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Cinemas: Adapt or Die

The Covid-19 pandemic has served as a catalyst to technology, forcing businesses to adopt more flexible working arrangements with their employees and transforming retail with a greater demand for home deliveries. The film industry, more specifically exhibitors, have been much slower to adapt to the changes brought on by lockdown conditions.

To be fair, the moviegoing experience hasn't really changed that much over the last 30 years. In South Africa, exhibitors are still primarily based in shopping malls, have between 6 and 20 screens, rely on ticket sales at the box office, preview and foyer advertising as well as confectionery stand sales. While some of the technology around booking and even screening has been adopted in order to facilitate a more immersive experience, sharper image or high fidelity, these have been mostly superficial changes.

Cinema: Adapt or Die

While this traditional model has certainly worked for some time, it's quite surprising there haven't been more continuous improvements in order to compete with the rise of streaming services. While there have been more campaigns or events in order to stimulate more active participation at cineplexes, it's generally been more of the same. If you're in your 30s or older, you'll know that the general movie experience you had in the '80s has remained the same. People see what's showing, buy tickets, get popcorn, watch the movie after a number of forthcoming attractions and adverts before being ushered out of the cinema only to repeat the cycle.

The big screen experience certainly has its charms and it's important as Inception director Christopher Nolan suggests that we find a way to save the traditional theatre experience. Films are designed to be seen in this format, making it a shame if they had to be relegated to small screens exclusively. More recently Ang Lee, director of Life of Pi, has said that theatres need to work towards a more active participation with moviegoers. While speculation is that he's probably talking more about more immersive technology in order to offer an unrivalled experience in contrast to what you can achieve with your home theatre system, there needs to be more out-of-the-box thinking. Projectors are getting cheaper, 3D technology is available to home theatres... why keep the competition based on technology?

More recently, cinemas have adopted a VIP model when it comes to the movie-going experience. Being able to have snacks served on a platter, get a comfortable reclining chair and enough room to kick your feet up is great. But these more expensive "first-class" tickets are a way of upselling more than capturing the mainstream audience and demographic, which is what is needed in order to secure a healthy future. It seems that cinemas rely on the latest Fast and Furious or Marvel blockbuster to sustain a few months of good business once per ticket percentages improve.

While some cinemas have adjusted their offering to include drive-in experiences to weather the pandemic or test out other options when it comes to exhibiting films, it's something that should have been done months ago - possibly even in empty mall parking garages. As the continual delay of new releases indicates, most would have probably expected things to return to a new normal by now, enabling cinemas to operate as they have for decades. Unfortunately this is not the case, delayed by vaccine rollouts, second wave spikes and much uncertainty about the future of many hard hit industries, especially cinema.

During this down time, exhibitors have obviously had to align with protocols when it comes to safety, reducing the capacity, distancing patrons and ensuring everyone complies. Visiting the movie house has become a chore and as safe as they would have you believe, there's always a risk. Not to mention, who wants to sit in a room that gets disinfected several times a day and watch a movie with a mask on... does Ghostface's mask count? One would hope that beyond the strategic thinking around salvaging what business it can, some fresh thinking would have been applied in order to adapt to trends and meet the ever-evolving nuances of modern audiences. While there have been some surveys and general return to the movies campaigns, it's a great time for a shake up.

If Spling were to rescue the theatre experience, he'd be turning cineplexes into entertainment hubs. Creating exclusive content that can only be seen in a cinema is a great way of hooking audiences. Ster-Kinekor had a brilliant advert where the careful teaser build-up wasn't resolved anywhere but in the theatre. Having several large vehicles carrying all manner of paraphernalia including fireworks were converging towards a busy intersection. Using suspense, this was further heightened by leaving TV and YouTube audiences in anticipation... what happens next? Using a similar approach to current advertising efforts could lure audiences back to cinemas. Yet, there's so much more. Having a special Q&A with the director or cast following the movie, would also be a great bonus.

Activating community is another must in this post-pandemic economy. Cineplexes have the theatres and seating, so why reserve them exclusively for screening content. Another way of drawing audiences in would be to partner with musicians, comedians, magicians or other live performance artists. Most of these artists have been hit by the pandemic and could help get people to live shows at cineplexes, which are designed to facilitate audiences. Whether having a full show or limiting their performances as guest appearances with thematic tie-ins to open certain movies, mystery guests or special performances could create some much-neeeded excitement. This kind of edge is what modern cinemas should be adopting. Look after the community and they'll look after you.

Spling did this for Movie Buffs screenings through Ster-Kinekor and they were well-received. Breaking the fourth wall makes it so much more than just a movie. Turning a passive experience into an engaging one makes it that much richer and more rewarding. Watching Neill Blomkamp's Elysium possibly sitting next to Vanessa Haywood from District 9, seeing sleight-of-hand illusionist Stuart Lightbody open Now You See Me, watching instrumental guitarist Jonny Dose perform Aerosmith's 'Living on the Edge' to open Edge of Tomorrow, getting to see Gravity with an astrophysicist to answer questions afterwards... these are just some of the ways you can turn movie night into something much more special and memorable.

Audiences are looking to be engaged and participate, which is why it's important that cinemas remain relevant. Simply reflecting dreams offers some magic but more advanced viewers are expecting something more. Creating exclusive and special performance content can help reinvent the movie experience, turning it from a 2-hour escape to a big night out. For many, watching a movie on a cellphone is becoming acceptable so there really has to be something incredible to form a new movie-going habit. Let's hope that cinemas are taking up the challenge and not facing collapse like so many other industries that didn't adapt in the face of disruptors or global trends.