CinéShow 2019: Exhibitor Marketing Evolves in the Social Media Age

Grassroots marketing campaigns go viral as movie theaters appeal to moviegoers online

It was a tense start to the week at CinéShow 2019, with details of the negotiations over a theatrical run for Netflix’s The Irishman being leaked through industry trade outlets. There was anxiety in the air, especially as the streaming giant prepared to screen its remaining slate of titles during major festivals in the subsequent weeks: Telluride, Toronto, and Venice all on the schedule. Uncertainty about how the rest of 2019 would play out prevailed until official news came down midweek that Netflix would give The Irishman a cursory theatrical release under a shortened theatrical window. With the status quo still in place, the week’s sessions at CinéShow provided compelling insights into how the region’s exhibitors are planning to tackle the coming months and their corresponding titles.

Perhaps the most standout feature of this year’s programming at CinéShow was the inclusion of the Independent Cinema Alliance (ICA), which helped shed light on the priorities and concerns of different players in the independent sector. Of note was an operations-themed session focused on building a positive workplace culture. Representatives from Cinema World, Galaxy Theatres, and Studio Movie Grill all contributed examples of how to build winning teams through a combination of location-specific and company-wide initiatives that simultaneously prepare and motivate employees. 

The prevailing theme of the week’s panels centered on the challenges of exhibitor marketing in today’s rapidly changing media landscape. While new movies remain the primary driver for attendance, exhibitors have begun branching out to include premium amenities, expanded concessions, and event screenings as part of their promotional strategies. 

Loyalty programs have proved particularly valuable in today’s outreach plans for exhibitors, allowing companies to directly engage with their audiences through customized messages. “For us at Flix Brewhouse, the single most important marketing tool we have are our customers’ email addresses. It’s not even close,” said Greg Johnson, director of marketing at Flix Brewhouse. Flix recently transitioned to Movio Cinema’s Dynamic Content after having worked with MailChimp for several years, a shift that Johnson claims has helped better tailor his outreach to specific segments of his audience. 

Custom messaging is crucial to effectively communicate with your audience; bombarding clients with too many emails—or worse, irrelevant offers—can mean the difference between an unread email and a ticket purchase. Knowing your local audience off-line, however, still plays a major role in offering the right programming at the right time. “I have to pay really close attention to the Texas A&M football schedule,” said Jim Bob McKown, house manager at the Queen Theatre in Bryan, Texas, an independent cinema minutes away from College Station. “If there’s a game going on, I know to make that Saturday a Ladies Night.”

Over the past decade, social media has emerged as another vital platform for engaging with audiences. Jason Ostrow, VP of development at Star Cinema Grill, noted that his fledgling circuit has found success by marketing itself as a lifestyle brand by creating moments in a cinema visit that guests can share online. “Memorable experiences are the most valuable marketing opportunities you can get,” he said. “Whether it’s through a dine-in experience, a comfortable chair, or a commemorative beverage—anything you can do so they can share it on social media is invaluable as a marketing tool.” 

“The power of your guests marketing for you is incredible,” agreed Flix Brewhouse’s Greg Johnson. “If you can find a way for your customers to actively promote your brand for you, it can make all the difference.”

B&B Theatres saw the power of this sort of marketing firsthand after installing the largest ScreenX panoramic screen system in their flagship Liberty, Missouri, location. “With ScreenX you’re offering the audience something they can’t get at home, an experience they’ve never had before,” said Chris Tickner, director of marketing and special events at B&B. “It’s something consumers market for us. When you go watch It: Chapter 2 and see Pennywise walk across that panoramic screen—you’re going to go home and talk about that with your friends. That’s the best sort of marketing you can get.”

Star Cinema Grill’s own tech investment in Samsung’s Onyx direct-view LED screen has similarly produced positive social media influence. “Since we’re not a large national chain, Samsung engaged several local influencers with 30, 50, or 100,000 followers for the Onyx launch,” said Ostrow. “Social influencers are an economical way to spread your message quickly and efficiently; we’ve found that to be very successful for us.”

Social influencers are the latest marketing trend to enter the exhibition space, with different chains using differing approaches to the concept. “I can’t tell you how many times a day—honestly, every day—that we get emails from people with 2,000 followers who say they’re influencers,” said Annelise Holyoak, national director of marketing and communications at Cinépolis USA. “We’d rather not alienate them—we’ll offer them free tickets or something like that—but we try to work with people with over 300,000 followers at minimum.”

While a large following makes sense for a multinational brand like Cinépolis, a regional leader like B&B Theatres—which is mostly concentrated in the midwestern United States—takes a more local approach when working with influencers. “We are starting to work with micro-influencers because we’re not on the coasts, we’re in cities like Kansas City and Tulsa—it doesn’t make sense for us to hire an influencer out of L.A. or New York,” said B&B’s Tickner. “We can get more out of our investment if we partner with a ‘mommy blogger’ from Kansas City, who can share posts with her 5,000 to 10,000 followers that live close to our cinemas.”

Annelise Holyoak (Cinépolis USA), Greg Johnson (Flix Brewhouse), Barak Epstein (The Texas Theatre), and Jim Bob McKown (Queen Theatre) at a panel session on promoting event cinema.
CREDIT: Cigi Tipton / Mirrorless Mind Studio

Alternative programming like repertory screenings and event cinema has also emerged as a popular option for cinemas looking to offer a distinct experience to their patrons. While potentially popular, they represent a unique marketing challenge for exhibitors who may not be used to promoting films with date-specific show times without the marketing muscle of a major studio. “Obviously, studios take care of the large bulk of the marketing for regular films,” said Cinépolis’s Holyoak. “We have to put in an extra effort to build the audience for our event cinema titles.” 

This can lead to a trial-and-error process that not every exhibitor might willing to invest in. “Everybody is aware of when the next Avengers is coming out—even McDonald’s is talking about Avengers. With event cinema you have to put a concerted effort into making sure people understand what it is and why you’re doing it,” said Flix Brewhouse’s Johnson, who admits they’ve had their share of events that haven’t worked as well as they had hoped when building out their highly popular themed-screening evenings. 

The Queen Theatres’ McKown brought up his own experience in programming a Harry Potter series targeting the college-aged audience in neighboring College Station. While the first three films of the series brought out lively crowds, the exhibitor admitted that audiences slowly dissipated as the series ran into its final weeks. “You have to make sure you can sustain that initial interest,” he said. “I don’t care how big a fan of something you are, it’s a really big commitment for a fan to go to every single one of these events.” 

Moreover, event screenings shouldn’t be seen as a “plug-and-play” solution. Crafting events tied to local audiences—and promoting them accordingly—might be a task best suited for smaller exhibitors, as Johnson, who has been with Flix since it only had one location, noted during a panel session. “I remember those days very well, when you could put a lot of time and effort in putting together an event for your cinema,” he said. “That gives you a real competitive advantage if you have one or two locations; it’s really hard to do once you start getting up into a half dozen locations or more. It can be like herding kittens because you just don’t have the same control over it across each location. If you’re a single-unit operator, you own your domain—your eyes are on everything.”

Theresa English (TK Architects International), Dave Ballew (Alamo Drafthouse), and Tony Adamson (GDC Technology) discuss on-demand screenings and microcinemas.
CREDIT: Cigi Tipton / Mirrorless Mind Studio

The future holds even more innovations that exhibitors have only just begun to explore. In a panel covering microcinema and on-demand screenings, Tony Adamson, SVP of strategic planning at GDC Technology of America, spoke about the potential of his company’s cinema on-demand offering, GoGoCinema. The service, first announced at CinemaCon 2018, allows patrons to book a private screening from a list of titles hosted by GDC. Patrons would then be able to visit their closest participating cinema to enjoy their title of choice in the comfort of a big-screen auditorium. While the concept might be difficult to scale in the United States, Adamson noted that it’s finding success in Asia through the rise of microcinemas—makeshift screening rooms in spaces not typically associated with commercial exhibition. Some cinemas have actually outfitted small auditoriums for private bookings, a concept similar to booking a private-room karaoke session. 

Ultimately, CinéShow 2019 helped highlight the ways exhibition is currently competing with in-home and destination entertainment options through its own avenues of innovation. As content availability beyond studio tentpoles becomes a growing concern with the rise of streaming platforms, marketing efforts like those described above will play a bigger role in engaging audiences and promoting repeat cinema visits. Five out of the last seven years have introduced new record-setting tallies at the domestic box office; the audience is already there. The key to sustaining this success, as these marketing initiatives show, rests on finding ways to keep bringing that same audience back to theaters as often as possible. 

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