By Jason Kornfeld
At CinemaCon 2015, Atom Tickets co-founders Ameesh Paleja and Matthew Bakal were eager to speak about their new theatrical mobile-ticketing platform.
They had teamed up to simplify the moviegoing experience by creating a platform that could search for films instantly, invite friends, buy tickets, pre-order concessions, and more.
Yet the initial conversations were met with some resistance.
“We weren’t quite begging but asking people very kindly to come talk to us,” Bakal says. “They were like ‘Who are you guys? Well I [already] have my website, we’re good.’”
What a difference a year makes.
“Last CinemaCon, AMC and Regal came on board with nationwide deals and [suddenly] we didn’t have enough hours in the day to talk to people,” Bakal says. “It’s been fun to see that change.”
Atom, which was founded in 2014, has certainly been busy. They received a $50 million investment from Disney, Fox, and Lionsgate in early 2016.
They then launched nationally July 4th weekend of last year, and by September they had nationwide coverage in every DMA.
Paleja and Bakal have seen the Atom user base grow from the thousands to millions, and they expect to be in over 1,500 locations by the end of March 2017.
“Regal and AMC have been incredible partners to us,” Paleja says. “We’ve been able to grow quickly, and we’re seeing great success with customer satisfaction. At the end of the day we’re all interested in how can we make the theatergoing experience better.”
One of the ways Atom aims to make the moviegoing experience better is by allowing consumers to pre-pay for concessions.
A few hundred theaters already offer the service, which saves moviegoers time by not having to wait in line. Some theaters even deliver to the seats.
“There’s some percentage of the population that walks in the theater, looks at the line [for concessions] and says, ‘That’s not for me,’” Paleja says. “Most of the time what we see happen is a customer checks in, goes to the restroom, and by the time they come out their food is ready for pick-up.”
Currently pre-paying for alcoholic beverages isn’t an option, which according to Paleja and Bakal is a complicated issue. Atom would like to offer it in the future depending on the state, if possible.
“I would love to have [a customer’s] favorite beer ready when [they] walk into the theater,” Paleja says. “Theaters are upgrading and some have bars; we want to be a part of that experience.”
It is this type of forward thinking combined with their technology that made a company like Disney want to get involved.
“Atom Tickets is all about using technology to make moviegoing more convenient and compelling,” said Dave Hollis, head of Theatrical Distribution for The Walt Disney Studios. “We got involved with Atom because we were intrigued by the way they use data and analytics to target prospective ticket buyers.”
In addition to improving the customer experience, Atom has focused on trying to grow its customer base by having strategic partnerships. They started Free Movie Friday with iHeartMedia at the end of 2016, which offers thousands of free movie tickets every Friday for an entire year through iHeartMedia’s radio stations across the country. Atom also partnered with UberEATS in January, which gave customers two free tickets to an advance screening of The Founder, a free round-trip Uber ride to and from the theater, as well as a free popcorn and drink. There were six screenings available in six cities, and Atom aimed to provide something fun for consumers.
“It was gangbusters; all our screenings sold out,” Paleja says. “Customers were super-happy [and] it was a great experience. We’re going to be doing a lot more stuff with Uber.”
Atom also offered limited-edition merchandise for sale for Rogue One: A Star Wars Story and free posters for Logan when tickets are pre-ordered. Atom views all of these promotions as an opportunity to try to drive people to the movie theater.
While Atom has offered plenty of promotions to help boost movie attendance, they also announced an advisory board to help promote their company.
“J.J. Abrams, Steven Spielberg, and Tyler Perry all joined us to help get the word out,” Bakal says. “We’re very flattered by the attention of studios, exhibitors, and talent. Everyone’s aligned in getting more people to movie theaters, so that’s the exciting thing, because it’s a win-win.”
Paleja and Bakal say the biggest challenge from the beginning was explaining the need for their product to the marketplace. While Atom has experienced a lot of success, it has come from trial and error.
“It’s a platform, [so] if anybody comes and says they have the magic sauce that’s going to make it work, they don’t know what they are talking about,” Paleja says. “We have to experiment and test [to] understand the data. Candidly, a bunch of stuff is not going to work—I think about Atom as an experimentation platform just as much as a ticketing platform to put butts in seats.”
Next for Atom is continuing to build on the data they have been collecting to keep improving on the experience for their customers.
“The cool part is we get better at our job the longer we [exist as a company],” Paleja says. “The more data we have, the smarter the algorithm gets, the better the customer experience can be delivered.”
And as for CinemaCon 2017 and beyond?
“We’re going to be [at CinemaCon] talking to current partners and hopefully future partners,” says Bakal. “The domestic market is definitely our focus today, but it’s speaking to international [companies] as well, so there’s a lot of opportunity out there. I would say we’ve only just started; we have millions of consumers, but we want tens of millions of consumers.”
Adds Paleja, “By this time next year we’re going to have a great foothold in the U.S. and a product that customers are going to love and will be telling their friends and family about.”