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The label “independent cinema” covers a wide variety of theaters, from small and mid-size chains to single-screen arthouses. We know that, at the large chains, all sorts of box office records got broken this summer–how have the last few months been from the independent side?
What we’re hearing from members of the ICA is it was an extremely strong summer. We’re definitely happy with the box office numbers. But I would say that I love the counter-programming aspect of the summer–if you can call it that on a larger timeframe. You have the obvious [example of] Barbie and Oppenheimer on the same weekend. And then you have The Sound of Freedom. And then even the other VIPs, with The Flash and Indiana Jones, things like that. It made for an aggregate box office. The key takeaway is that [when we have] more films [geared towards different] audiences, that’s when we have big box office, not when we have just a big blockbuster every single week. It also highlights the importance, both on the small, independent side and even with the large circuits, that the small and midsize films are important to our industry.
It feels like there’s been a reawakening this year in terms of cinema marketing. Cinemas went all-out for Barbie, and the Pay-It-Forward campaign for The Sound of Freedom worked extremely well. What lessons can independents take from this year so far in terms of marketing?
The ICA always talks about how going to the cinema needs to be an event. What Barbie taught us in spades is that the cinemas who leaned into eventizing–within the guidelines of Warner Bros., but [also cinemas that] made it into a party and rode the hype—those cinemas who created experiences, beyond just Barbie, are the ones that overperformed. I think that’s the big exclamation point on the summer.
It’s a lesson learned. There are a lot of films throughout the year that we should be doing similar things with. It doesn’t have to be a big blockbuster like Barbie. Even with some of the small to mid-sized films, we can add a food and beverage component, or add an event to it, and motivate people to get out of the house for entertainment, to have more than the movie experience. That’s the biggest marketing [lesson] I’ve seen across the board. If you look through the social media of ICA members, you’ll see that they leaned into to get the word out.
What I talk about all the time is, I think the days of the studios doing most of the marketing–not saying all of the marketing–[should come to an end]. I think the exhibitors should take probably 20 to 30 percent responsibility for getting people out, as well.
Especially when you look at chase weeks–the studio marketing machine may have moved on to their next title, but cinemas still have an opportunity to remind people: “Even if you didn’t see a title you were looking forward to on opening weekend, it’s still here.” It doesn’t have to cost a lot of money to get the word out.
Even the fundamentals–I don’t want to speak for all independents, but independents putting trailers up appropriately, the blocking and tackling of [in-theater] marketing, making sure that they have tickets on sale at the right time, making sure that they have the right programming and showtimes set up–[the importance of] all those things were highlighted this past summer. It seems basic, but I think if we do a better job of that, [we’ll see] an increase in box office [compared to if] we didn’t do those things effectively.
What did Warehouse Cinemas do for Barbie in terms of custom drinks? You guys always come up with good stuff.
For Barbie, we decorated the lobby and went all-pink, obviously. For the drink, it was an inflated little flamingo that sat around a pink slushy drink that we called the Malibu. We sold a ton of those things. I think the staff is tired of blowing up little inflatable flamingos.
And now–though it will be out before this issue comes out–we have the Taylor Swift concert film. It definitely feels like there are opportunities there.
[Taylor Swift: The Eras Tour] was certainly welcomed and appreciated. I think everyone’s grateful for it and the box office that’s going to bring. As exhibitors, we need to lean into the fact that she has a brand of all brands. Taylor Swift is a brand, Barbie is a brand. Within the constraints of [intellectual property], we have to find ways to drive people to come out for a night with friends.
And your employees can evangelize as well. You probably have someone on your staff who’s a Swiftie and has ideas and wants to spread the word.
We do, actually! Her name is Arianna Taylor, and she’s our community liaison manager at our Hagerstown location. We asked her, “Hey, can you write an event brief?” She did it within 24 hours. Next thing you know, we have an event scheduled across the circuit.
Looking away from the programming and marketing angle–independent cinemas tend to run on much smaller margins than the big chains. Saving money where you can is hugely important, which is why the ICA Marketplace was created: as a bulk aggregator, it can help indies get better deals than if they were on their own. The Marketplace is still relatively new–what can you share about how it’s evolving?
The ICA Marketplace is folded in with our purchasing organization, called Crescendo. Honestly, it’s a heavy lift, is the way that we describe it. At the end of the day, it needs to be a win-win with the vendor. We can’t just get a discount and slap it on the website. We’re trying to uncover opportunities through distributor models, when it comes to food and beverage specifically. There’s a heavy lift to unpacking that and putting it back together and getting commitments from exhibitors, but we’re making a lot of progress.
We’re really focused on trying to find the things that move the needle on a [profit and loss] statement for both the small independents and the midsize, which are two different worlds. The midsize circuits probably already negotiated a pretty good price compared to the small independent cinema. Bringing those two worlds together has also been a challenge, but we’re pushing hard. The [group purchasing organization] Crescendo is working hard. Over the next couple of years, my hope is that we accelerate the effort that we spent the last two years on and it really starts to come together, because there’s been so much time and energy it just takes a while to get those things across the finish line. It’s slightly frustrating for a career entrepreneur like me, but we just have to keep pushing.
I know bulking up the Marketplace is one of the ICA’s key priorities for 2024–what else are the top items on the ICA’s list as we move into next year?
The first one is studio relations. We really want to foster healthy relationships with Hollywood to talk about–specifically when it comes to the small independents–the flexibility and availability of film. That’s still a challenge for small independents. But just studio relations as a whole. Let’s go out to LA and talk about some of the challenges independents have and strengthen that [relationship].
The second thing is the ICA Marketplace, [to] aggregate our buying power and save money across the board for members. And then [third] is the studio marketing partnerships, which is basically finding new and innovative ways to leverage the owned media of cinemas to try to get the word out on films and ultimately increase the box office for a given title. We’ve had success with our ICA marketing pilots in that regard. We’ve worked with Sony, Paramount, [The Sound of Freedom distributor] Angel Studios. [We’re] talking with all the majors about this. Hopefully this is an opportunity to increase revenues for independents who may or may not be able, on an individual basis, to have those conversations [with studios]. So we’re trying to build that efficiency on the marketing side.
On the subject of exhibitor-studio relations: Another big success story to come out of 2023 was the second edition of National Cinema Day, which independents participated in. A set, discounted price for all films for one day is not an easy thing to make happen in a way that satisfies both studios and exhibitors, but The Cinema Foundation made it happen. There have been discussions in the past about something similar geared towards independent or art-house cinemas. Is that something that has potential?
Honestly, the ICA and NATO have a great relationship, and we complement each other’s missions. Obviously, we’re a subset of the bigger industry, and as a result, we have different needs. That’s why the ICA was developed. At a large level, we’re going to support NATO’s initiatives for now, at least. You’re right: The heavy lifts in [planning] National Cinema Day were massive. And, frankly, the ICA is mostly [made up of] volunteers at this point. So we don’t have the resources. And it’s a good opportunity for us to support NATO–both National Cinema Day and National Popcorn Day. We make sure to mention it on ICA Live. We put it in our email blasts.
The framework of both of those national campaigns gives you the flexibility to make it your own. We encourage independents to [do that], to do your own specials, have your own way of messaging it. NATO’s really positioned well to execute [industry-wide initiatives] on a large scale. That’s the 20,000-foot view–and the role of NATO, anyways. But never say never. Maybe there’s some initiative, indie-wise, [that makes sense to pursue one day].
A rising tide lifts all boats; National Cinema Day brought people to the independents, as well.
Exactly. And, honestly, it goes back to marketing. The [independents] that promoted it effectively and leaned into it and did special eventizing probably saw a greater bump.