latest and greatest technology. Distracting red and blue cellophane glasses are a thing of the past. More than that, though, Cameron used 3D technology in a unique way: to make the film as immersive as possible. 3D isn’t just a vehicle for delivering cheap thrills in Avatar. Where many other 3D films were content to throw things out at the audience, Avatar sucks you into the world on screen with an incredible depth of field in every scene. When Jake Sully jumps onto the Ikran, you’re really flying there with him. This emotive use of the technology is what has caused it to grow into a staple of the blockbuster film circuit today, and pave the way for new innovations to take hold. Will 4DX also manage to conquer the balancing act of immersion versus distraction and break into the mainstream?

Another modern parallel that is starting to shape the cinema experience in a big way is in-seat dining. Now, none of us are under the illusion that trying to steer a forkful of peas into your mouth in the dark is going to help you forge a stronger connection with the character on screen. But the way that a cinema offers in-seat dining can really make or break the scheme’s success. Having to wave over an usher and whisper your order above the noise of German Bruce Willis’ gunfire is a hassle. Imagine instead being able to tap a screen on your armrest, or use your own mobile app, to make an order. Minutes later that burger arrives at your seat, and you haven’t missed a second of the action.

Innovations such as 3D screenings and in-seat dining can open up important revenue streams, but they often come at a cost to the moviegoer — namely, distractions. By using technology to its full potential, though, you ensure that these features enhance the experience far more than they detract from it. Only then will they transcend the status of ‘gimmicks’ and flourish.

What we can learn from foreign films, intermissions, and in-seat dining, is that there isn’t one hard-and-fast rule about what features will succeed. Any one of these initiatives could be a hit or a flop at a cinema. The deciding factor is often the way in which they are implemented: with an understanding of the audience, an experience that matches their expectations, and the use of the best technology available to you.

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