The Digital Box Office: How E-Commerce Is Impacting the Movie Theater Business

By Daniel Loria and Rebecca Pahle

There was a time, not that long ago, when audiences flocked to newspapers to plan their nights out at the movies. They’d scan pages of ads, squint through an index-sized listing of locations, and settle on the ideal show time. You could always call the theater itself or dial the magic numbers that led to that warm, welcoming voice exclaiming, “Hello, and welcome to Moviefone!” but for decades newspapers were the go-to source for movie listings and show times. The internet changed all that, ushering in a new era in which exhibitors could directly interact with their patrons.

The early days of e-commerce at the movies were defined by the emergence of two third-party ticketing websites, and Fandango. They offered the industry a simple and convenient solution: aggregated show times and ticket purchasing for partner theaters. These digital players pioneered cinema e-commerce in the United States, virtually unrivaled as most exhibitors saw little need to develop their own in-house ticketing solutions. 

“E-commerce was still in its infancy in 2000, even as we approached the peak of the dot-com bubble,” explains Dave Stonehill, who has had a front-row seat to the development. Stonehill is one of the founders of CinemaSource, a pioneer in cinema show time collection that eventually formed the basis of what is known today known as The Boxoffice Company (formerly Webedia Movies Pro), the corporate parent of Boxoffice Pro. “Theater chains back then, even the largest ones, didn’t have the knowledge or the resources to build an online shopping experience for their customers. They felt they needed to turn to third parties to provide that service; that’s how services like CinemaSource, Fandango, and came to flourish and play a critical role in the industry.”

The second digital revolution at the box office occurred when the internet expanded beyond the desktop computer and made its way to the smartphone. Mobile apps created a digital shopping mall on-the-go, where consumers could conduct transactions 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Third-party ticketing evolved accordingly, and Fandango ramped up focus on their respective digital apps. New players, like Atom Tickets, emerged from a startup culture that understood e-commerce primarily through mobile platforms. Exhibitors began paying closer attention, too. The quality of major-circuit websites began improving—some even featured native ticketing engines where they could sell their own tickets. The mobile app opened the door to a range of other innovations, such as loyalty programs and, later on, subscription services. 

We are now entering the third stage of this digital revolution. The future of digital ticketing, much like that of e-commerce, will make it easier for consumers to find show times and buy their tickets through a number of digital platforms, none of them necessarily exclusive to the cinema sector. The entry of digital publishers into the cinema e-commerce ecosystem signals this shift, as tech titans like Amazon, Facebook, and Google have begun to dip their toes into the business with unique offerings. 

“When we look at the amount of web traffic Google generates in show time discovery today, it makes sense for exhibitors to be able to bring that traffic back to their website,” says The Boxoffice Company president Stan Ruszkowski, referring to the rising prominence of ticketing deep links in show time searches through Google’s OneBox, a display box the search engine uses to compile associated search results for local businesses. When a consumer clicks on a show time, the Google OneBox displays results with different e-commerce destinations at which to buy their ticket—through a third-party ticketing destination or a participating exhibitor’s website.

According to Marine Suttle, SVP–chief product officer of The Boxoffice Company, Google is currently the third most common source of show time information for moviegoers—behind exhibitor websites and Fandango. “Over 21 percent of customers find their show times on the Google OneBox; it’s a big driver of online ticket sales,” she says. “Customers who click on show times on Google have a conversion rate on exhibitor websites of about 20 percent, probably about four to five times the overall website average.”

Today’s exhibitors have a range of digital-ticketing options to choose from, in many cases with vendors that don’t require exclusive agreements. Vista Group International, an influential leader in cinema point-of-sale technology, for example, has a handful of subsidiary operations that tackle the various approaches to digital ticketing in myriad ways. Solutions like MX Tickets, a segment of Vista’s movieXchange business, is dedicated to streamlining the integration between exhibitors and third-party ticketers. Vista Cinema, the company’s foundation product, handles box office and ticket concession sales for exhibitor clients and uses its proprietary framework to allow chains to sell paperless digital tickets.

Studios get involved in the ticketing process through collaboration with Vista Group International’s Powster. Acquired by Vista in 2016, the platform provides bespoke advertising solutions—including apps and websites—to clients, among them studios looking to drive ticket sales through a movie’s official website. “The studios are the ones doing the lion’s share of advertising to get moviegoers to see the film in the first place,” explains Vista vice president of product Mark Pattie. “Traditional advertising is difficult to measure, but when digital advertising is linked to digital ticketing, studios can get a much more measurable ROI. That is going to increase their confidence to invest more in digital marketing and ticketing campaigns, especially the ones that work.”

Vista has even begun using social media engagement to drive ticket sales through B2C websites like Flicks and new digital initiatives like Stardust and Trailered, which aim to leverage movie fan interactions for digital ticket purchases. It’s a similar strategy to the one Fandango has perfected over this decade, evolving beyond being known as just a ticketing platform. In the last five years alone, Fandango has invested in acquiring movie-review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes, social media movie hub Flixster, and YouTube trailer channel MovieClips to establish a firm B2C presence among moviegoers. 

“We super-serve more than 60 million moviegoers per month with the world’s leading online and mobile movie discovery and ticketing tools,” says Fandango chief commercial officer Kevin Shepela. “Fandango was founded by exhibitors, and to this day our core business is connecting fans to movies on the big screen, with quick and easy access to show times and tickets for more than 45,000 screens worldwide, the most comprehensive digital-ticketing network on the globe.”

Further acquisitions have expanded Fandango’s presence to Latin America (through its acquisition of CinePapaya in 2016) and even given it a home entertainment dimension with its own streaming channel, FandangoNOW. Its most significant acquisition came in 2017, when the company bought its long-time rival,, which it still operates as a standalone brand. Since consolidating the two legacy ticketing channels under its corporate umbrella, Fandango has been heavily involved in innovating digital-ticketing solutions—working directly with leading publishers like Apple, Facebook, Instagram, Google, Amazon, and Snapchat—to deliver new ticketing experiences. 

While some new ticketing experiences from recent years have taken off (like paperless tickets and Google referral ticketing) others, such as voice-activated purchases through virtual assistants like Amazon’s Alexa, have been slower to gain traction. Despite revolutionizing e-commerce (and sending traditional retail into a tailspin), Amazon has been a quiet background player thus far in their digital-ticketing efforts. The company has made a series of notable investments to become entrenched in the entertainment industry, counting on a movie studio, streaming platform, and popular websites like IMDb and Boxoffice Mojo frequented by movie fans. [Editor’s note: the name “Boxoffice,” apparently, was already taken]. It is therefore ideally positioned to sell movie tickets on its own—it already sells virtually everything else. The company’s prior activity in digital ticketing has always been through collaboration with a third-party vendor; time will tell how much longer that will be the case.

Another tech giant, however, has been taking more tangible steps in establishing its own ticketing presence online. While exhibitors have harnessed the power of location-specific Facebook pages for more than a decade, the company itself only recently began ramping up new show time discovery and ticketing features on select official movie pages. Moviegoers can now find screenings at nearby theaters by clicking on the “Get Show Times” button on select movie pages. Clicking on a show time at a participating theater refers the user to an exhibitor’s ticketing portal or their third-party partner, akin to the Google OneBox experience. Facebook began running an under-the-radar promotion that waives online service fees for ticket purchases made through its portal, in collaboration with AMC, Atom Tickets, and Fandango. As of August, Facebook has begun integrating show times and premiere reminders to the digital ads bought by studios—further simplifying the movie-discovery-to-ticket-purchase process. These initiatives are unique in that they are social native ticketing solutions, pioneering efforts in gauging how social networks can impact the digital box office. 

That social media–driven approach was the catalyst behind Atom Tickets, founded in 2012, which promotes moviegoing as a social experience. The mobile app, according to co-founder and chairman Matthew Bakal, offers tickets from over 60 exhibitors, placing “90 percent of moviegoers … within five miles of an Atom-supported theater.” In recent months, Atom has added Cinemark theaters to its platforms, while parting ways with founding partner Regal. 

Moviegoers can use the Atom app to invite friends and family to the movies. As Bakal told Boxoffice Pro in 2018, “From an exhibitor point of view, that takes a pragmatic dimension: can we get one extra visit a year? That could happen because you want to see the movie, or you might want to go because your sister is going. Either of those reasons will have you show up to the movie. That’s why our social feature has really resonated.” The company plans to expand this functionality moving forward and is currently “exploring ways via our app experience to make planning a night out with friends easier than ever. As such, we’re looking to expand our planning and invite features in addition to creating better seat-map functionality to find alternative show times if one is already full.”

Kim Lueck, CIO at Marcus Theatres, says that group sales will become ever more important to the digital-ticketing landscape. She muses on a potential scenario: “Say we’re all girlfriends, and we go to a movie every Wednesday night. But not everybody comes [every week.]” Tickets, she proposes, could be “purchased almost like a hotel block. I want to group these five seats together, and then we’ll all prepopulate based on who’s coming and release the rest. … The younger people coming up, they do things as a group. It’s very social. So we’re going to have to accommodate that, too.”

“I think [digital ticketing] is going to be on your car before you know it,” as well, notes Lueck—something that Atom already has in the works via an announced partnership with Honda to introduce an Atom app to its “Dream Drive” dashboard, shown in prototype form at CES 2019. “Additionally,” Bakal notes, “we bring promotional partners to the table (such as T-Mobile, Amazon and Chase Pay) to drive new guests to our exhibitor partners.”

This year Atom also “launched the ability to scan a movie ticket with a QR code on an Apple Watch” as well as making it possible to order a ticket (including selecting a reserved seat) through Atom on Amazon’s Alexa. Moving forward, Atom has “announced that we’re working with Amazon Alexa on their new and more intuitive ‘conversation’ voice technology.” 

Voice ordering and group sales are two factors that Influx Worldwide CEO Harish Anand Thilakan says will play a major role in the future of digital ticketing. Group bookings where each guest pays for their own tickets and food and beverage is a feature users seem to rate highly,” says Thilakan. “No one wants to finish a movie night, asking the other for $10 that’s owed to them, but, collectively, the person who’s planned the movie night has fronted close to $60 to $100! Our product Movie Parties (releasing on major exhibitor apps shortly) has this covered.” 

Thilakan also recommends that digital-ticketing providers integrate features not widely on offer in North America, like zone pricing—whereby the best seats in the auditorium cost more—and partnerships with outside companies on ticketing deals. “Asian exhibitors have done a stellar job of being able to partner with banks to be able to give their premium customers privileged deals,” he explains. “It doesn’t have to be a Tuesday or Monday—these deals are usually available all week and only capped by usage. More importantly, the deals are available not just at the box office but across digital platforms as well. Influx was also instrumental in enabling an integration between VOX Cinemas and Du telecom in the Middle East, whereby pay-as-you-go users of Du got a free ticket for every ticket purchased on Tuesdays in Dubai. Du Tuesdays has now been running successfully for nearly five years. 

“I believe that by investing in redemption partnerships, exhibitors would be able to leverage the massive loyalty bases built by other large consumer-facing brands. I don’t see why an American Airlines AAdvantage member cannot burn his or her accrued air miles for movie tickets.”

Increased adoption of loyalty programs by exhibitors large and small has even revolutionized email marketing. Exhibitors can now send their best customers targeted newsletters promoting upcoming titles and deals at the concession stand. Whereas this process used to be a time-intensive task, often requiring operators to extract CSV files from their point-of-sale and online ticketing systems, new software as a service (SaaS) solutions can seamlessly automate that process. Products like Movio’s Dynamic Content tool and The Boxoffice Company’s Boost CRM allow exhibitors to personalize content in email marketing campaigns.

“SaaS solutions like Boost CRM let exhibitors customize email newsletters and marketing campaigns within a minute,” says Thomas Jullienne, SVP of global products at The Boxoffice Company. “It democratizes the sort of marketing solutions that were once only available to major circuits. Today even a single-screen cinema can use audience-targeting tools that seemed out of reach only a couple of years ago.”

As the “Internet of things” allows moviegoers to purchase tickets on more and more devices—phones, tablets, virtual assistants, smart watches, even cars—convenience of payment will become more and more crucial. It may sound like a small inconvenience, but the act of digging out a credit card and manually inputting the information on a checkout page is being phased out from the e-commerce experience. “Saved payment methods (like Amazon Wallet) will definitely boom in the next few years,” says Thilakan. 

That boom is already coming; Atom, for one, lets users pay through Chase Pay, Google Pay, or PayPal before sending tickets to their Apple and Android digital wallets. Cinemark has Chase Pay integration through its website. Fandango offers payment via Apple Pay, MasterPass, PayPal, and the PayPal-owned Venmo, a payment platform that allows the splitting of payments. 

All roads seem to lead to a future where the consumer will be able to buy a movie ticket anywhere, at any time. Specialized digital-ticketing channels—like those from the vendors mentioned above—will likely continue to play a role in this future regardless of whether a purchase occurs on one of their branded platforms. As the e-commerce evolution continues to revolutionize consumer habits, the increased number of avenues in digital ticketing signals a strong vitality to the movie theater industry. Every month, barriers to movie and show time discovery are disappearing, while the digital-ticketing experience becomes increasingly seamless for consumers. As the end of the second decade of the e-commerce era comes to an end, it’s becoming perfectly clear that the evolution of the digital box office is just beginning. 

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