Blockbuster Time Is Back for Movie Palaces—And the Public

By NCM Archives
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With the coming of autumn and the going of extreme coronavirus pandemic conditions around the nation, two executives participating in the latest Jack Myers Leadership Conversation see a snapback in movie theater business as people resume their penchant for watching first-run flicks inside their neighborhood film-running venue.

Both Ken Thewes, chief marketing officer of Regal Cinemas, the second largest U.S. theater chain, and Cliff Marks, president of in-theater advertising provider National CineMedia, acknowledge the last six months, when lockdowns forced all movie theaters to close, were difficult. However, with most theaters back open, albeit at limited audience capacity, earlier this month and the acclaimed film Tenet an early draw, Thewes and Marks sense a rebound is underway. Two factors behind that outlook: initial consumer reaction to safety measures introduced with the viewing experience, and a powerful lineup of movies set to reach theaters this fall and throughout 2021.

"I don't think there's another media industry in America that was actually asked to shut down, to be a part of the solution by the U.S. government," Marks suggested at last week's Leadership Conversation. "It's been a very humbling experience for the cinema industry to be shut down for six months and to watch the media we love so much be dormant."

And now? "Nothing's more exciting than coming back," Marks continued. "Our industry is resilient. We get to re-emerge and get people back to the movies."

"It was a tough time to shut down all of our theaters," concurred Thewes. "We're thankful that we have some great movies playing right now, and we're getting up to 100 percent (of our theaters) being open." Regal operates 539 theaters nationwide, 64 percent of them operating again as of mid-September. However, cinema locations in New York City, Los Angeles and San Francisco remain closed.

Attendance will rise as the buzz for upcoming flicks grows, Thewes added. Releases over the next three months include the new James Bond thriller No Time To Die, Eddie Murphy's Coming 2 America sequel and Steven Spielberg's contemporary update of iconic musical West Side Story. "We'll have big movie after big movie that will play, and we'll have plenty of screens for them," he said.

As Regal resumes operations, Marks' company is once again offering Noovie, NCM's pre-show, which gives movie audiences a reason to arrive at the theater early to discover what's next, including exclusive entertainment content, in-theater gaming, and engaging advertising from national, regional and local brands (covered in a separate MediaVillage article earlier this month). Ford, AT&T and Heineken beer were among the opening week sponsors. Marks expects more of NCM's recurring advertisers will resume sponsorships as attendance grows.

So far, customers are adapting well to Regal's new policy on theater attendance, using "Cinema Safe" guidelines from the National Association of Theater Owners. Visitors and employees must wear masks at all times (except while eating), with two seats blocked off on either side of where a person or group sits inside the theater for social distancing. Advance ticket purchases by mobile phone is encouraged, and theaters are disinfected between screenings using an innovative quick-dry eco-friendly fogging system similar to that being used by airlines.

Customer satisfaction has increased by six percent since Regal's locations reopened, Thewes pointed out. "They're feeling safe. They're having a better experience. It's been a collaborative process," he added.

According to NCM's latest wave of Behind The Screens moviegoer research, 97 percent of movie fans ages 18-34 rated their recent moviegoing experience positively, and they said went back because they missed the moviegoing experience. When asked to evaluate movie theaters and other indoor venues with respect to COVID-19 safety measures, 93 percent of respondents said the movie theater met or exceeded their expectations, scoring above grocery stores, retail stores, restaurants/bars, hair or nail salons, gyms, bowling alleys, or museums.

The next step is to get that message across to families, especially mothers, who remain skeptical about traveling to indoor events, despite a decline in coronavirus cases. "Passing (that) mom test is a big, big hurdle," Marks admitted. "Once we pass that test, and Mom feels comfortable, that will open the floodgates. Getting (her) on board is important."

Improvements in lobby environments made during the shutdown will help matters. "We're out to become an immersive experience," continued Thewes. "The moment you walk in, it's high-energy. We've got digital signage (all over) that set the tone for what you experience in the auditorium." Concession stands, with employees wearing masks and watching their social distancing, serve a wider variety of food and drink. Inside screening rooms, expect advanced Dolby sound systems, laser projection of some films and atmospheric digital effects.

Regal is exploring the ability to purchase tickets in advance through cable systems, smart TV sets and TV-connected gadgets by voice or remote. "It's our plan to make it as easy to buy a ticket as possible," Thewes maintained.

On NCM's end, conversations continue with Nielsen about having cinema ad viewing presented alongside data on TV services. Nielsen recently announced plans to terminate out-of-home measurement reports but, Marks pointed out, NCM has access to detailed ticket sales and seat occupancy data they're offering to Nielsen as an accurate 'surrogate' for panel data.

"Give us some time to see how that works," Marks insisted. "If not, we'll create a new measurement that will be third-party objective. Right now, we get a lot of good data that makes me feel good that people are coming back. We are the original social medium."

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