This year cinemas will undergo a raft of experimentation to ensure a future for the medium in an age increasingly defined by the small screen and its all-enticing throttle. These venues cater for everyone; from fans of niche arthouse films to cash-cow franchise 'universes' and now they aim to solidify the survival of the silver screen as we know it.
The prevailing narrative is that cinema is in decline. But is it?
Advertising Association and WARC research say £258m was spent on UK cinema ads in 2016; this will increase by 12.6% in 2017 indicating that media buyers will include cinema in their plans this year. Further research from Kantar Millward Brown found that consumers across a series of age groups prefer viewing ads in cinemas, compared to any other medium.
Cinema ad firm DCM says it admits 2.7m cinemagoers every week in the UK – it has an 82% share of the market. On the attendance front, admissions have been in decline since cinema’s inception. From a post-war high of 1.64bn in 1946, moviegoing reached its lowest point of 1984 at just 54m - shocking - this was the year of classic mainstream movies such as Ghostbusters, Gremlins, The Terminator and Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom.
Now things have stabilized, more or less since the turn of the millennium. Data from the UK Cinema Association says admissions have fluctuated between 142m to 175m each year seemingly dependent on the blockbuster slate.
Industry players point to rising box office results when arguing about the state of affairs in cinema. However, this trend cannot be disentangled from ticket inflation and newly created premium offerings like 3D and VIP. In the first three quarters of 2017, the UK box office earned £966m. This figure was on par to top 2016's record year with the late release of Star Wars: The Last Jedi.
In light of this situation, the top players are moving fast to to modernize their offerings aggressively.
Tim Richards is the chief executive of Vue International; he has run the company since its founding 14 years ago. It is now the third largest cinema in the UK with 85 outlets. Richards is an avid believer in the power of cinema, to him, it taps into the inherently social nature of humans, but he argues work must be done to strengthen Vue’s proposition. “We need to make sure we are offering them something that is worth the trip.”
Cinema operators have to up their game, and it’s mostly down to one phenomenon; “Social media,” says Richards. “It is the biggest change in the last 20 years. If you have bad seats, a terrible projector or poor sound, word gets out quickly; this might have taken weeks and months before, so it is more important than ever to raise standards.”
Vue, which he describes as his ‘child,' is one of the youngest cinema circuits in Europe, Richards explains: “You will notice a difference between the competitors and us. We are spending a lot of money testing new product and listening to consumers.”
Richards receives more complaints than he would like to. He reads as many as he can, stating that it is essential for facilities to be of the highest quality to justify the time investment from consumers; this includes comfortable seating and the highest quality sound and screens.
“I know what it is like when you have a special night out, and it doesn’t go to plan it is a whole evening that may not have been as good as it could have been.”
Vue and its rivals must cater to the baby boomers who remember being terrified by Jaws, shaken by Darth Vader’s paternity reveal and devastated by the submersion of the Titanic. At the other end of the spectrum is the Snapchat generation. These groups have common needs and expectations including leather seats, Dolby Atmos sound, and state-of-the-art screens.
These innovations have improved cinema but also have applications in exciting new spaces that cinema may have to embrace. Alternative programming and outreach schemes are very much on Richards' radar. His cinemas, he shares are only “busy” 20% of the time.
Richards reflects back to the early noughties; he was in the audience of a Seoul stadium attending an eSports competition, he realized, early on, that the trend was here to stay. On eSports, he said: “This was Wimbledon, young people love to watch other people who are at the top of their game play, this was a game changer.”
And since, Vue has walked the walk. In addition to partnering with the Bafta Game Awards, Vue in 2015 established the UK’s first dedicated competitive gaming arena in a Fulham multicomplex, where Fifa, Starcraft 2, League of Legends, Counter-Strike and Call of Duty competitions are held. Two years on and it now hosts high profile competitions with prize pools of up to $100,000 – a figure likely to increase now that the tournaments are to be televised on the likes of BBC Three.
One evening, while hosting the Bafta Game Awards, Richards saw hardcore gamers being “blown away” by the big screens, his facilities, that he knew he had homed in on a trend. “We had to kick them out at three in the morning,” he adds. “Gfinity has been bridging both sides of eSports, those playing and those watching. It is growing; there is a model there that is going to work.”
Live from the studio
Vue was one of the first adopters of live content too. Initially pre-recorded shows, broadcast as live, made way to the infinitely more complicated, live showings within the cinema halls which began distributing theater, ballet, and music gigs beyond their original stages. Early collaborators included Brian May and Genesis, and these events were used to measure consumer interest.
Speaking about the collaboration with May to produce a concert, Richards comments: “When the audience pulled out their phones as lights to hold in the air, I knew that we had got them. The sound quality was better than at the gig. The audio mix was better, with the digital 4K projector, you could see the sweat form on the brows of the musicians.”
Live content is a small part of Vue’s income, it is still an experimental space and helps that cinemas diversify their offering. “Back in 2003, we were thinking about how to use these amazing underutilized assets more effectively, the amazing facilities and soundstages, we were thinking their music, theater, opera and gaming, but it took us a few years to deliver.”
In particular, Richards seemed particularly proud of how Vue has made London-based theatre and opera accessible to the rest of the UK. “We took a £200 ticket and were able to take that sell these for £10 up north to a whole new audience.”
Rob Lister, chief business development officer and chief legal officer at Imax, echoes Richards on the state of cinema. “For consumers to leave the couch and go out to the movies, they need an enticing reason.”
Imax’s “enticing reason” is immersion through tech. The company’s philosophy and emphasis on technological advancement have seen it expand to 1,200 theaters in 75 countries. It pushes forward with camera technology while looking to become more ingrained in the creative process. Most prominently, it worked with auteur filmmaker Christopher Nolan on the 2017 epic Dunkirk. 70% of the movie was shot on Imax cameras offering audiences frames almost 40% wider than standard displays – this helped build the scale of the battle.
When talking immersion, there is one technology that has not quite taken hold as well as perhaps it should have, and Imax believes it has the expertise to deliver it to the mainstream.
“The reach of our global network and international brand recognition is opening interesting new opportunities for us to pursue,” says Lister.
Among these opportunities is virtual reality. Imax boasts numerous virtual reality centers that serve to introduce the technology to the public. These are spread across LA, Manchester, Shanghai, Toronto and two in New York. There are more to come. To enter the creation side too, Imax is working with Google to develop a cinema-grade VR camera. The company will also invest in 25 VR experiences over the next three years, working with the likes of Starbreeze, Acer, and HTC.
One example is a Star Wars droid repair sim that launched in tandem with Star Wars: The Last Jedi.
Lister says building these VR centers will help consumers get around the high cost of entry that “worthwhile VR experiences demand." This barrier has arguably sullied the growth of the medium. There is also a tangible benefit to the Imax brand being associated with immersive experiences too. Lister adds: “While we don’t believe audiences want to watch full movies in VR, we believe it is a very exciting proposition that can be extremely complementary to cinema.”
While uptake of VR has been slower than some predicted, Imax believes it can drive footfall to its cinemas, attracting, in particular, millennial and Gen Z audiences with this activity. There is an emphasis on making the VR centers socially-friendly to expand their footprint.
TV vs the big screen
Imax dabbled in TV, running the final episodes of season 4 of HBO’s Game of Thrones in 2015 and more recently worked with Disney/ABC and Marvel Television to bring Marvel’s Inhumans' pilot episodes to cinema. These were shot using Alexa Imax 2D technology – and despite tepid reviews of Inhumans, this presents the company’s intent to embrace new mediums.
TV is not a priority though, Lister adds: “The core of our slate will continue to be Hollywood blockbusters, but we expect to continue to pursue original content opportunities such as Marvel’s Inhumans to build out our slate and drive potential new streams of revenue for the company.”
The rise of connected TVs does not provide an existential threat to cinema, according to Lister who says the opposite is accurate and adds that it drives innovation. Even the world’s most exceptional home entertainment system will have difficulty matching the Imax experience. “We don’t believe there is a comparison between watching a movie like Gravity on your phone or living room television to a giant Imax screen.”
Cinema remains an essential part of most national advertising campaigns. Davina Barker, sales director of DCM, unveils the new ways brands are buying into the space.
As TV services appear to fragment into the often ad-free video-on-demand space, Barker argues for cinema’s real value. “It is impactful and efficient, cutting through the media clutter to help brands grow in value.”
She touts the ROI of cinema against TV, quoting DCM research that found that the average cinema showing delivers a revenue ROI of £7.73 for every £1 spent, comparable to TV’s £7.09. A cinema-going audience is a captive audience, and they won’t peel off to make a coffee during the ads, or do some ironing. They can’t fast forward the ads, and they are (hopefully) unlikely to be distracted by their mobile in the dark theater.
As a means of delivering ads, cinema thinks it delivers.
How is cinema advertising changing?
As long as cinemas continue to drive footfall, there are always going to be opportunities to get brands into the foyer.
Barker points to DCM’s PlayStation partnership which brought virtual reality activations of its new game, Horizon Zero Dawn to showings of the thematically similar (and audience sharing) Alien Covenant via VR pods. Atop this activity ads for the game ran before the movie.
Furthermore, PlayStation rival Xbox ran a promotion that made use of 4DX seats that move to reflect onscreen action. This multisensory campaign, was according to Barker, “more immersive than Imax and 3D”. It ran at Cineworld sites to promote the launch of racing game Forza.
Another activation worth mentioning utilized cinema’s powerful audio capabilities. Jaguar hijacked film classification notices using the powerful roar of its engine to shake the room, dislodging the classification from the screen before the F-Type growled into sight.
Using cinema's unique traits to deliver new ad experiences seems to be the space for growth here. DCM also worked with Airbnb to give viewers Smart Glasses that could help tell two unique holiday stories across each half of the screen. One experience was the standard holiday nightmare, the other, a wonderful Airbnb trip.
Barker said: “More brands than ever are investing in the medium, telling their stories in innovative and exciting ways on the big screen and beyond. DCM’s brand count is up 4% year-on-year, with over 180 advertisers showcasing their stories through copy 60 secs and over during the last 12 months.”
However, with a raft of innovations coming to the industry soon, DCM is still primarily committed only to supporting the film slate.
Activity across VR, live events and other opportunities were not written off, however, “If a brand is interested in getting involved in this growing area we are perfectly placed to help due to our scale.”
It is unclear what shape cinema will take in the coming years; nonetheless, if there continues to be a demand for the movie-going experience, it will have to adapt to the vast expectations of consumers to get bums on seats.