Five Tips for Staying in Touch With Customers During the Coronavirus Shutdown

Image Courtesy AMC Theatres

Theaters are closed, but your customers are still there—as are any number of ways to keep in touch with them while we’re all sitting at home on our couches. With standard operating procedure out the window, here are ways cinemas across North America are staying in touch with moviegoers in advance of the exhibition industry’s eventual reopening. 

Don’t Drop the Ball

The first tip for communicating with customers during the shutdown is the most basic: Don’t forget to do it. Or, rather, don’t think that a lack of tickets to sell in the immediate future means it’s a good time to stop communicating with your customers. 

“We have a daily strategy for social media and will work on a weekly or bi-weekly email boasts to suggest films, tell guests what we are up to, and more,” says Melissa Boudreau, CMO of Emagine Entertainment. “From a marketing perspective, it is important to let your guests know [that] you are still there and will be there after this unfortunate time passes.”

An additional, practical point from The Boxoffice Company president Stan Ruszkowski, as explained in the third #CJCinemaSummit: algorithms. They’re crucial to driving traffic to a theater’s websites and various social platforms, and “if you stay silent for the next two months you’ll be dropping on the algorithms. And that might be pretty painful and you’re going to have to restart and regenerate all your work on that side.”

Foster a Sense of Community

So you should keep the tweets, Instagram posts, Facebook updates, and e-blasts going. But what do you post about when there are no upcoming showtimes to promote? Speaking with exhibitors, one key goal came out: maintaining a sense of community. By encouraging engagement and interacting with customers in a positive way, cinemas can keep their ties to their patrons strong—even as those patrons sit on the couch binging streaming content on their TV screens.

“We think of ourselves as a community—a community of moviegoers and filmmakers and distributors and New Yorkers,” says Harris Dew, director of programs and promotions at New York City’s IFC Center. “While the rules of how our community is able to interact and operate have changed radically, we’re still looking to maintain that sense and foster that feeling.” On its social media, IFC has recommended books that were made into movies that played at IFC and invited people to share their favorite IFC memories; they’ve also extended their support beyond themselves by tweeting about vendors they work with.

On the opposite coast, the non-profit Frida Cinema in Orange County, California is keeping its volunteer-penned blog section updated with posts like “The #SaveTheFrida Twitter Haikus” and “Eleven Uplifting Films and Easy Watches to Get You Through Quarantine.” Logan Crow, the Frida Cinema’s executive director and founder, sees frequent communication during the shutdown as a way to remind customers neck-deep in streaming entertainment options that theaters will be there and waiting for them when the pandemic passes. “We need to make sure that the relevance and the impact and the enrichment that an art house offers to a community isn’t forgotten… There are some things that can’t be replicated [watching at home]. You’re not laughing along with an audience. You’re not on a date, when you’re going out and putting on your best. You’re not screaming in a horror theater with people. You’re not sharing a cult film you know all the words to with other people who know the words, too.” 

“It’s a message of solidarity and support,” sums up Dew. “It’s finding ways to acknowledge the situation that we’re all in…. And yet trying to figure out ways to remind people that we’re still here for them, and we’ll be back. [Movie theaters will] be back. Not without serious changes, and not without serious effects, but we’re going to make it through.”

Keep it Light

“We’re going to make it through”… and, in the meantime, memes. And gifs. And, for National Puppy Day (March 23), asking your customers to share pictures of their dogs. With normal operations out the window, many theaters’ social media presence has skewed towards the fun and light-hearted. 

“Our role is to provide entertainment and an escape for our guests,” says Melissa Boudreau, CMO at Emagine Entertainment. “At this time, we cannot provide this service in our buildings, but we can still provide virtual escapes.” For Emagine, that means movie Bingo and a sports movie-themed March Madness bracket

Alamo Drafthouse put up a 30-tweet thread on the history of Troll dolls, complete with some frankly terrifying imagery. Regal’s getting in on the meme action and sharing their roller coaster-themed pre-show ad for quarantine movie party purposes. Cinemark and Santikos are helping people get through quarantine boredom by sharing some Frozen-themed art lessons. AMC isn’t letting the shutdown stop it from giving away movie swag. Maya Cinemas is kicking off a scavenger hunt

“Everybody’s got a lot of very bad news coming at them from every direction,” says the IFC Center’s Dew. “It’s like a floodhose. So if we can give you something that’s going to make your day a little bit easier, we like to do that.” 

Be Innovative

As awful as the shutdown is, a silver lining for Crow of the Frida Cinema is that “businesses are starting to look at things they’ve been wanting to look at but haven’t had the resources to do.” For the Frida, that “hey, maybe one day we’ll do this” thing that actually came to fruition was the cinema’s 10 Hour Social Distancing Stream-A-Thon Fundraiser!. For ten hours on Saturday, March 28, anyone could check in on Facebook or YouTube to see Crow and the Frida’s programmer, Trevor Dillon, sharing short films, interviewing filmmakers, and talking (not in person, of course) with members of the Frida family. 

“This is something we’ve been talking about doing forever,” says Crow. “Trevor and I have always been like, wouldn’t it be great to do a weekly show where we say, ‘Here’s what’s coming up?’… What I want is to try to recreate the Frida experience. We do Saturday morning cartoons, so let’s do cartoons at some point. We do horror, so let’s try to get Horrible Imaginings [the horror film festival that calls the Frida its home] on to talk to us.”

Give People Ways to Support You

Another big part of the Frida Cinema’s stream-a-thon, of course, was fundraising; people were given ways to donate to the theater via phone or the web. “Our revenue stream has stopped. What we’re left with is just donations,” says Crow. “We’re trying to get out there and solicit support. Keeping our brand and our messaging and our faces in front of the community to let them know that we are dedicated to coming back, we’re dedicated to keeping our team together. But we need help in the interim.” (Money gained via the Stream-A-Thon will go in part to keeping the two employees the Frida had to furlough insured during the shutdown.)

Emagine Entertainment and Marcus Theatres were among the chains that, earlier this month, sold popcorn to customers—thus keeping the lines of communication open, getting rid of excess stock, and bringing in a little money all at the same time. Both chains’ deals have now expired, Emagine’s due to changing state mandates. While it was ongoing, however, “the response was extremely positive,” says Boudreau. “Our communities went above and beyond to support us.” Marcus’ Reel Sizzle concept is still doing takeout and delivery, and you’ll hear about it on their social media. Studio Movie Grill took to twitter to encourage patrons to order takeout, with free movie passes as an added incentive. On April 1, Harkins let customers drive up and place an order for a big bag of popcorn. Do you need a lot of popcorn to get you through your movie binges? Malco Theatres is giving away a five-pound bag on their Facebook page. When they started selling those five-pound bags, recalls Malco vice president Karen Melton, the post “grabbed almost 60k views, not including the newspaper, two TV stations, and seven radio stations covering the deal. We had to expand it for pickup at select locations around town in order to meet demand, as well as offer tubs and collectible tins!”

In the wake of the shutdown, theaters encouraged customers to buy gift cards that they could use after the pandemic has passed. This isn’t something that every cinema will want to do; the IFC Center, for example, doesn’t sell gift cards and is wary of promoting its paid membership scheme while they’re not able to deliver on the benefits. The IFC Center is, however, promoting IFC Films Unlimited, the streaming arm of their parent company, IFC Films. Cineplex, Cinépolis, and AMC are likewise promoting (heavily, AMC’s case) their respective streaming platforms. Thanks to the efforts of indie distributors like Kino Lorber, Magnolia, and Film Movement, those who want to support independent cinemas can do so by buying a “virtual ticket” to select films that otherwise would have been playing on the big screen. Whatever you’re doing right now to bring in funds and foster community support: it’s not going to work if people don’t know about it.

Image Courtesy AMC Theatres