On a recent weekend, my wife and I drove to the suburbs to see a movie in a new, "premium experience" theater. We sat in balcony seats and as I leaned forward, gazing on the crowd below, a single feature captured my imagination. It wasn't the ornate fixtures or the grand velvet curtain that would soon be pulled back to reveal the big silver screen. It was the vast sea of tiny flickering smartphone screens, glowing like a bioluminescent algae bloom in the darkness below.
Hundreds of people, who had just paid premium prices to sit in front of a screen several stories tall, could not take their eyes off of the tiny screens they held in their hands. A literally larger-than-life story was playing out on a giant screen in front of them yet many of these moviegoers could not take their eyes off their tiny handheld screens. Why? I think it comes down to one thing: control. Think of all the screens in your life. They're everywhere and you control them to varying degrees. As I type this piece, my smartphone, iPad, laptop, iPod, satellite radio, DVR, Netflix Instant (via my Google TV box) and television are all doing pretty much what I tell them. These are my screens. And I am in command of them. I capture and reorder the content I want to my exact specifications. I eliminate anything I don't want - commercials, songs, Andy Rooney on 60 Minutes - and I consume my personally curated content exactly when, where and how I want, and from whatever screen suits my needs at that time and place. I control, order and edit all of the content I consume via all of the screens in my life. Well, almost all of them.
When you buy your ticket and take your seat in a movie theater, you are really sitting in front of the last screen you have absolutely no direct control over. The pre-show commercials, the previews, the movie itself - you get what you're given. Period.
We are increasingly and unconsciously, conditioned by modern digital media to desire only the types of content we can control. And it is our frustration over losing that control that may be killing the movie business. Summer attendance hit a 14-year low in 2010, with only 552 million tickets sold in the U.S., the same year holiday movie attendance dropped to a new 17-year low of 24.2 million tickets sold, according to box-office tracker hollywood.com. Even worse, analysts are predicting ticket sales will continue to drop in 2011. Explanations abound, from rising ticket prices to the inferior quality of films, but I think the reason is much simpler: There's no remote control at the multiplex.
So what can Hollywood do?
Remind Moviegoers Why They're There
Having done numerous brand studies for film exhibitors in the past, I can tell you the word moviegoers most often use when describing their moviegoing experience is "escape." They go to the movies "to escape from it all." They see the movie theater as one of their last sanctuaries, a place where, for 140 minutes or so, there is no laundry to fold, no dishes to do, no lawns to mow. Theaters would do well to remind their patrons that a trip to the movies means an escape from responding to emails, obsessively checking Facebook, tweeting or texting friends. For as much control as we exert over the many small screens in our lives, they also have some control over us, making demands of our time and attention. Watching movies on the big screen can be an antidote to that. We just need a little reminding.
Customize the Experience
Movies can seem like a commodity experience. The film you buy tickets to is exactly the same whether it's playing at AMC or at Regal. The environment the exhibitor creates is what makes all the difference. A theater that allows moviegoers - especially critical younger ones - to customize their experience will win big. Start small. For example, while you're buying your ticket online, enable Web-based voting to pick the previews or other content you want to see. Little things like that could make a big difference by creating a personalized, interactive experience.
Consider Larger Ways to Personalize a Moviegoer's Experience
Theaters could provide free, or low-cost "waiting room suites," where small groups of friends could gather before the feature to select previews or other content of their choosing. Or, how about turning some theaters into a "living room" experience, where small groups of friends can cluster on couches and chairs around a smaller screen, allowing them to watch personalized content, select their own previews, play branded games or even video chat with friends before the movie begins - while still having a communal "big screen" experience."
Projection technology may have changed, but the movie-going experience is still essentially the same as it was 90 years ago. People sit down, face forward, and take what they're given. If Hollywood expects to recover and thrive, it needs to offer people the same control and personalization they expect from the other screens in their lives.