Most companies can only dream of this kind of word-of-mouth marketing: “Best movie theater ever,” Erica Austin, 24, said to her companion as they passed AMC Courthouse Plaza 8 recently, headed for the Metro. ¶ What sounds like hyperbole has echoed across the Twitterverse and Yelp since the Arlington movie house rolled out renovations in October. The upgrades include extravagantly oversize red chairs that transform into recliners with footrests at the touch of a button. There’s no need to elbow for armrest space, which is more than sufficient. And comfort gets a boost from convenience, especially for the notoriously tardy. Whether buying tickets online or in person, filmgoers select seats ahead of time, rendering needless early arrivals or sprawling jackets across a row for savesies. ¶ While multiplexes across the nation are beginning to unveil similar concepts, the Arlington theater is among the first in the Washington region to invite patrons to lie back and enjoy luxury amenities beyond the feature presentation. The effort seems to indicate that theaters are getting a crash course in marketing after decades of essentially relying on studios to attract customers.
The old business strategy may be endangered. After years of flagging ticket sales, 2012 delivered a much-needed bump, but the 1.3 billion tickets sold last year remains lower than nearly all of the past 15 years (the peak was 2002, with about 1.58 billion tickets sold). Ticket prices have surged to compensate, and sticker shock, paired with technology that makes it easy to watch a movie anywhere at any time, could mean trouble for cinemas. Some theaters appear to be waiting out the slump with fingers crossed for big blockbusters, but others are taking control of their destinies. And the first step is solving a recent predicament: how to get people in the door.
AMC’s strategy is working for D.C. resident Kyle Washington, 21, who rides the Metro from Columbia Heights to Arlington — making the dreaded L’Enfant Plaza Green-to-Orange Line switch — for this particular moviegoing experience. On a recent evening, he came to see “Django Unchained,” but it wasn’t playing, so he bought a ticket for “Zero Dark Thirty” instead.
“I know it sounds ridiculous,” he said of taking the train to Virginia for a movie he didn’t even intend to see. “I like the seating, the chairs, how it lays back, how you can pick your own seats. And they also have the ice machine, the slushy. I like slushies.”
Aside from icy, sugar-laden beverages, there have been noticeably few innovations in the history of movie theaters that weren’t dictated by the revolutionary advancements in filmmaking, such as sound, color and 3-D. For movie houses, the obvious upgrade in recent memory was stadium seating, which exploded in popularity in the late 1990s and has since become a mainstay of modern cineplexes, along with cup holders and chairs that are more comfortable.
Today’s movie theaters can feel indistinguishable: the black plastic of the armrests, the floors that are slightly sticky, fountain sodas in sweaty waxed cups and overpriced popcorn — always overflowing the paper bag — tasting definitively like kernels popped at the cinema and dappled with yellow “butter.”
For years, the industry has been at the whim of the studios. Good movies bring people in and bad movies drive them away, said Randy Greenberg, an entertainment consultant, executive producer of “Cowboys & Aliens” and former senior vice president of theatrical marketing and distribution at Universal Pictures and MGM.
“The distributors market the movies, and you go to the theater,” he said. “AMC doesn’t get you to come see ‘The Dark Knight’; Warner Brothers gets you to come see ‘The Dark Knight,’ anywhere. They don’t care where you go, they just care that you go.”
Before competition from tablets and Netflix streaming, the arrangement worked well. Studios made movies people wanted to see, and unless fans were comfortable waiting a year to see a film, they went to the multiplex. Once AMC, Regal or some other company gets patrons in the door, they have other ways to make money. Although the divvying up of profits can get tricky, generally speaking, box-office returns are split evenly between studios and theaters. Cinemas, meanwhile, get all the cash that comes from pre-show ads and concessions, which explains why a small soda feels like a large investment.
“Historically, it was just popcorn, candy and hot dogs,” said Sam Craig, director of the entertainment, media and technology program at New York University’s Stern School of Business. “And that ended up being very profitable. But so once you’ve done that, how do you take it to the next level?”
There is more urgency than ever to decode that puzzle given a collision of factors.
“First of all, the time between theatrical release and a film being available on video has shrunk,” Craig said. “At one point you’d have to wait nine months or a year, and now it’s, give or take, around four months.”
Some studios are even experimenting with simultaneously releasing movies in theaters and OnDemand. And there are more ways than ever to view a film, and most of them don’t involve shelling out $12 to sit next to a stranger who may or may not take a phone call during the feature presentation.
“As a consumer, you know that in the life cycle of movies that every movie is going to come out on DVD or Blu-ray . . . or it’s going to be on pay cable or you can get it through Netflix and you’ve got your Roku box there or it’s on Crackle or it’s on Hulu or whatever,” Greenberg said. “If you know all these things, then you judge a movie based on the necessity of having to see it immediately.”
Given mediocre ticket sales in recent years, that need appears to be waning, with a few exceptions. When it comes to monster franchises that spawn superfans — the “Harry Potters” and “Hunger Games” — there may always be filmgoers camped out in front of theaters 24 hours before showtime. And the desire to join a conversation about Oscar winners may bump “Argo” up people’s to-see lists. But fans appear willing to wait a few months for the vast majority of movies.
So it may be time once again for movie theaters to innovate.
The question is if amenities are enough to boost attendance. The renovations at AMC Courthouse reduced capacity by 50 to 70 percent in each of the eight auditoriums, according to Ryan Noonan, AMC’s director of public relations. And so far prices haven’t jumped. In fact, $6 tickets for matinees before noon may be among the lowest in the region.
The arrival of assigned seating seems to signal a potential for tiered pricing, having patrons pay more for the best seats in the house. And yet: “There are no plans now, or on the horizon, to charge for different seating in the same auditorium,” Noonan said. “We believe these amenities give every guest a great seat in each auditorium.”
Along with the recliner concept, AMC is testing a dine-in movie with tray tables, meaning “dinner and a movie” under one roof.
Successful innovations should more fully immerse the audience in the film, according to Greenberg, not distract from what’s happening onscreen. Cushy seating could go either way, according to one of AMC Courthouse’s newest fans, Alyssa Apolonio. The Silver Spring resident’s trip to see “The Perks of Being a Wallflower” was a praiseworthy event that she documented on Yelp with pictures and accolades.
There is only one problem.
“I’m not sure I really needed a La-Z-Boy,” she said. “I was thinking, if I’m tired, I’m going to pass out during the movie.”