family in movie theater

Hot dogs, popcorn tubs and soda cups will be dancing again soon across movie theater screens and singing “Let’s All Go to the Movies,” but will customers want to? Atom Tickets, a company that sells movie tickets, concessions and more through its app and website, knows. The Santa Monica, CA, startup found in its May survey of 1,500 digital moviegoers that 34% of customers plan to return to movie theaters within a month of reopening, 25% plan to return immediately and 21% will wait for a vaccine. For marketers in the industry, here’s a quick look at COVID-19’s impact on movie theaters and five ways movie theaters can prepare to reopen to a crowd.

How Movie Theaters Stack Up

Moviegoers don’t plan to stay away from the big screen for long, and this may explain why: A Motion Picture Association of America’s (MPAA’s) poll shows America’s favorite pastime is going to the movies, beating out theme parks and Major League Baseball, probably because it’s more convenient and cost-effective than other events on the list:

Top US Entertainment Events Chart

How Movie Theaters Are Faring

When customers do flock back to movie theaters, will movie theaters welcome them back with open doors? Both small and large movie theaters are struggling financially right now and doing their best to stay afloat. Even the largest theater operator in the United States, AMC Theatres, isn’t immune to financial woes. The company is looking at a long-term debt of $4.85 billion as a result of COVID-19. And back in March, AMC Chief Executive Adam Aron in a CNN interview said, “Literally we don’t have a penny of revenue coming in the door. Three weeks ago, AMC was an immensely healthy company. But now with expenses out the door and no revenues, we are burning through cash. What we need is liquidity, and only the government is going to provide that.” Now months later, AMC’s situation has only gotten more dire, to the point the company is at risk of going under.

How To Market Movie Theaters Now for the Biggest Impact Later

With many movie theaters still playing the waiting game until they can reopen, with Hollywood studios delaying big movie releases, and with customers leery about exactly when they can safely escape to the movies, what can movie theater marketers do now for the biggest impact later? Here are five recommendations:

1.      Focus on Your First-Party Data.

Gain more knowledge and insights about your consumers with first-party data. If silos exist, break them down and consolidate your first-party data so it’s insightful, actionable and measurable. Modeling audiences and gaining insight into the highest lifetime-value customers will give you a solid re-entry strategy when theaters can get back up and running.

2.      Communicate the Right Message.

Internally plan now to ensure when it’s time to reopen, guests are confident the proper health-related precautions are in in place to make them feel safe. Build a go-to-market strategy to showcase the careful planning you’ve done behind the scenes to ensure guests’ wellness and safety and strive to make an emotional connection with your messaging. People will remember the sense of comfort your brand gave them during the crisis once life returns to normal.

3.      Address Safety Concerns.

Atom Tickets also found 42% of respondents said having spaced seating in a theater auditorium was the most critical safety concern to make them feel comfortable returning to theaters, even more important than vigorous cleaning procedures and theater staff and customers wearing masks. To keep crowds at bay and to enforce social distancing, here are ways movie theaters can prepare to reopen. Consider upgrading typical theater seats to luxury loungers, which can naturally help space out guests in your auditoriums and think about staggering movie show times and reducing auditorium capacity for the short term. Put extreme cleaning protocols in place. Disinfect areas – bathrooms, concession stand surfaces and theater seats – much more frequently than usual and post signs when you do. Offer your employees easy access to cleaning supplies, sanitizer, masks and gloves to make them feel as safe as possible while working (and encourage customers to wear masks too). As an added safeguard, implement staff and customer temperature checks before entry as long as COVID-19 persists.

4.    Enhance Your Mobile In-App Experience.

In a new era of social distancing and with technology on your side, now’s the time to enhance your mobile in-app experience. Then when customers return, they can order up their movie experience digitally: make ticket and concession purchases, reserve spaced seats and get showtime updates directly from their phone. Providing as many contactless functions as you can will help customers feel at ease about visiting your location.

5.      Evaluate Your Engagement Strategy.

Go beyond selling gift cards or offering curbside popcorn pickup during COVID-19 by connecting with customers in new imaginative ways. Consider hosting quarantine crew events – offering auditorium space for rent to individuals looking to host their own (socially distanced) party or to churches looking for space to hold weekly services. Or make use of this other unexpected asset, your parking lot. If it’s huge, turn it into a pop-up drive-in. Host your own double-feature movie nights or other community events throughout the summer such as comedy shows and concerts that people can enjoy together from the safety of their own cars. When business is in full swing again after the pandemic eases, offer special movie promotions plus ticket and concession discounts to woo customers back.

COVID-19 may have stolen the magic of the movies for a time, but not for long. Those larger-than-life stories will play out on the big screen and enchant audiences soon if you implement these five ways movie theaters can prepare to reopen: work to discover who your customers are, learn how to best reach them, put safety first, refine your mobile app and be willing to branch out and try new advertising strategies. For more guidance and recommendations on how to weather the pandemic and succeed, contact us. Or to get the latest COVID-19 industry best practices, news and  trends, download our marketing guide to COVID-19 now or sign up to receive our newsletter, delivered right to your inbox.