"Traditionally, theatres have had a bit of a build-it-and-they-will-come mindset, but fortunately AMC realized that approach will no longer suffice," explains John McGuigan, media director of VML Advertising.
"For decades," McGuigan continues, "moviemakers have understood that commercial success is made or lost on the basis of the buzz created for the crucial launch weekend. What many theatre chains still don't realize is that the same logic applies to the emporia showing the movies as well. People have so many choices now that a new theatre needs to promote itself as a brand and as a special destination. The key to doing that is through a strong grand-opening campaign. It's crucial not only that consumers know there's a movie showing, but that they identify with a theatre as a brand, thinking of it as 'my theatre.'"
To accomplish that task AMC chose Kansas City-based VML Inc., an integrated media company owned by WPP Group, as its agency of record, charged both with creating and coordinating promotions for its rapidly expanding "stadium seating" cineplexes and with ramping up the branding and e-commerce capabilities of its Moviewatcher.com website. The challenge, recalls McGuigan, required a multi-tiered online and offline strategy utilizing direct email, print, TV, radio, and Web advertising. "We found the key to integrating media," says McGuigan, "was to leverage AMC's Moviewatcher.com website loyalty program and its national database of movie fans." The Moviewatcher site offers registered members such perks as online purchase of discounted movie tickets, free concessions, sneak previews of forthcoming movies, and industry news, gossip, and chat.
VML saw the website and its database as a critical component in its strategy of launching new theatres in several major metropolitan areas. For its November 2002 opening campaign for The Parks at Arlington 18 theatre in Arlington, Texas, VML sent email promotions to all Moviewatcher.com members in the Dallas-Ft. Worth area, as well as purchasing opt-in email lists from the student population of over 25,000 at the University of Texas-Arlington. In addition the agency distributed fliers and held local events at area high schools and community colleges, publicizing the events by buying spot ads on local radio and TV shows popular with the 18-24 demographic. At each event AMC Moviewatcher.com tables were set up to sign new members up for the loyalty program.
"Nationwide AMC caters to moviegoers of all age groups," McGuigan explains, "but the target market varies from region to region. In Dallas-Ft. Worth we had a very strong base of students as our core market."
The theme of the grand-opening campaign was to catch "Movie Fever." Promotions focused on two benefits: the comfort and luxuriousness of AMC's roomy "stadium seating" and the convenience and rewards of becoming an AMC Moviewatcher.com member.
"We wanted to generate awareness about the theatre," McGuigan recalls, "and to issue a call to action for students to join the loyalty program and purchase advance tickets online." Timing is crucial in building momentum for a grand opening, McGuigan believes. "You need just enough time to build up anticipation and excitement without peaking too soon," he says. "We see two weeks of advance promotion, with the most intense publicity coming over the five days leading up to the opening, as optimal. All of our newspaper, TV, and radio work was unified around the push to generate traffic and sign-ups at the Moviewatcher.com site." To complement the call-to-action promotions, VML also did a Sunday newspaper wrap the week before the opening, providing area newspaper readers with a free AMC bag.
The results of the Arlington opening were certainly impressive. According to VML, more than 8,000 moviegoers showed up the day before the opening to buy tickets in person. Many others also bought advance tickets online. By the time the theatre opened it had already become the third-largest-grossing theatre in the entire Dallas-Ft. Worth area. Once the throngs came in to sample the new theatre, VML redoubled its efforts to capture non-members in its database, featuring special in-theatre promotions for Moviewatcher.com.
Proving that the campaign was not a one-shot fluke, another VML project, the downtown Chicago AMC River East 21, became the largest-grossing theatre in the entire state of Illinois only a few weeks after its November 1, 2002, opening. While VML's integrated media strategy in Chicago followed the same basic outline as the Texas campaign, VML adjusted the media plan slightly to suit the locale.
"In a huge urban downtown market like Chicago," he explains, "we concentrated less on fliers and local events and more on coordinating our email outreach with heavy citywide TV and radio promotions on popular local shows reaching all age segments." While driving consumers to the theatre, the campaign also helped generate tens of thousands of new Moviewatcher.com members, helping to make future emails even more successful.
Though VML's strategy is scalable nationwide, according to McGuigan, knowing each locale intimately is key to national success. "There's no cookie-cutter formula on how we handle each opening," he insists. "VML works very closely for several months ahead of each opening with AMC local market managers. We visit the area and get to know its unique demographic and media mix before we start."
In the Internet-savvy San Francisco Bay area, VML added a stronger online advertising component to accommodate the media habits of young professionals. Focusing on the e-commerce-oriented young professionals, VML supplemented traditional print, radio, and TV promotions with advertising on local news websites and other online cultural and entertainment guides. In targeting its direct email efforts the agency homed in on the 25-44 demo-graphic, particularly those with a history of making regular retail, ticket, restaurant reservation, and other purchases online. The December 2002 opening of the Emeryville Bay Street 16 featured a 24-hour marathon of The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers. Ads were designed both to generate excitement about the opening-day marathon as a big area-wide event and to tout the year-round benefits of Moviewatcher.com membership.
VML sees its first wave of successful launch campaigns as a template for many more in 2003 and beyond. The agency's goal is to sign up 3 million Moviewatcher.com members this year. Once each launch is completed, membership programs become the platform for growth at each location, McGuigan says, allowing the cineplex to form sustainable one-to-one relationships with many of the most avid moviegoers in their region for years to come.
McGuigan believes VML's base in the American heartland gives it an edge over its competitors headquartered on the coasts. "I think an agency like ours which is rooted in Middle America may have a greater sensitivity to local media and its power," he says. "It's really the ability to tune in accurately to regional variations in media that makes the difference between success and failure."