Imagine holding your own private movie screening on a huge cinema screen, with just a few family or friends. As movie theaters slowly start to return with strict social distancing measures still enforced, some cinemas have started offering exactly this option.
“With Texas allowing us to open at 25% capacity, the idea allowed us to slowly bring our guests back into a safe and controlled environment,” says Annelise Holyoak, national director of marketing and communications for Cinépolis Luxury Cinemas. “Within about 12 hours almost all the spots were sold out. We currently have a waiting list for additional weekends in the future.”
Who’s been coming? “Almost all of the upcoming bookings are families,” Holyoak says. “We are giving them a chance to celebrate (primarily) graduations and birthdays in a private and safe space, with most graduation ceremonies being virtual or cancelled.”
Utah-based Megaplex Theatres is similarly offering $375 private screenings of either recent or classic films, for up to 20 patrons. That price also includes large popcorn and drinks for all attendees.
“We’re starting with four locations to gauge guest response and work through any operational issues,” says Megaplex vice president of marketing and advertising Jeff Whipple. “We included large popcorn and drinks to provide enough for everyone while suggesting that guests not share food or drink, as an added safety measure.”
Atlanta’s Plaza Theatre is also hosting private screenings for first responders and other essential workers—capped at 10 attendees—in their 485-seat auditorium.
The concept has taken hold in foreign markets as well, including at Svenska Bio, one of Sweden’s largest chains. They set a minimum of eight tickets and a maximum 50 for a screening.
As of mid-May, when interviewed, “We have had north of 600 events, but the interest is mounting every day,” says CEO Peter Fornstam. “Basically everything that was playing mid-March and is on our servers, from Onward to [2019 French drama] An Officer and a Spy.”
Yet their content isn’t just limited to films. Playing videogames on that giant screen, for a minimum of two hours at $50 U.S. per hour, has become more and more popular. “Videogames have been around 10 percent of the bookings, but [it] is increasing,” Fornstam says. A billion dollar industry worldwide, e-sports has been hovering on the edge of the exhibition landscape even before the COVID crisis. MediaMation, with their immersive seating concept MX4D, has been active in the space; in 2019, they partnered with Hollywood Esports for an auditorium in San Diego’s Theater Box that can shift from “cinema mode” to “esports mode,” allowing for the screening of films as well as video game tournaments and events. Though much smaller in scale than the MediaMation venture, Svenska Bio’s experimentation with videogames speaks to the worldwide exhibition industry’s desire to diversify by seeking out new forms of content—and the opportunity presented by current circumstances to explore new avenues of exhibition.
Novo Cinemas, one of the largest exhibitors in the Middle East, has also begun offering private cinema rentals for 2,999 United Arab Emirates dirham, equivalent to about $816 U.S. dollars.
“My family and I miss going to the movies, and we believe this is an amazing opportunity to book your screen in anticipation of our opening soon,” CEO Debbie Stanford-Kristiansen said in a press release. “What better way to enjoy a film than to hire a private screening, sit back and be blown away by the full cinema experience.”
The concept of private rentals predates the COVID crisis. It was part of Megaplex’s normal mode of operations, for example, to rent out their auditoria to companies for meetings, seminars, and screenings. Families anxious for a safe night out are now taking the place of businesses looking for a fun location for their latest quarterly meeting.
A pioneer in the space of private rentals from the vendor side of things is GDC Technology, which introduced GoGoCinema at CinemaCon convention, billing it as “Netflix for cinema.” The website and app would allow consumers to book their own private movie theater auditorium at an available date and time of their choosing, with a library of titles to watch on the big screen. The company launched in a few select locations in Singapore and Shanghai last October.
“We see a trend around festivities and social events: for example, consumers booking romantic movies around Valentine’s Day or animation movies during school holidays,” says GDC Tech’s Prasad Khedkar, who runs GoGoCinema from Hong Kong. “In addition, [the product] provides an opportunity to book movie marathons for fan groups of a movie, genre, or a series of movies, such The Fast and the Furious franchise.”
The micro-cinema concept may be growing, but is it economically viable in the long term? Even the current practitioners acknowledge that the answer might be no.
“The intent isn’t to make money. The intent is to reconnect with our guests and offer them something special they might not normally be able to experience,” Holyoak says. “Having guests in our theaters also allows our teams to implement our enhanced cleaning and disinfecting protocols. You may even see our CEO helping out if you book an event!”
“We only cover our staffing costs, but this is a way to keep interest in going to the movie theaters alive during this period,” Fornstam says. “It keeps systems going, motivates staff, and will make the reopening less difficult.”
That mission of keeping interest in movie theaters alive seems to be working.
“One person from Gothenburg—were we have no cinemas and everything is closed—has rented a screen in Borås three Saturdays in row,” Fornstam tells. “On one of those occasions she paid for eight tickets, although they were only two [people in attendance], because she loved going to the movies.”