Indie Focus: Dine-In Cinema Summit 2024

Independent cinemas are entertainment hubs, community centers, and overall a vibrant and essential part of the wider cinema ecosystem. With Indie Focus, Boxoffice Pro partners with Spotlight Cinema Networks to focus on the people, organizations, theaters, and issues at the forefront of the independent cinema scene.

The Dine In Cinema Summit is returning to Austin, Texas for its sixth edition. Bringing together leading cinema executives and influential vendors, the event has become an unmissable stop in exhibition’s annual event calendar. Spotlight Cinema Networks, proud presenting sponsor of the Dine In Cinema Summit, brings you this preview conversation between Boxoffice Pro’s Daniel Loria and event founders Matt and Amy Mader.

This is one of my favorite events each year, and I’m excited to hear that in 2024 the summit is moving back to Austin, one of the most important cities in the world for the entire dine-in sector.

Amy Mader: Yes, we are returning to our home stomping grounds of Austin, Texas, from February 5th through the 8th. We are excited to partake in several site visits during the event: Flix Brewhouse, Alamo Drafthouse, EVO Entertainment, and Moviehouse & Eatery by Cinépolis. In addition, we’ll have our evening parties around the city of Austin. The biggest thing we’ll introduce to the summit this year is adding an entire day dedicated to Family Entertainment Centers (FECs). We’ll have companies like Turfway Entertainment and JKRP Architects sharing insights on panels and educational seminars around the topic. It’ll be a perfect day for any exhibitor looking at different avenues for revenue to add to their existing properties.

At last year’s summit, you had a policy where no one could say the words “Covid” or “pandemic,” which helped turn the focus to the future. What are the forward-looking topics you’ll be exploring at this year’s event?

Matt Mader: We put that guideline in last year because we felt, going into February 2022, that we all understood the effects of the pandemic. It was time to start dealing with the reality that the industry was facing. It’s not that we don’t want to talk about what’s happened in the past; instead we want to focus our attention on what we can do going forward. Dating back to when we started this event six years ago, our guiding principle has always been [to explore] what the cinema space can add to itself to be a more attractive destination for the public. In our first year, we really pushed FEC concepts like bowling and arcades. To be honest, it didn’t go over very well, because many of the attendees were making a ton of money selling burgers and cocktails. “Why do we want to change something that is going so well? It’s already hard enough to run a dine-in theater. Now you want us to add bowling, laser tag, and all this other stuff?” Now here we are six years later, dedicating an entire day to FECs.

Many of our colleagues and clients are currently transitioning to FEC concepts and thinking of new questions. How do we remodel our square footage? Do we still need 10 screens or can we get away with eight? These are conversations happening with every remodel—and that doesn’t include the availability of vacant lots for new builds. We’ve even heard of landlords renegotiating leases [with tenants] who want something more than just a dedicated movie theater. Six years ago, we started with: How do you put the best menu together to make your cinema more attractive? Now our conversations center around the best way to use your square footage. 

It’s an off-the-record event, where attending press—including this outlet—is asked to keep everything said in panel sessions confidential. Without revealing too much, one of the major pain points for dine-in operators I picked up on at last year’s event was shortcomings regarding point-of-sale (POS) software. Is that an ongoing concern?

Matt Mader: It’s still a concern. I think everybody agrees, especially the software providers, that it’s not an easy problem to solve, providing an all-in-one POS that targets this space. And when it comes to integrating features of the FEC space, it gets even more challenging. One of the main reasons for that is continued operational challenges. It’s hard to staff appropriately when you have a single room in an eight-auditorium building that has 150 seats, with two others that have 100 seats. You’re going to be seating hundreds of people at the same time.

Cinema operators are still looking for the right balance of providing good service while giving customers the flexibility to do things on their phones or at a kiosk. Every dine-in cinema has its own little tweaks on how it wants to operate and create the perfect experience. The POS is a part of that, and being a POS provider is very challenging, in that if you have 100 chains using your product, each of them is a little different. It’s very difficult to keep that market happy and moving forward effectively. Especially when you still have to support them almost 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.

Costs are going up across the board for businesses, and dine-in cinemas are no different. We’re beginning to see consumer dissatisfaction when those costs are passed on to customers; there are signs of increased price sensitivity when it comes to movie visits. How has the dine-in community responded to this economic trend?

Matt Mader: I don’t know if Amy and I are the perfect people to answer that question, but I know some exhibitors I’ve talked to have shared that they continue to make more price adjustments than ever. Their focus, however, is more on building a better experience, because a better experience is the easiest way to justify a higher price. You don’t go to the best steakhouse in town expecting a deal on your steak. If you operate your dine-in cinema or your entertainment center the same way, people will be willing to pay the price as long as the experience is commensurate. There will always be people who expect a certain level of service if they’re paying $20 for a hamburger or a cheeseburger. It’s definitely an issue, but I don’t hear anybody saying: “Our customers are getting so irritated. All they’re doing is telling us we’re charging too much.”

Amy Mader: It’s one thing if you go to your neighborhood movie theater and the chicken tenders and french fries go from $7.95 to $15.95, with no other changes. That’s how people get irritated. But if you sit down and have a creative menu in a way you can embed those costs where people don’t necessarily see them, it’s much easier to pull off. I think consumers are willing to pay a little bit more for a new and exciting menu item. You can’t let the experience of going to your theater remain stale while also raising your prices. You need to keep evolving. Think of it like Disney’s theme parks: Those tickets keep costing more, but their rides are constantly changing. People need to see the value in the experience they’re paying for. You can’t raise your prices without raising your standards. 

What can attendees to this year’s Dine In Cinema Summit expect to walk away with from the event?

Matt Mader: We want people to walk away from this event with the knowledge required to think differently about their challenges, giving them the confidence to apply what they learned at the summit. More importantly, I want everyone who attends to know that they’re not on their own. That’s why we started this six years ago; we want everybody—small, medium, and large players—to come out of this event with the knowledge they need to improve their business.

Amy Mader: What makes the Dine In Cinema Summit unique is that it isn’t a money-making operation. Every dollar that comes in from our sponsors and registration goes back into the summit. We do this as a service to the industry. I see that same commitment to the industry from partners like our presenting sponsor, Spotlight Cinema Networks, who have been fantastic to us since we launched. They believe in it the way we believe in it. That is why this event has evolved into something people in this industry want to be a part of. That’s a great feeling.

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