Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Mark Cuban's Movie Theater Challenge

Me and 600+ other people over the last 3 days thought it would be cool to come up with responses to the challenge Mark Cuban posted on his blog . It's hard to see how my response -- despite it's tremendously high quality :) -- won't get lost in a sea of 700 other comments, (or even to see if my response didn't just repeat suggestions that were already made), but I have faith in Mark Cuban's ability to go through all those emails. I have heard he's extremely devoted to reading Mavs fan emails, so I trust him to take this challenge seriously, and read all the suggestions.

I've included my complete response (which I clipped when I added it to the comments on the blog post) below.

Of course, there are a lot of suggestions like, cheaper movies, cheaper concessions, easier parking, better access, etc, that as a frequent moviegoer, I would love to see. However, the reality of those suggestions, are that they won't _bring_ more people into the theater. They'll just make the people that are already going happy. And those people (people like me), unfortunately, well, they're already there, so they're not who you're interested in.

My guess is that you want to figure out how to get people to come to the specialty/limited run films that landmark shows.

-So, let's start with the broad question, "what's fun about going to the movies?" Even for adults, catching a movie with all your friends is still a reason to get out of the house. Adults even have the added dimension of wanting to discuss (and maybe scream about a movie for hours after it's over, which is another need that a specialty venue can serve). It's fun to a go a movie in a group, so find a way to crank up the peer pressure. Find a way to tap into a social network (a small myspace group, for example) and let them know exactly when and where they can go to a movie. If one friend wants to go, make sure that the other friends have an easy way of knowing about it (link his ticket purchase to a broad text message/email and give him a discount for inviting more people rather than charging extra for a convenience purchase) (on a related note, I feel strongly that this service should be provided by the theater itself, since it can directly help other revenue streams and does not need extra money to stand on it's own, making it a win for everyone and cutting out an expensive third party)

-Organize special screenings a little after the fact, or when the DVD comes out. With specialty movies, the news can come around kind of late, so let people encourage each other to see the movie, and then show it when enough people commit. (booking movies on demand shouldn't (technically) be a problem since all your screens are digital)

-Boost DVD sales for a movie by screening it when the DVD comes out. piggyback on the dvd marketing, and let people try watching the movie before they commit to buying it. sort of a watch to own program (especially in light of the recent report that 80% of people that watched a movie said they were likely to buy a DVD of the same movie).

-Offer people small discounts on tickets on an irregular basis. Nothing is more irresistable than cashing in on a coupon, no matter how insignificant it is. My girlfriend found out that she can buy AMC tickets in pairs at costco for 7.50 and now she wants to go to a movie every week (as opposed to me having to drag her every week). People are totally irrational when it comes to coupons.

-Also, get people to commit to coming to the movie the instant they're interested and hear about it. If they see a trailer they like, offer them a 10 dollar ticket for 8 dollars if they put down 2 dollars up front. People will be much less likely to flake on the movie even if they forgot about what they liked about the trailer, because of that minimal investment. It doesn't even have to be a sneaky thing to do. You can just tell people straight up "we really want you to see this movie, so we're trying to get you to commit to it so you don't forget how much you want to see it" I think people will be happy they did.

-Speaking of that, give people a flawless way of keeping track of the movies they want to see, and alerts when the time comes for the movie. (this ties in great with the social networking component of this). Use pictures. People do a lot of work to make really enticing posters, and all it takes is a glance to remember why you wanted to see something (something I've learned from years of DVD shopping). Then pile on the small inexpensive incentives and remove some of the uncomfortable barriers, and it's hard to refuse.

-Put together some continuity in the films you present. Going to the movies can be addictive, so tap into that. Start with an arena rocker like Inconvenient truth, and then follow up with Who killed the electric car, (hell, you might even be able to sell people on "the Day after tomorrow" after they see Gore's movie), the book every other eco-documentary you can think of after you've gotten them hooked.

-Occassionally throw in some movies that take place locally. People are totally narcissistic when it comes to their hometowns. I went to the San Francisco International Film Festival this year, there was a line around the block for a movie about people who jump off the Golden Gate Bridge. And the show was at 2:00 in the afternoon on a monday.

If you're interested in the more traditional multiplex/teen demographic (some of this applies to the sophisticated art film watching adults too, though) here are a couple of other ideas. I heard somewhere that if you want to innovate, don't ask people what they want, watch what they do. I just got back from the San Diego Comiccon (for the first time) and two things were utterly clear to me. There are two things the people can't get enough of

-seeing cool secret sh*t
-seeing famous people

-The preshows that have replaced the terrible TV ads are actually a pretty good start. Now they should really step it up and throw in a random selection of totally secret trailers, and just blindside people. Remember when people bought tickets to wing commander and then walked out after they saw the trailer for Star Wars Ep 1? People still
really love that stuff (at least the geeky kids do, and if the movies are good enough, everybody will become a geek). Make a showing that's entirely, cool, secret stuff. Really high quality stuff that will not translate well to a camcorded internet jpeg. I'd even stoop so low as to stir up celebrity gossip about the movie stars in the movies you came to watch. People who watch the movies are really interested in the people in those roles. It's a fine line, because star bios can be totally boring or very trite, so it really needs to be worth the look.

-And then get the famous people to actually show up. I used to go to this theater in Palo Alto, because sometimes I'd see Stanford Basketball players there (lame, I know). But it's irresistable. Get the Mavs to hang out at the theater. Even if people don't know who Dirk Nowitzki is (god forbid) they'll know they're witnessing something special if they's standing in a popcorn line behind a 7 foot german giant. You could probably even get them to work the concessions stand. I know that stuff is usually reserved for soup kitchens and charity work, but I know every time I hear kobe was at some charity event, I find myself wishing I was really poor.

-And down a totally different path, if your goal is just to spread awareness of films that you're showing through your circuit or producing at 2929/Magnolia, I would suggest frachising out the movie theater running experience. It seems like everyone is a movie buff, and those people can make a huge difference in the distribution potential of films (ala gladwell's tipping point). Also, lots of people have amazing home theater setups that are not getting maximal use that would make great community resources. If people had a way of securing permission to screen movies theatrically with minimal hassle (and maybe alleviate security concerns for showing movies at their houses :) ), I think a lot of people would be interested in running their own little movie theaters.

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Stuff I'd like to see the Bigwigs answer.

Tomorrow, I'm going to a fancy roundtable event about Digital Cinema. Here's the lineup:
Randal Kleiser, President, Randel Kleiser Productions, Inc.; Director, Grease, The Blue Lagoon, Honey I Blew Up the Kid, Lovewrecked
Bob Lambert, Sr. Vice President, Worldwide Technology Strategy The Walt Disney Company
Tim Partridge, Sr. Vice President and General Manager, Dolby Professional Division, Dolby Laboratories, Inc.
Jerry Pierce, Senior Vice President, Technology, Universal Pictures
Todd Wagner, CEO, 2929 Entertainment

Scott Kirsner, Editor, CinemaTech; Columnist and Contributing Writer, Fast Company, The Boston Globe, The Hollywood Reporter
Dinner is a $70.00 affair, so I figure to get my money's worth, I'd like to see if the architects of the digital age of cinema have answers for any of the following questions:

-What should we expect for the smaller theaters to do?
Are they expected to participate in the digitization of movie presentation. If they can't afford to buy new equipment, at what point will they no longer be able to use film reels. Will this not be an issue because of timing?

-Do you think the exclusivity deals for certain distributors will relax at all if the copies are no longer a commodity?
I have heard of a lot of vicious legal entanglements regarding large theater chains trying to flex their booking power and engage in anticompetitive measures to make sure that nearby theaters can't show other big draw films. I understand that physical availability of films is not always the issue, but will a spirit of free availability come along with digital film distribution?

-Will there be any assistance for smaller theaters that want to convert to digital, or is the focus with larger theaters?
Is there any information about how large a percentage of the exhibition industry is made up of indpendent 1 and 2 screen operators and how the digital transition will affect them?

-Is there any thought to making films available for "semi-theatrical" release?
Digital prints make the possibility of "in between" businesses a compelling reality if the licensing standards play along. Smaller, home theater type setups could be used to make small auditoriums and come up with local exhibition businesses, but I don't think they're feasible given the current costs, and state of technology. Digital distribution has the potential to alleviate this. Are Resolution standards the issue? What are the problems (such as piracy etc) , with such a model and what can distributors now enforce because of the digital nature of the prints?

On a totally unrelated note, today I learned what a political action committee was. An important part of the political machines that seems like the "enforcer" behind nudging congressmen into the "right" political decisions (where money equals muscle).

It seems like a rather blunt instrument for my specific concerns at this point. I may be more interested in the groups that are actually structuring legislation and studying the effects of copyright law, rather than the arm that actually earns votes for it. Maybe at a later stage in my career :)

Friday, July 14, 2006

How to make money by giving Movies away!

Poll Shows Moviegoers Are Big DVD Buyers
A poll of moviegoers indicates that 83 percent of those who see ten or more movies per year in theaters also "frequently" or "sometimes" buy the DVD of many of the same movies, the New York Times reported today (Monday). The study, conducted by Nielsen Entertainment, concluded that seeing movies in the theater and at home "are not mutually exclusive occurrences" and appears to boost arguments by theater owners that they would be harmed significantly if movies were released in theaters and on DVD simultaneously. Thirty-six percent said they would skip the multiplex if that were to occur.
It seems as though this survey was designed to answer a question that's been on every theater owner's mind: Will our lives be ruined if DVDs come out at the same time as new movies?

Apparently 36% of people buying DVDs and saying they'd skip the movie is a cause for alarm. And it may well be. But let's take a quick break from the red alert and think about the other things that this survey is suggesting.

86% of people that watch movies frequently buy DVDs. I doubt this is anything new, but I think this fact has got to be making studio exec's eyes roll with dollar signs. I can testify to the fact that buying DVDs is WAAAAY more addictive than going to the movies (in fact movie theaters could learn a thing or two about trophy collection and presentation, but let's focus).
1.) There's more of a selection,
2.) the value proposition is much better, you get to keep the DVDs and watch them as many times as you want -- even though you probably don't
3.) You can do it on (mostly) your own time, and always if you count online shopping (which you should)
4.) You can handle multiple movies at once -- rather than having to queue up another one while you watch the first, you can just bring both home and never watch either!
5.) You have way more to show for owning than you do for just going, you have a COLLECTION. It looks pretty on your shelf, it impresses your friends and colleagues, it gives you excuses to invite that cute girl over.

If 86% of the people who get hooked on going to the movies, are hooked on buying DVDs, imagine if MORE people went to the movies! It's no secret that DVDs are outpacing ticket sales for lots of movies, in a lot of cases DVD sales are the reason movies can make back their production costs.

So if DVDs are the cash cow, why not completely fold theatrical release into the marketing effort. Give away the screenings at theatrical release and make everyone happy!

In a perfect world, the theaters could keep selling tickets to the people who are buying them and just give away the free shows to the remainder of the people and lure all but 14% of them into buying DVDs. Price selection, I believe they call it.

Of course, the 200+ million that Pirates took in on opening day is nothing to scoff at. There's certainly money to be made there. Theaters could charge for the advance sale of tickets for really popular movies and split the revenue with distributors like they're already doing. This should make everybody happy. The people buying tickets at least know what they're buying. A really good movie might be sold out in advance the entire time it's in theatrical release. But if nobody's buying, than the free tickets should allow the theaters to recoup those costs through DVD sales. I see everybody winning.

And none of this takes into account, the extremely important fact that, more people can afford to start making movie watching a habit. And habits are what drive this business (and from a personal standpoint, they're also what makes moviewatching fun).

The share of DVD sales vs ticket sales would certainly be a useful number here, but it may not even be necessary. This model optimizes all the things that make movie going good. For the studios it makes filmmakers want to make a movie really good to get people to actually pay for it, while giving them a decent escape route if most people think it stinks. Then the theater owners can still sell popcorn to full houses, even if Hollywood is in a temporary funk. The people only have to pay for the reserve seats to the really good movies and in the mean time can try out a bunch of less popular movies that they may like and the studios will make that money back in DVD sales.

It should even reduce piracy for the crappy movies, because why pirate it when you can watch it for free?

The big selling point for this, is that I think everyone stands to make more money while really improving the movie watching experience for the people that fund it all: the moviegoers.