In Depth

The Force Is With Mobile

An Old Hope

A long(-ish) time ago, in this galaxy right here, getting tickets to see a ‘Star Wars’ movie — or any of a number of films of the blockbuster culture that ‘Star Wars: Episode IV — A New Hope’ helped to establish in 1977 — meant journeying to the theater as early as one possibly could, braving the elements (natural and otherwise) and standing in a long line of other moviegoers in the hopes that the box office wouldn’t sell out before it was your turn at the window.

If you were lucky enough to get the tickets to the space opera (or any such “event” film) of your choice, at the time you wanted to see it, you still didn’t exactly get the pick of the litter when it came to seat selection.

Then, if you and/or your companions wanted food, a whole other slog of a line awaited you, to the point where one often had to choose between going hungry (or at least snack-y) and missing a significant portion of the film.

Today, the very franchise that arguably created the “hurry up and wait (and wait … and wait)” aspect of modern moviegoing — returning to theaters worldwide with its first all-new installment in a decade (and, by early accounts, perhaps the first majority-held good one in more than three times that span) — is again front and center as evolving consumer (and merchant) behavior, facilitated by advancements in online and mobile technologies, stands poised to affect another sweeping change in how people spend money on — and at — the movies.

 

The Empire Buys In Advance

When tickets for ‘Star Wars: Episode VII — The Force Awakens’ first became available for purchase online on Oct. 19 — nearly two months in advance of the movie’s Dec. 18 release date — it (to apply a hyperbolic phrase) broke the Internet, causing massive outages on movie ticketing websites, such as Fandango and MovieTickets.com, and theater chain sites, like AMC and Regal, among others.

As of Dec. 10, presales for ‘The Force Awakens’ in the U.S. had exceeded $50 million (breaking the previous record set by ‘The Hunger Games’ in 2012); yesterday (Dec. 15), that figure crossed the $100 million mark.

While those numbers are, on their face, obviously great for Disney (the studio releasing ‘The Force Awakens,’ as well as two sequels and three spinoffs so far planned), the major step forward that they signify in the consumer practice of buying tickets in advance is welcome news for the movie industry in its entirety.

As the Los Angeles Times points out, advance ticket sales are beneficial for theater chains because they provide insight into consumers’ habits and preferences, allowing them to adjust their schedules accordingly. It also gives them access to customers’ email addresses — as well as, in many cases, additional consumer data, such as gender, date of birth and ZIP code — thus establishing (for movie ticketing services and theater chains alike) a channel for future marketing correspondence.

For movie studios, the L.A. Times story goes on to explain, advance ticket sales effectively act as a self-perpetuating promotional cycle and provide more accurate predictions for the performance of individual films.

“While [advance ticketing is] still a nascent piece of the overall business, it’s going to continue to become a bigger and bigger thing,” Dave Hollis, head of distribution for Disney, told L.A. Times. “Technology is going to continue to do more to build a relationship with consumers.”

 

Return Of The Popcorn

The staggering online presale numbers for ‘The Force Awakens’ speak to the trend that moviegoing — like attending live music and sporting events — is becoming, for consumers, less of a spur-of-the-moment purchase decision and more of one that is planned in advance.

Just as theater chains (like the movie studios and ticketing websites) are adjusting their business strategies and applying technologies to reflect this change in terms of selling tickets, some are taking the next logical step and looking to apply the same to in-theater­ consumer buying behavior, i.e., in the area of concessions.

It’s a sales channel that is far from an afterthought for movie theaters; on the contrary, as Leo Kulp, an exhibition industry analyst with RBC Capital Markets, recently told The New York Times, food and beverage operations provide those businesses with profit margins of 85 percent or higher (whereas their take of movie ticket sales is only about 50 percent, with the rest going back to the studios).

To address what theater owners describe as “the popcorn pinch point” — the time that moviegoers spend in line waiting to buy snacks — NYT examined current efforts by AMC Theaters and Regal Entertainment (the largest movie theater chains in North America), both of which are testing mobile apps through which customers can order and pay for their food in advance then pick it up in a designated area that allows them to bypass the concession lines.

John D. McDonald, AMC’s executive vice president for United States operations, told NYT that early results of his company’s mobile app-based concession purchase technology have been “very strong, “ describing it as “another big innovation for our industry, right up there with luxury seating.”

NYT points out that both AMC’s service (presently in four theaters in Kansas City) and Regal’s (which is right now in five locations in Knoxville, Tennessee) are similar to mobile apps that food and beverage companies, like Starbucks and Chipotle, have successfully implemented on a large scale.

McDonald additionally told NYT that AMC is considering adding to its mobile concession-ordering service, when and if it is rolled out wider, to include in-seat delivery to theatergoers.

After all, he remarked, “People simply do not like to wait in line.”

And perhaps — for moviegoers, at least — the massive popularity of the film franchise that heavily contributed to the creation of the long lines that they wait in will one day make them part of a past that seems as distant as the galaxy in which it is set.

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