It’s all about the Experience – and it’s not Rocket Science!

When moviegoers go to the cinema, what makes them keep coming back? Or, put another way, what stops them from returning again and again on a regular basis? And what are exhibitors doing to change that? Vista Cinema’s Head of Customer Success Dave Smith examines the trends and tells us what works – and what doesn’t:

Fourteen years ago I remember telling a major US exhibitor that they needed to prepare for reserved seating and an improved cinema experience. I was told that would never happen because making moviegoers stick to an assigned seat would cause arguments in the auditorium!

Well, I wasn’t wrong. But to be honest, it took a little longer than I expected for those changes to start, although it has been a steady progression, particularly over the last five to six years.

The first real change in the United States was initiated by Village Gold Class in California in 2008, introducing the idea to North America of both an improved experience and reserved seating. Now of course, some kind of enhanced offer, whether it be seating, dining or service, (or all of this), is provided by all leading exhibitors. Such changes were already taking place in other territories such as Asia and Australasia.  Despite the difference between markets in terms of attitudes to say, food and beverage, all cinemas want the same outcomes: greater spend, higher visitation and occupancy, and additional discretional spend with higher margins. 

It took some time for the exhibition industry to finally realize that relying on product alone doesn’t work, especially when the ‘product’ – movies – are of such varying quality.

The last couple of months have proven this. The worst summer at the box office for more than a decade1 2 has been blamed on a  paucity of quality content. I haven’t seen cinemas bringing back re-runs in such high volumes in many years, although horror movie It  thankfully has helped salvage numbers this year.

So how does that enhanced offer manifest, and what difference does it make? Here are a few examples of trends taking place over the last few years:

  • Recliners: a major exhibitor I know who operates in a competitive market has been rolling out recliners everywhere but keeping ticket prices the same. They tell me that this has turned some loss-making sites into profitable ones, taking an estimated 15-20% of business off their major and larger competitor in locations where they operate side by side. While this reduces capacity,  at the same time seating becomes a premium and a limited resource causing a significant increase in occupancy and demand.3
  • Food and Beverage, Bars & Restaurants: although this isn’t an innovative idea nowadays, it is still one of the best ways of improving the moviegoer experience. If your customers stay an extra half hour or an hour in a relaxing, enjoyable environment, their overall experience becomes more than just a movie and they will spend more.4
  • Moving seats, 4DX:  I remember loving DBox when I first experienced it, but I did say to myself, "would I want to watch every action movie in one of these seats?" In a movie lasting nearly two hours,  it can be quite a jarring, jolting experience.5 This kind of technology always has a place, but it’s not an audience game-changer.
  • Virtual Reality:  VR is an awesome experience, especially when moving seats and isolation pods are added into the mix.  Speaking personally, its solitary nature means I might only try it now and then.  However, VR  will get people through the door which explains why companies like AMC are seriously exploring VR.6 Once you’re able to  insert yourself and your friends into the frame (such as location-based VR7) that’s when it will become a  special social experience.
  • Technology: better sound, laser projectors, High Frame Rates, High Dynamic Range – these are all incremental improvements on what is essentially the same experience. They make movies look and sound better, but are they really what brings me and others back next week? We will continue to see advances in these areas because equipment suppliers want to sell more kit. However, moviegoers now expect these improvements to be a given. 
  • Group Catering: there have been a few takes on this; creating cinemas with some auditoriums of 15-30 seats that you can book is an idea that comes and goes. I have seen auditoriums with a couple of sound-proofed rooms at the back so that a group can play up without disturbing the audience. Allowing easy booking for groups has met with mixed success so far, but I think if you can grow a loyal customer base then it’s a great idea. For me, cinema is a social experience, and anything that makes it easier for groups is a good thing.
  • Loyalty: again not innovative, but I believe the exhibition industry tends to take loyalty systems for granted. It's not just about the data and analytics, focused offerings and segmentation (although it is for us in the trade), but for the customer it’s about the experience. Rewards and recognition makes you feel valued and helps bring you back. I suggest exhibitors who run loyalty programs should spend more time thinking about how to use them to give their customers a warm and fuzzy feeling on a regular basis. Early purchase availability, priority seating, member-only screenings, lucky punter prizes, customer of the week – there are lots of options! 8 9
  • Service: it may be last on the list but as we well know, making the experience friendly, frictionless, comfortable and personal is probably the thing that will stick most in the minds of the majority of people. Just like your favorite local restaurant, you come back month after month because staff know who you are and do a great job. On the flip side, if you get it wrong there is a whole social media network out there that will know about it within minutes.

At the end of the day content is king but you can’t rely just on that. There is a lot you can do to make sure that your cinema is the cinema of choice. Retaining your audience and increasing their spend is a constantly evolving challenge and sometimes it may be simpler than you think.


1. Amos, J – Moviegoers turn the page on frightful summer 2017… - Celluloid Junkie (Sept 3, 2017)
2. Kelley, S – Summer Box Office officially worst in over a decade – Variety (Sept 5, 2017)
3. Schwartz, E - The reason I will return to my local movie theater – (July 8, 2014) 
4. Hwang, K – Hottest trend at the movies? Luxury theaters wine and dine moviegoers in fight for entertainment dollars (April 11, 2017) 
5. Bishop, B – Movie theaters are becoming roller coasters, whether you like it or not (June 16, 2017)
6. Giardina, C – AMC Partners with location-based Virtual Reality firm Dreamscape Immersive (September 26, 2017)
7. Roettgers, J – Location-Based Virtual Reality is the next big bet for movie theaters, malls (July 26, 2017)
8. Lewthwaite, S & Liebmann, M – The secrets to a successful cinema loyalty program - (13 Sept, 2017) 
9. Von Sychowski, P – Unlock cinema retail growth with disruptive innovation – Celluloid Junkie (Sept 5, 2017)

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