Happy Fourth of July!
Going to the movies this weekend? If so, odds are you won’t be today. With the holiday itself falling on a Saturday, that conflicts directly with what is traditionally one of the busiest days of the week for cinemas and multiplexes. Anywhere that the sun is shining on America’s birthday this year, people will be more likely to head to the beach, a barbecue or a fireworks display than to a movie theater.
It happened last year — and the Fourth of July didn’t even land on a Saturday. Movie attendance for Independence Day weekend in 2014 was the worst in a decade, experiencing a staggering 43.4 percent drop in ticket sales from the year previous ($130 million, down from $230 million in 2013).
It wasn’t always this way. In 1975, "Jaws" chomped a new paradigm into existence for the movie business: summer movie season — a showcase for big spectacles at the theater and equally monstrous box office receipts. A decade later, with the success of "Back to the Future," the business had honed in on July Fourth weekend as the crown jewel in its most popular season. Before the explosion of at-home (or on-the-go) movie streaming services like Netflix, iTunes and the like, the movie industry — and, by direct association, the movie theater industry — in the United States could, regardless of what kind of year it was having overall, always count on Independence Day to rocket business skyward.
It used to be an event. (And, for a long stretch in the middle there, Will Smith seemed to always be involved in some capacity — beginning, coincidentally, with his turn in Independence Day, a phenomenal hit over its namesake holiday weekend in 1996.) But now, to a growing percentage of the population, going to the movies — anytime, never mind during a once sure-fire holiday weekend like the Fourth of July — has become something of a chore.
We know the elements that are negatively impacting movie ticket sales: an overwhelming glut of product (with options blurred further by apparent similarities); ticket prices, whose perpetual rise is accelerated by markups for 3-D and IMAX (features often deemed unnecessary by many moviegoers); rather astronomical concession costs (the bread and butter — or popcorn and butter, as it were — of theaters’ income); and competition from the aforementioned ever more convenient on-demand streaming entertainment options.
What’s the movie business to do to bring consumers back into theaters?
For the sake of argument, let’s call the product-quality issue a wash. This weekend, for example, you’re going to see a third dinosaur sequel, a fourth time-traveling-robot (played by a guy pushing 70) sequel, a male stripper sequel, a Pixar movie or you’re pretty much not going to the movies. Movie studios are going to offer (and heavily advertise) what they offer; the theaters have no control over that.
The challenge for the theaters then becomes to bring the potential audience members for the films available through their doors, despite the fact that the ticket prices aren’t exactly appealing — especially to anyone with an average household income (or lower) — and the food and drink prices are even less so.
If there is a solution, it may lie on the very devices that are more and more frequently keeping moviegoers out of the theaters: their smartphones, tablets and other mobile devices on which they can watch streaming movies at home (or anywhere but the cinema). What’s available on those devices (obviously) are movie ticketing and movie theater apps, and if the merchants behind them play their cards right — by targeting the right loyalty offers, promotions and discounts to the right consumers at the right place and time — they just might optimize their chances to bring movie fans back to their old home away from home.
Let’s look at a few of the apps that might be among the movie business’ best hopes.
One of the top movie apps on the market, Flixster serves primarily as a social media hub on which people can discover new movies, learn more about them and connect with movie fans who share similar tastes. It is the mobile app presence for the movie review aggregate site Rotten Tomatoes, which Flixster acquired in 2010. That integration more or less makes Flixster the go-to source for consumers who consider themselves to be film buffs more discerning than the average bear.
With a focus more on person-to-person interaction and film knowledge disbursement, Flixster does not put much emphasis on specific loyalty rewards. It does, however, allow users to keep track of their favorite theaters, which are always kept at the top of the list whenever a user searches on the app for movies. When it comes to purchasing, Flixster offers ticketing exclusively through a partner that was savvy enough to get in with the Flixster (and Rotten Tomatoes) brand: MovieTickets.com.
As a website, MovieTickets.com was founded as part of a joint venture that included AMC Theatres (which now has its own app; more on that later); Regal Cinemas (ditto) was among additional chains that bought in later. The app — as was (and remains) the case for the website — offers pretty much what it seems: a place to purchase movie tickets.
What the MovieTickets.com app had early on in its existence that set it apart was volume. Not only did it offer movie time listings for all theaters, but it included in-app purchase options for more theaters (both large chains and independent movie houses) than any other app at the time.
That’s no longer the case, as the field has grown more crowded. To address this issue, in 2009, MovieTickets.com debuted its own loyalty program, Red Carpet Rewards Club. Through the program, registered members earn 100 points for every ticket purchased via MovieTickets.com, which are aggregated for future purchases on the app (or site).
Remember Moviefone? (Seriously — remember dialing a number on a telephone to order movie tickets? That seems crazy.) While it still exists in website form, the “fone” part — i.e., the ticket-purchasing part — of the company is now entirely Fandango’s business.
When it comes to offering incentives to moviegoers, Fandango has a lot of bases covered. Not only does its app allow integration with specific theater chains’ loyalty rewards programs — such as AMC Stubs and Regal Crown Club — the company offers membership to its own club, Fandango VIP. The perks for Fandango VIP members include “worry-free tickets” (whereby users can return or exchange tickets purchased through the app), a customizable experience (such as keeping track of favorite theaters) and insider perks that include free screenings, downloads and discounts.
The Fandango app also gives its users the option to be reminded of upcoming showings to which they’ve purchased tickets — no doubt an especially helpful feature given the app’s availability on the Apple Watch.
Given that AMC is the second-largest theater chain in the U.S., it follows that its app would have a lot to offer.
In addition to allowing users to find showtimes, locate theaters, watch trailers and buy tickets (including making a wish list for tickets that are not yet for sale), the AMC app places a strong emphasis on social integration, whereby users can share movie times with others via text or Tweet, as well as schedule a group outing to a movie at an AMC theater as an “event” on Facebook — raising the chain’s opportunity to fill more seats with every ticket purchase.
Speaking of seats, the AMC app includes a feature helpful to moviegoers who might want to leave theirs briefly to visit the restroom. It’s called “RunPee”: Included as part of every movie page on the app, it lists the best times to “go” without missing any crucial moments in the film. Handy.
The AMC rewards program, AMC Stubs, provides its members with an extra $10 for every $100 they spend at an AMC theater (and with ticket and concession prices being what they are, that total can be reached surprisingly quickly), in addition to offering free upgrades on popcorn and drinks, as well as waiving online fees for ticket purchases (every dollar does count). The Stubs program is made particularly convenient for iOS users, as it offers Apple Passbook support.
The Regal Entertainment Group (REG) is the largest movie theater chain in the U.S., encompassing three main brands: Regal Cinemas, Edwards Theatres and United Artists Theatres.
Being representative of such a large company, the Regal mobile app offers the traditional bells and whistles, such as movie search and purchase options, maps to theaters and mobile tickets. Additionally, users are provided with a concession coupon that changes week to week. In the social realm, Regal (in addition to allowing users to share purchases and showtimes via text and social media outlets) offers access to Twitter without leaving the app.
Regal’s loyalty program, Regal Crown Club, allows members to collect “credits” with every ticket purchase made, which can be applied towards the aforementioned weekly discounts or collected to earn free tickets and concessions.
Can apps such as these (there are also more localized theater chains that offer similar products, such as ArcLight in the Los Angeles area and Showcase Cinemas in the Northeast) stem the tide of consumers’ departure from movie theaters — if not year-round, then at least on a weekend like this one, a weekend that not so many years ago saw celebrating Americans head to the cinema in droves?
Perhaps they can. Because one thing that American consumers seem very disinclined to turn away from is their mobile devices.
In fact, you might be reading this very article on such a device right now. What are you doing? It’s Fourth of July weekend; go out and have some fun.