Movie Theater Incentives: What Works? What Doesn't?

October 8, 2007
Source: Cinematical

In heading back to our roots on discussing the theatrical side of cinema, I caught a recent piece over at Cinematical titled The Exhibitionist: Moviegoing Incentives by Christopher Campbell. The article is a lengthy introspective on Christopher's thoughts recently while choosing between two local theaters purely based off of incentive. It's a great look at a regular moviegoer's thoughts and opinions when considering movie theaters, whether looking at it from a marketing standpoint, or from a layman's standpoint of choosing the best option. The article really lead me to wonder, at movie theaters are there certain incentives that work and certain incentives that don't?

Christopher looks at two theaters in Brooklyn, a small indie theater named Cobble Hill Cinema and the Regal-owned UA Court Street Stadium 12. The differences lie in: price, with the indie theater being cheaper by nearly $3 (it's $9 versus $11.25 for a regular ticket), the selection of films they play and also the quality of the auditoriums, and finally the incentives on Tuesdays: discount ticket price at Cobble Hill (for $6.50) or a free small popcorn (or medium for $.50 more) at the UA Court Street. I'm sure I've confused you already by now, which is all part of the problem to begin with. Simplification in choice is always key, as there's that theory that people will (or should) always choose the simplest possible outcome.

There are numerous theater chains around the US, but three major giants that run most of the nation's theaters (and are buying more as we speak): Regal Entertainment, AMC, and Cinemark. In addition to that, Landmark Theatres has a strong presence as the leading independent theater chain in over 23 major cities. Each theater usually offers some sort of an incentive as a marketing gimmick to attract customers. Whether it's discount tickets, certain types of giveaways, free concessions, free tickets, anything to make people realizing they're "getting their money's worth." As with Christopher, that's the exact thought that went through his mind. Would he be saving money by getting a discount ticket and medium popcorn at Cobble Hill or would he save money by getting a regular ticket and a $.50 medium popcorn at UA Court Street, which has tastier popcorn and better seats. Considering the cost and other factors, he ended up choosing the UA Court Street.

Now unfortunately I haven't done enough hands-on market research in this world to officially say one works more than the other. And honestly, I think that one may attract on type of customer, and another may attract a different type of customer. Someone may prefer free popcorn where as someone may prefer cheaper tickets (say if they didn't buy popcorn at all). However, some incentives I can say I really don't think are as effective as they could be and others that are effective are nearly ignored. I sometimes wonder what goes on in the minds of the people in the corporations when choosing what incentives to offer and how to market their theaters.

AMC's MovieWatcher / Regal's Crown Club

In my personal considerations, there are some stronger, better incentives. These are…

» AMC's MovieWatcher Program - Free tickets, free food, and other free things with points being added each time you go see a movie. Essentially, the more you go, the more you get out of it. The perfect incentive for me and the only one I've ever been a part of (at one point in my life). It's got the minor things tweaked out and considering it's a free thing it's completely worth it.
» Matinee / Discounted Tickets - Definitely a great idea! Oh well if they lose money. It's not about making money that one time, it's about showing them that the theater is a good place so that they'll come back again when it's not discounted. Or making money back on concessions, which is easily possible.
» Flashback Series / Old Films - Playing old movies is one of those incentives that makes you realize that this theater actually cares about and appreciates cinema. And it really builds a film community which is the strongest form of grass roots marketing.
» Midnight Events for Fans / Special Events - This is the thing that FS.net specializes in. We make that midnight show that you've waited years for that much better. If you camp out or line-up you want more of an experience for your dollar than just going in, sitting down, watching the movie, and leaving - especially if it's all there provided by the movie studios for free! As time goes by this is becoming more of an essential key to showing how good a theater actually is.
» Digital Cinema - This is a great incentive, but there are so many problems with it! Not only do theaters not know how to market it effectively because the general consumer doesn't know what "DLP" is or why it's better, but they don't know how to setup the projector. The projection looks worse than film because they didn't calibrate it perfectly and don't spend time to make sure it's looking its best. If used correctly and marketed well, this is an incentive that will be increasingly more worth it as we move into the future.

There are also a number of very poorly implemented and not-as-effective incentives, which I see are all too often used. These are…

» Kid's Programs - Maybe it's just that I don't have any kids or that it's just not executed well. However, it's not that something for kids isn't necessary, it just needs to be done effectively. Whether it's a program for cheap tickets in the morning at G-rated movies or whether it's providing babysitting on-site, no theaters do it well.
» Radio Station Tie-Ins - This is just double-marketing. The radio station is only there to say their name as many times as possible and promote themselves. It doesn't do anything for the theater besides waste time and money and annoy moviegoers. This is probably one of the worst incentives and yet both movie theaters and studios think this is one of the best.
» Free / Discounted Concessions - By now in today's world we all know movie food is expensive and we face the facts. Anyone who wants it will buy it anyway and enjoy it, no matter the cost. All free food does is encourage you to spend more, so it's almost detrimental to the consumer. On top of that I don't think we need to encourage more consumption of fatty foods.
» Regal's Crown Club - I don't even know what it is or why they have it. It apparently allows you "upstairs" to some room with your "own" concession stand and the option to buy more expensive tickets in "better" leather seats reserved for you in the middle. Something like an overpriced must-pay-for-it club that is just for rich people who come to the movies once a month, not real moviegoers. Is anyone actually a member of this?
» Reserved Seating - Every time I've been to a theater in LA that offers this, I find it incredibly ineffective. I end up sitting where I want, not where I've been told because it's hardly full. I prefer to go in and see who's there and then choose my seat - not randomly end up sitting next to some smelly guy. It's not my fault you didn't show up in time to get a good seat!

Is there anything I've missed or something you disagree with? Of course someone will disagree with my choices above, but from my experience those are what I believe work best. I can't speak for every theater in every town, but I can speak for most. If only I owned my own movie theater to prove that certain incentives worked better than others that would be a different story, but for now I've put all of my personal knowledge and expertise together in those two lists above.

The most interesting part of Christopher's choice of incentive seems to be that he didn't end up actually choosing the UA Court Street for the discounted popcorn, but rather for the theater. He mentioned numerous times that it was the quality of the theater, the seats, and the better tasting popcorn that causes him to usually go to the UA Court Street anyway. The discounted popcorn was just the tipping point that caused him to spend even more on a ticket that time. Is that effective marketing or not? Is he just persuaded by the better theater or was it actually the cheaper popcorn? What do you think?

The photo at the top is courtesy of Flickr.

Find more posts: Discuss, Editorial, Opinions



I agree with pretty much everything you said to varying degrees, except for reserved seating. Reserved seating does work in L.A. if you want to assure that you get a good seat on opening night of a "big" movie. Sometimes, the pressure to get there early and get in things like dinner, etc... can be stressful and anxiety-filled because there's always a bunch of nerds who are nerdier than you and get there earlier than you. Damn nerds!! So reserved seating fixes that. And I like knowing, for instance, that no matter what time I get there, I'll be sitting center-ailse for something like "Indiana Jones". I guess I'm a convient nerd. But yeah, I too find myself moving around when the theater is empty, although inevitably, I end up sitting in some seat that some jerf-off claims and just HAS TO HAVE 5 minutes into the movie.

Kyle Smith on Oct 8, 2007


The one thing i've seen theaters starting to pilot is the anonymous reporting of disruptions. People who go and see movies often are given pagers with a few buttons on them. If there is a problem on the screen....noisy kids.....bad sound....noisy adults.....cell phones... You can push a button and the manager or someone in charge is sent to deal with the issue. No one in the theater knows who reported it and your movie experience is improved. Over time people will stop being disruptive and everyone can enjoy the films. I think this is one of the biggest problems in theaters....people. People with cell phones...people with kids.....or kids period. I want to enjoy the film without noise....without interuption.

Heckle on Oct 8, 2007


In the UK there are a number of different incentives. The biggest is by the Cineworld chain who offer a subscription service called the Unlimited Card where, for 11.99GBP (~$24) a month, you can see as many films as you like. Going by current ticket prices (~6.50GBP), you need to see 2 films a month to make it worthwhile, but considering that the average in the UK is to see 2 films a year you can see where the market is. Saying that, I doubt they get a benefit from my friends and myself who see closer to 3 films a week, as each Unlimited ticket is nominally charged at 3GBP for royalty purposes and we don't buy the cinema food. Which is why they keep trying to tempt us with (not very tempting) deals on large popcorn and drinks. Orange, the cellphone network, also offer 2-for-1 tickets to their customers (including their internet service customers) on Wednesdays. It's available in all the chains plus a lot of the independent cinemas and seems to be very well used, much to the annoyance of us Unlimited Card holders who have to stand in the large queues of them. So, a form of double marketing that does work. On the subject of digital film, I saw my first at the weekend - "Seachd: The Inaccessible Pinnacle" - and was absolutely stunned by the difference in quality. There are only 2 screens of 18 in the complex that have digital projection capabilities though, so it's not going to be a suitable incentive when so little of the schedule can be shown digitally.

Pickle on Oct 9, 2007


I used to love the matinee movies I watched in the UK back in the early 1990s. Sometimes they were new releases (Falling Down was one I saw for a couple of quid one afternoon). I would also definitely go back to the cinemas to see "older" movies; like movies from the past 30 years would be terrific. I've all but given up on going to the cinema these days, partly because of the many bad movies lately, and partly because I'm tired of putting up with other cinema-goers being noisy, using mobile phone (specifically, txting with those bright screens lighting up the darkness in front). I need some incentives to want to go back to the movie house 😐

Mark on Oct 9, 2007


I'm not sure about the Regal Crown Club that you mention here, but Regal has a Crown Club Card that works just like the AMC MovieWatcher Card. I have one of each, but end up using Regal more often because the Regal theater in my area is nicer than the AMC and offers more independent films. I need to get myself hooked up with that anonymous disruption reporting! I go to movies so often that I have no patience when it comes to noise, and usually end up confronting the noise makers or getting up and moving to a different seat.

jeri on Oct 9, 2007


Kid's programs in the summer are a Godsend for parents! Two promotions I've seen that you didn't list: 1. close captioned showings for the hearing impaired 2. No one under 18 showings (no babies or teens) Personally, the things that attracts me the most is state of the facilities. I like the semi-reclining stadium seating with the cupholders and armrests that lift up. I really wish more theaters would show older movies. I can think of plenty of movies I'd gladly pay to see on the big screen one more time (or for the first time).

Kev on Oct 9, 2007


Old movies would be my favourite reason to go back to movie theaters. I stopped going for the same reasons everyone else. Noisy people, bad seating, not so good sound and picture anymore (compared to in-house HDTV). I like that idea of "over 18 only" shows, but it would cut most of the current cinema goers customers off.

Nobody on Oct 9, 2007

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