Geneva Convention 2023 Innovator of the Year: PaperAirplane Co-Founders Mike Polydoros and Will Preuss

Founded by two veteran exhibitor relations executives, Mike Polydoros and Will Preuss, PaperAirplane has become an essential resource for exhibitors since the company’s founding in 2020. Honored as the Innovator of the Year at this year’s Geneva Convention, Boxoffice Pro speaks to the upstart in-theater marketing agency about its rapid rise and future plans.

When did you come up with the idea for PaperAirplane, and how did you develop confidence in there being a market for an in-theater marketing agency?

Mike Polydoros: The idea had been percolating in my mind for a long time. In our world, as you know, there are agencies for everything. There are faith-based agencies, media agencies, Hispanic agencies—you name it, there’s an agency. The one area that was lacking was in-theater marketing. I was at Lionsgate for 23 years, and Will [Preuss] was there with me for 10 years. When I first started, the way in-theater marketing would work was by making calls and saying, “Hi, it’s Mike from Artisan. Can you put up my poster and play my trailer?” That was it; that was all there was to in-theater marketing. Along the way, exhibitors started getting channels where they could reach their consumers a little bit [more easily], whether it was through their loyalty club, social media, email lists, or mobile push notifications. There were more sophisticated ways for the exhibitor to reach the consumer. We learned at Lionsgate that we could pull those levers in many different ways. 

Digital assets, for example, were something we felt could be improved. You would create all of these digital assets that would go into social channels distributed through a Dropbox or Google Drive link. You lost any accountability for what was happening with the asset by doing that. We would send out 30 assets with no idea of what was being used. One of the first things we thought about when we launched PaperAirplane was having a digital asset management system that is entirely permission-based and keeps track of all the different assets, a one-stop shop for every studio and exhibitor. If you have a central hub, it makes the process that much more efficient. That’s what we created in the Hangar. We have a system that virtually every studio puts all their assets in, accessible to all exhibitors across North America. We track who’s doing what, what assets are being used, and which ones aren’t. Lionsgate was going through some restructuring in April 2020, and that was an opportunity for us to leave and start this company.

A startup focused on theatrical exhibition in April 2020? Not sure there were too many of those during the early days of the pandemic.

Mike Polydoros: Well, it’s either the confidence or the stupidity we had in ourselves. The pandemic was very difficult for the industry, but it enabled us to get some footing, because we were able to get everybody’s attention as we launched the company. We had a very strategic way of communicating what we were attempting to do. The company officially launched in July of that year. We formed a joint venture with a company called Velocity, which we’ve since bought out, so now we’re solely owned. They were great in coming in and giving us the running room and capital to get going. They had faith in us and helped us launch during the height of the pandemic, when every theater in the world was closed.

Our first two movies were Honesty from Briarcliff [Entertainment] and 2 Hearts from Entertainment Studios. I remember counting the downloads we were getting on the Hangar: something like five to 10 per day. Fast-forward to today, three years later, we’re at almost 600,000 downloads that have come out of the Hangar. Everything from DCPs of trailers, of which we’ve had almost 10,000 downloads, to PDF files for programs and guidelines. The Hangar has morphed into a real industry utility. 

Will Preuss: Launching an in-theater marketing company as theaters were closing down imposed challenges, but I think that moment in time also forced companies to look at how they’ve been doing business. There were efficiencies that we could provide that hadn’t existed before. A lot of our friends in exhibition and at studios were short-staffed during that period and needed to accomplish more with less. Our services have been so well-received by the market because of that timing.

Mike Polydoros: Coming from a studio, we had inside knowledge of where these pain points were and where the efficiencies needed to be. The other key factor to our success was the team we put together. We had Meggie Isom, who came to us from AMC, and Amanda Rufener, who had worked with us at Lionsgate, come over to us. Without them, there is no PaperAirplane. You can have all the best ideas in the world, but if you don’t have a team that is rock solid and can implement those ideas, you’re nowhere.

The Hangar concept has been at the heart of PaperAirplane’s growth. How difficult was it to get everyone—from exhibition to distribution—to adopt a new technology platform for something as sensitive as digital marketing assets?

Mike Polydoros: It was not without its challenges, for sure. A lot of different people have tried something like this. The difference in our approach is that we came from a studio background. We knew what the exhibitors were looking for and went out of our way to design it in a way that was user-friendly for the studios and exhibitors. The studios understood what we had once we had exhibition coming to the Hangar for assets. I don’t look at it as something proprietary. It is an industry utility. We came into it understanding the needs of exhibitors, studios, and third-party partners like Imax, Cinionic, and RealD. I want to give a shoutout to Eric Marty, the developer who helped to design it. Without him, it would have been very difficult to put this together.

Will Preuss: We were fortunate to have real champions of our platform early on, especially within the exhibition community. They immediately saw the value of what we were doing and were outwardly supportive and vocal about the efficiencies that the Hangar was creating for them. That really helped us along the way. In retrospect, it came along pretty quickly, getting a critical mass of all the studios and content providers—even if, in the moment, it felt like a slog. Part of that was the moment in time—there just weren’t a lot of new releases, so every title was meaningful when we would add it to the Hangar.

There is a lot more to PaperAirplane than the Hangar. What are some of your other in-theater marketing services?

Mike Polydoros: We are a full-service cinema marketing agency. There is no cookie-cutter approach to how we deal with clients. We cater to their needs. The Hangar is our asset management piece. We have asset creation, where we can create artwork for studios. We have a creative team that knows all the asset dimensions that every exhibitor uses. We know how they want it done. Other studios prefer to create their own assets and have us distribute them through the Hangar. 

The agency aspect of our services is where we can be hired to be an extension of the studio. Smaller independent studios will hire us to be their in-theater marketing arm. We work directly with the distributor and the exhibitor in creating the in-theater marketing campaign. We make sure that all the digital media bought with the exhibitors is taken care of and ensure they have all the assets when they need them. We implement everything from start to finish. We also have a hybrid model, where we help studios with the media and some consulting, but they’re doing all of the trailer placement work on a given week. We do as much or as little as anybody needs. 

If we needed to get a message to exhibitors, we could reach all key players instantly. The Hangar has over 3,000 registered users. That’s everybody from AMC, Regal, and Cinemark, to the regionals, to Mom and Pop theaters that are in the middle of nowhere. It’s one of the things we’re most proud of. Whatever the communique happens to be, we have a way to curate our contact list so no one gets spammed and everyone receives relevant materials.

Will Preuss: There really is no one-size-fits-all approach to what we do. There’s no model that encompasses every release that we work on. We try to be very thoughtful in how we put together proposals and the work we do with each of our clients. That’s really important to us, that every movie is its own thing.

Coming from Lionsgate, you had experience in marketing diverse slates first-hand. You released everything—from low-budget horror titles to homegrown franchises like The Hunger Games to award contenders with a presence on the festival circuit. You’re still involved in working with a diverse slate today through PaperAirplane.

Mike Polydoros: We are uniquely positioned that way. When we were at Lionsgate, we got to work on the biggest of the big, the smallest of the small, and everything in between. We understand what it takes to launch a Hunger Games or John Wick type of movie. At the same time, we understand not every movie may have that kind of gravitas. We’re very sensitive to everything that works in between those two categories. 

Will Preuss: I think we spent our whole careers in preparation for PaperAirplane, we just didn’t know it at the time. It’s very satisfying to work with so many clients and people who we’ve worked with at different moments on our path. Creative executives and different distributors that we are really fortunate to work with again in this new setting. Our ability to have a very nuanced approach is very much a reflection of the time we put in at Lionsgate. We just didn’t know that period of our lives was a dress rehearsal for all this.

What does the future hold for PaperAirplane?

Mike Polydoros: In January of this year, we were able to buy back our shares from our joint venture partner, Velocity. They were a great partner for us when we started out, but it was the right move for us. It was a great sense of accomplishment on our end, to get to the point of being fully self-sufficient.

We’ve probably executed 75 to 80 percent of the business plan we put together in 2020. We’ve hit all the milestones we intended to hit. We’re currently working on some new initiatives, which we hope will replicate the success we’ve had with the Hangar and help our industry become more efficient while adding revenue to the box office. I would like us to be viewed as an additive to the industry. When we first started, somebody at one of the majors put it in a really good way to me: “We were worried you would be an interloper, but you’re anything but. You’re a helper to the industry. You’re really aiding the industry.”

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