Indie Focus: Cinema Lab’s Brandon Jones on Celebrating Community Theaters

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As the cinema industry begins to emerge from the Covid-19 pandemic, Boxoffice Pro and Spotlight Cinema Networks are partnering to profile movie theaters and influential industry figures from across the country and asking them to share their first-person accounts of bringing the movies back to the big screen. Our subject this month is Brandon Jones of Cinema Lab, which aims to keep community movie theaters thriving. That officially kicks off today, June 22, with the opening of Cinema Lab’s first theater: The Village Cinemas at SOPAC in South Orange, New Jersey.

Listen to the Audio Version of This Story on The Boxoffice Podcast.

Can you give us some background on how Cinema Lab came to be? What was the germ of the idea for you, and how did it come together to be what it is now?

This has been a true passion project. I met Patrick Wilson and Luke Parker Bowles in 2017. And we started doing community-based movie theaters, [including the Bradley Beach theater, the subject of an earlier episode of the Boxoffice Podcast]. So, as we were doing that, we had another theater in mind that we wanted to put together. And that fell through, as so many things can. But we are opening our first theater in South Orange, New Jersey–The Village at SOPAC, the South Orange Performing Arts Center–a former Bow Tie, five screens. We will have a soft opening on July 22. We don’t want to miss the summer movie going season. We’ll get through that and then start putting a renovation project together for that one.

Your background is in marketing, getting people excited about about theaters. Now, it’s a new chapter, not just for you but for many CMOs in our industry: Getting people to come out to a new theater when they maybe haven’t been to a cinema in a year and a half. How are you tackling that challenge?

That’s something I think we’d all love to know the secret sauce to. On a day-to-day basis, we do marketing for movie theaters. And then, obviously, we built Cinema Week to be a more industry-wide activation. And in this role, I’m an owner of a movie theater company and also in charge of the marketing and have some pedigree with launching movie theaters. So there’s a lot of those aspects coming together. I really think you have to offer something more to the moviegoer to get them motivated. Black Widow was a great case. I’m sure Disney was very happy [with opening weekend]. They had a very successful box office and very successful streaming, and that’s probably the Grail for them. 

For an exhibitor, [it’s about] making the experience something more. That can be hospitality. That can be eventizing it. That can be concessions. That can be something unique in the auditorium. In our case, we look at Cinema Lab as, first and foremost, community-based movie theaters, where if they did not exist in these communities, there would be an entertainment desert there. 

Secondly, we believe in being very technology-first. The ability to control a lot of your experience from your phone, from ordering tickets to concessions, tracking loyalty—but even getting a little bit more, “How do you shop entertainment?” You want the same drinks that they were drinking or the suit that Daniel Craig’s wearing? Well, let’s figure out ways to shopify this a little bit. 

The other thing we believe in is truly having an environment where it’s hospitable, so the guests can come in and be welcome. That’s where we lean into community-based movie theaters versus the big box movie theaters. We really want to know our guests and be important to these communities. 

The final leg in that stool is programming. The tentpoles are the drivers. We get it. They have to be there. But on a Wednesday or Thursday night, or even a Saturday or a Sunday, is there something unique? The way we approach the marketing is, “What are you doing this weekend?” “Oh, I’m going to Cinema Lab.” “What are you going to see?” “I don’t know. That’s just what we do.” We go there because: There’s a movie we like. There’s a talkback series. There’s conversations with filmmakers and celebrities. There’s a single-night event that’s going on. It’s a documentary series. It’s music, it’s gaming, who knows? We want to be highly diverse and really focus in on the filmmaking aspect and really pulling the curtain back, so you see the movie, but you also get something else.

Community movie theaters have been particularly hard-hit by the pandemic, and I think Covid has really shown a light on how tough it can be, financially, to break even for them. What needs to happen for there to be a thriving network of community cinemas—not just looking at one theater, but holistically?

I feel like there’s momentum and energy that you’ve got to fill these spaces back with. A couple years ago we said, “Movie theaters can’t just make money on the box office.” So they raised concession prices. But I don’t think you can just—having a traditional movie theater in one of these community-based theaters is not enough. It has to be the heartbeat of entertainment and culture within the community. Offering more than just studio product. Offering more than traditional concessions. It doesn’t have to be full-service dine-in, but there has to be some kind of elevation there, [where patrons] can have a full, evening out experience. We’re in the going out business. So yes, we are driven by the movies that come out. That’s the heartbeat of what we do. And we love movies. But there also has to be unique content. A talkback series. And it doesn’t just have to be the filmmakers of that movie, because that’s hard to do. But maybe there’s somebody else in the community that is well-versed on films and can talk about what inspired that movie.

From a marketing side, the idea that we’re marketing all things to everybody makes my head explode. Really getting into the data of, who is the customer for this particular type of programming? Family, horror, comedy, sci-fi, music, whatever it is. We have to be specific on the message. We’re catering to a unique set. We want a lot of families, and we want a lot of couples, and we want a lot of older couples. We don’t want to be babysitters, so we’re going to program the theater to fit that mold.

Can you fast forward a little bit ands tell us your goals for Cinema Lab, both in the next year and then maybe even ten years from now?

Since we’ve been building this project for several years, with several years to get our first theater open, we’ve been contemplating that a lot. Certainly the last 15 or 16 months has probably changed our vision quite a bit. The goal here is we want to get the first theater open, done really, really well. That’s the one in South Orange. And then we have a follow up, number two theater, in Bradley Beach that will convert a single-screen theater into three auditoriums, plus a a lounge and a bar. And then a third theater in Maplewood, New Jersey that will be six screens plus full dining. They’ll each have their own feel, but they’re going to have the same spirit. They’re going to be unique to their communities. But, again, they’ll carry that Cinema Lab DNA throughout. 

[There’s been a] number of theaters that are coming to us—or real estate, landlords, developers—saying, “Hey, we have this space. And it fits what you guys are trying to do rather than converting a big box theater.” 

I was concerned, coming out of the pandemic, that we wouldn’t see those pitches from landlords or real estate companies wanting to get into cinema. But there is a willingness there?

Absolutely. That’s where we have three stories to tell. There is certainly the arts and entertainment and culture story. We all love movies. There is the the story about employment. These are great first jobs, seasonal jobs. And there’s career development at movie theaters, from customer service to technology to marketing and operations. And just working as a team. Retail is changing so fast. There are these great theaters that are already there that, because they were traditional theaters or they had a smaller footprint—we’ve built our company so that we don’t carry a lot of overhead. We’re not trying to get rich off of a five or six screen movie theater. We’re trying to create a cultural town center for each one of these communities. And those economics will work for us if we program it right. We have the right food and beverage offering. There’s programming seven days a week, 365 days of the year. Certainly membership will be a key driver in what we do. Maybe one time we’ll have a conversation on the difference between loyalty, rewards, and subscription. I think there’s some uniqueness in differentiators that we’ll be able to drive out of this.

Those three are so important and so interconnected. How did you end up building out those programs for Cinema Lab?

Loyalty got completely watered down by rewards. I think rewards programs are great, but we call loyalty programs “reward programs.” And they should be uniquely different. Your loyal guests should earn their way to perks and things that you don’t get just by happening upon the theater and getting rewards. A lot of nonprofit performing arts centers, museums, opera houses, whatever they are, have membership programs. You buy into a membership program that gets you certain amount of access and priority. We’re looking at, how do you combine these aspects in the movie business? We’ve all talked about subscription for the last several years and how to make that work. I do think that there’s a blend of this—we haven’t started it yet—so we can create something unique without any legacy systems. Ours will look much more like a membership program than it will a rewards or a subscription program.

You mentioned data, and that being a big factor in your programming, your showtimes, your concessions. It’s been fascinating looking at how data has changed this industry. When did you start to see that really become a factor in the cinema business?

Through my experience, I was a really early adopter back in 2011 and 2012. 10 years ago was the innovator/early adopter stage. And then in 2016, 2017, it became important. What I think movie theaters generally missed was that the movie theater has has owned the relationship with the moviegoer for so long. And the studios wanted to own that relationship, but there’s always that pass-through. Because I buy my ticket from the movie theater or Fandango or Atom Tickets. So that’s who owns the relationship. And then, what do you do with all that data? Because a lot of times it just sits there on a server somewhere. And I think a lot of small- to mid-size exhibitors just don’t have the bandwidth to dig in and figure out, “What does this audience look like? What does this behavior look like? And what do we do with this?” 

And then the other thing that has been a challenge is, again, small- to mid-size exhibitors have not been able to create content in their marketing, because it’s expensive to create a lot of original content. So we rely on the studios, who serve up awesome marketing content. It is amazing. However, it’s the same for everybody. If my movie theater is slightly different, I need to tailor that in some way, but I’m dealing with somebody else’s IP. I think there is a huge marketing opportunity. It needs to be a real investment. If you’re just going to do some of it, then just go market movies. If you really want to market your experience—there’s only a handful of exhibitors who really know who their customers are and market a unique brand. I don’t think you have to travel very far to figure out who they are.

Talking about it on a more macro level, what are the primary tools you’re utilizing to get in touch with these folks?

I’m a huge fan of the digital space. We’ve made a living out of being digital marketers. The tools are really sophisticated now. They also help level the playing field. If you can put a reasonable budget into social media and digital marketing, I think you get tremendous ROI on that. And then if you can be really good, then earned media—especially what we did with Cinema Week, because we didn’t have a big budget, and we really leveraged the earned media. And I saw a lot of other exhibitors who leaned into the earned media. They were utilizing their press releases and getting the local news station to come out and cover Cinema Week as an event, but they were also covering other parts of that week as an event. 

But then also find out what is really important, either to the community or the ownership. Giving back—and we have a platform with which we can give back to the communities, whether that is special needs screenings, or movies and meals programs, or food bank drives, or toy drives. Finding out what’s really important within the community that will bring large groups of people out [multiple times], versus one-offs. That moves the needle in big ways. 

And then the final piece of that is—we talked about loyalty and membership. You should know who your best customers are. Your 1,000 true fans should not be unknown to you. Who’s coming most often? I would talk to them almost to a one-to-one basis as best as you can. Identify them. “You are one of our most important customers.” They’re your advocates. They’re probably already checking in and telling people they’re going to your theater. So why are they a mystery? They shouldn’t be a mystery. Give them a text number. Give them a back channel into the theater. If your moviegoers are really that important, then treat them like gold.

How did Cinema Lab come to work with Spotlight Cinema Networks? What influenced that decision, and what are you excited about in working with them as your cinema advertising partner?

At Cinema Lab, we chose to work with Spotlight for several reasons. First and foremost, I’ve known Bernadette McCabe [executive vice president of CineLife Entertainment, Spotlight Cinema Networks’ event cinema division] for a long time. She’s a huge advocate for this industry. And we’ve been partnering with her on other initiatives. I also found that Spotlight really tailors the pre-show to the type of customer we believe we will have at the Village, the Bradley, the Maplewood, and as we grow. And then—even though you don’t have to be a Spotlight client to get their alternate programming through CineLife, I think their dedication to unique programming gives them an edge. And our customers will be really in tune to some of that programming. Those are some of the key factors. It was not purely a financial decision of, “How much can we make on a pre-show?” We even looked at, “Do we do it ourselves?” And Spotlight came to us with a quality solution, made it really easy for us to get across the finish line, and our partners at Cinema Lab all agreed to that.

Listen to Boxoffice Pro‘s interview with Chris Hamel in this week’s episode of the Boxoffice Podcast—then rate and subscribe on SpotifyApple, or wherever you get your podcasts.

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Indie Focus is Brought to You By Spotlight Cinema Networks.

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