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No Time To Die won’t save cinema but here’s what might

Published on LinkedIn 30th Sept 2021

My subconscious woke me in the middle of the night two nights ago…I didn’t know why until I remembered: the No Time To Die reviews were out of embargo just after midnight, and I had to read them. (Some industries you never leave...) With joy - and a little relief - they were almost unanimously glowing. The near-record levels of pre-sale tickets seem justified. Wishing all the cinema groups the cash register boost they richly deserve this weekend and beyond. It’s about time.


What was interesting though, was the amount of press that focused on this movie’s responsibility for saving the cinema sector. It won’t. That’s not its job anyway. If it had been released when originally scheduled 18 months ago, it would’ve been huge but still just one of several major tentpole releases planned for 2020.


But because it’s being released now, right now, on top of the pressure of getting a profitable return for the studio – and widespread exposure for its many product placement partnerships, everyone is waiting with bated breath to see what the implications are for the wider cinema industry. Truthfully, it’s not going to tell much.


No question, Bond’s box office receipts will be a shot of caffeine in the arm of the industry but the James Bond franchise – the 4th most lucrative in cinema history - is a unique institution. There’s not much to gleam from their box office performances other than whether that particular entry was a good one or not. Bond lures the masses into cinemas, but many of them won’t even be regular cinemagoers. In fact, there will be a sizeable chunk of the audience seeing No Time To Die who haven’t been inside a cinema since Spectre, six years ago. It’s the nature of this franchise. They’re ‘event’ movies. Millions of Bond fans will come out to see it. And then they’ll go home again.


Monthly box office revenues are inherently jumpy, fluctuating throughout the seasons. A 12-month graph of revenues for a cinema chain looks like shark’s teeth. One friend in the industry remarked to me once that it’s almost like running 300 product tests a year from which you can take practically no learning! Who would run a business like that? Bond will be a rather large tooth on this year’s graph, for sure. But that’s all. It won’t make all the teeth from here on in bigger. That’s not how cinema works. Yes, for many getting in to see Bond, the refamiliarization with their local cinema could well reignite a love for the experience and stimulate further visits. And I’ll come onto cinema’s role in stimulating that.


But the first thing that cinema is going to need for survival is what it has always needed: a steady stream of great content, for all tastes, drip-fed throughout the entire year. And there’s real risk that model is in jeopardy.


Some chains, such as Everyman, are saying admissions are back to 80% of pre-covid levels. Which is fantastic. But remember, this success has come off the back of a collection of titles that were already ‘oven ready’ before the pandemic. It’s what happens next where things will get interesting.


The double-whammy of the pandemic and the explosion of streaming services has changed the landscape for good. With cinema networks around the world closed, the once hallowed theatrical window has been sliced up, allowing studios to test all manner of simultaneous (day-and-date) release and PVOD (Premium Video On Demand) launch strategies. Some have worked. Some haven’t. But they’ve given the studios what they wanted: Data. Cinema's virtual monopoly on customer data is over. When before, Disney would’ve been given one datapoint (box office) from a single ticket sale, they now have a myriad of datapoints they can gleam from customer behaviour on their Disney+ platform: time of purchase, viewing habits, household details…And with that, they can personalise content, monetise, sell ancillaries, directly to their customers. Cinema has to get comfortable accepting that its place in the ecosystem is changing. (The good news is those who consume streaming platforms most are also the most avid cinema-goers.)


The theatrical window will return, of course. Makes commercial sense for all that it does. Besides the money, many movies are simply machine-tooled for the big screen experience. Also, big franchise blockbusters tend to be the titles most sensitive to spoilers, playing on audience FOMO, and one thing that has taken the studios by surprise with the day and date release strategies has been the eruption of piracy. You put a perfect digital copy out there on day one and there’s no control over it.


But the window won’t likely be the 90-day (give or take) length it was before. Probably half that. Will it hurt cinemas? To be honest, unlikely. Vast majority of cinema revenues for a title are made in the first two to three weeks. And the studios will have access to their content to monetise on other platforms earlier that they would have. Everyone would seem a winner.


But what it could do is change the mix of content shown in cinemas. And that in turn will change the mix of customers coming through the doors.


The studios, perceiving a squeezed window for their biggest titles, will have contractual clauses requiring more screens show them, potentially pushing the smaller titles released that weekend off the grid. So there might be less ‘alternative’ options for people wanting to avoid the latest Marvel blockbuster on its opening night. And if you follow a very broad generalisation that smaller titles tend to target older audiences, the demographics could change too. And that’s before we take into account the different attitudes by age band to being back in a crowded, enclosed spaces.


I get asked a lot whether people have drifted away from cinema onto streaming platforms. Of course they have. But it’s not been an even playing field this past year. There’s pent up demand for the cinematic experience and audiences will return. But the mix will be different. And there’s evidence they may not return to pre-covid levels for some time. Like, a long time.


And this is the second thing cinemas are going to need: to continue innovating to secure a different sort of growth to supplement what could be a period of erratic and suppressed ticket revenues.


It needs to understand its role in this new landscape. The competition isn’t just the next cinema complex in town anymore. It’s now streaming. Catch-up TV. Other out of home leisure pursuits. Casual dining. Hand-held devices. Tik-Tok. The sofa.


Cinema marketing has always had wear two hats: promoting the upcoming movie as well as promoting the cinematic experience. And it’s going to need to work hard on the latter in the coming months and years.


A trip to the cinema is inherently a heady dopamine-inducing cocktail of escapism, a shared communal experience and nostalgia. For all the high tech in the auditorium, there’s a distinct retro glow you get from going to the cinema. It’s something you did with your folks as a kid. First whiff of the popcorn and you’re transported back.


But cinema needs to look forward now. Younger generations coming through don’t quite have that same devotion to the nostalgia kick. For many, it’s just another channel for content. Big, bold, brassy. But just another channel for content.


Innovative and engaging mobile booking platforms. Lobbies that genuinely have a sense of place rather than a sense of process. Indulgent food and beverage options (cinema food will always be an indulgence…despite surveys requesting healthy options, when people cross that threshold into the lobby, they’re kids wanting treats again). Beautiful interiors. Stunning lighting. Curated music….. Every sense stimulated. An auditorium product that maintains that ‘better than home’ differentiation. Powered, wide reclining seats. Deliver-to-seat food options. Outstanding crystal clear audio visuals. And topping it all off, informed and engaging service from employees hellbent on giving you the best night ever.


It all amounts to careful customer experience management of that spine-tingling ‘crescendo’ you feel walking into a cinema. As well as careful management of the ending, the farewell, instead of shuffling everyone down a dark stairwell into the rear car park. Cinemas need to put the theatre back into the theatrical experience.


And it starts with relentless obsession with the customer: How do they segment? What are their motivations for making the trip (not always the movie on show)? Their pain points? Their drivers of choice versus something else to do with their leisure time? What sort of customer experience would get them off the sofa and out into the rain to their local cinema? What sort of relationship do they want with their local cinema? Do they want to be locked into subscription? Or are there more flexible plans they could offer, targeting (and rewarding) that segment’s specific viewing habits?


And commercially, there needs to be a mindset shift as to how cinema businesses view themselves. Are they simply cinema operators that show films and therefore wait around for what Hollywood decides to serve up for them? Or are they multi-functional entertainment venues that can also show alternative events? Or are they actually real estate businesses that should be thinking about asset utilisation much like an airline does with their aircraft? (Would an airline be happy flying their planes a couple of times each evening, filling them only at weekends, and leaving them on the ground for the rest of the time? This is how some cinemas operate.)


eSports, gaming, theatre shows, conferences, product launches…the list of what a cinema venue can offer is long and lucrative. But this is going to take a re-prioritisation. Upweighting B2B sales teams. Genuine collaboration with film teams on a sharing a ‘venue management’ mindset.


Pricing will continue to gain sophistication, but it mustn’t lose sight of the line of fair value. Dynamic methodologies, bundling, upsell strategies will all play a role. But they should be designed with customer-centricity in mind. Not blind pursuit of yield. You can decide with the flick of a switch to double your yield. It’s meaningless if it means your auditorium loses half its customers. The good chains get this.


So no, No Time To Die will not, and cannot, save cinema. Cinema can, and will, save itself by staying resilient, resourceful, and relevant and reimagining its role in this new changing world.


A bit like Commander Bond.


See you in the Q.



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