There is a wonderful sequence in the otherwise not-so-wonderful Tomorrowland where Brad Bird’s plucky protagonist Casey (Britt Robertson) goes through a montage of hearing one high school teacher after another explain the various ways the world is falling apart (e.g., global warming, tensions in the Middle East). Undaunted, she optimistically raises her hand at the end to ask her science teacher, “How can we fix it?” As the momentarily dumbfounded teacher fumbles over his words, Casey explains, “Look, I get that things are bad, but what are some of the things people are doing to fix it?”
That is 100% what that movie is about – optimism over pessimism, ultimately to its detriment, but it’s the same type of spirit which led a 17-year-old girl (a real life version of Casey) to win the Google Science Fair with an innovative proposal for a faster test for Ebola. However, for as much as Tomorrowland can be applauded for its positive vibes and inspirational message it was actually part of the negative side of 2015’s box office. It bombed (quite spectacularly, really), and there were quite a few of those last year. 2015 was the highest-grossing year in domestic box office history, but, well, as Fox’ distribution chief told THR, “The takeaway is that we have a record year, but it was concentrated among fewer films. The top 10 films in 2014 represented 24 percent of the pie. The top 10 films this year represent 34 percent.”
Except I’ve kind of already told you all about that. You can read about it here. That’s not what this article is about. There will always be hits, flops and in-betweeners, and in the age of social media word gets out about the really bad movies before the close of their first day in theaters, if not sooner. However, it was more feast or famine than usual last year (We Are Your Friends, In the Heart of the Sea, Victor Frankenstein, Burnt, Our Brand is Crisis being just a few on the famine side). So, now I’m trying to channel Casey’s positive attitude by actually pointing to some ways the film industry will try to do better in 2016 (beyond, you know, making better movies).
1. AMC Movie Pass MoviePass has been around, at least in concept, for a couple of years now, most commonly described as “Netflix for Movie Theaters.” They sell you a monthly subscription (for $30) in exchange for a debit card which grants you unlimited access to theatrical screenings…well, unlimited just as long as we’re only talking about 2D movies and unlimited in the sense that you can only use it to see one movie per day. Still, Netflix for movie theaters. Yay!
AMC Theaters, the second leading theater chain in North America, took MoviePass for a test run in January 2015 in Boston and Denver. It went over so well that MoviePass rapidly expanded throughout the year, adding more and more theaters. By the end of the year, it was available in a flyover state like Kansas, although not all theater workers seem to know about it and will give you a weird look when they see the actual MoviePass MasterCard. I’ve been using my MoviePass to see all of the awards movies over the past couple of weeks, and it’s been great. The average American, on the other hand, only sees 5 movies in theaters a year, with 18-36-year-olds being on the high end (6.3 movies a year) and those in the senior circuit (68+) on the low end (3.8 movies a year). So, this might not be the type of thing which makes sense for everyone, but it is sign of an industry trying to adapt to the times and appealing to the hardcore movie lovers.
2. More Targeted Marketing
Kroger (Dillons), Kohls, and many, many others have those loyalty programs where the more you buy the more discounts you receive. Well, many movie theaters do the same thing. For example, AMC currently offers a slightly more involved program called AMC Stubs whereby for a yearly fee of $12 you get $10 back on every $100 spent on tickets and concessions. You also get free size upgrades on concession purchases, and get to waive online transaction fees for sites like Fandango. However, less than 20% of AMC attendees participate in AMC Stubs.
That’s why AMC plans to more aggressively promote AMC Stubs in 2016 and feature it as a vital component of more targeted marketing efforts. The theater chain’s chief content and programming officer told The Wall Street Journal that they will try harder to support smaller films which don’t come in with the built-in audience of a Star Wars. One example of how they might do that is by offering ticket deals tied to attendance patterns. For example, with this new strategy if you are an AMC Stubs member who saw Get Hard you would have received an email offering some kind of ticket package for Kevin Hart’s next (Ride Along 2) and/or Will Ferrell’s next (Daddy’s Home).
That sounds fine enough…for AMC. It probably won’t do much for the industry as a whole, but it kinda, sorta (not really, but I really wanted to use this quote) gets closer to what IMAX Entertainment’s CEO Greg Foster told THR, “Going to the movies has become all about the social media conversation. Creative remains key, but it’s less about television commercials and more about shaping the social conversation.”
3. Quicker Hooks
There are going to be quicker hooks on lower-performing movies in 2016, just as there was with last year’s insta-flop Jem and the Holograms. That might not actually seem like a good thing because if you are someone who wants to see a movie like Jem and the Holograms you’re going to have a much shorter window to see it in. Theaters are going to turnover those type of underperforming titles faster and faster going forward. However, not only will this limit the number of almost entirely empty theaters playing movies whose box office fates have been sealed it will also kickstart the clock to a home video release thus at least giving a movie a better chance of selling Blu-Rays and digital downloads while people still recall its existence.
4. Diverse, Year-Round Scheduling
Disney was second in market share at the domestic box office last year, and they did so largely through the new normal of banking on tentpoles with built-in audiences. In fact, they only released 11 total movies on the year because as far as Disney is concerned it’s go big or go home.
The other studios would be wise to ignore that model (Disney has everyone beat in terms of controllable, recognizable properties anyway) and instead learn from Universal’s example of perfecting the year-round distribution model, as THR summarized:
While Universal’s Jurassic World was an all-audience tentpole, studio chair Donna Langley crafted a diverse slate of 21 films that clicked with different demos at all times of the year, beginning with Fifty Shades of Grey (females) over Valentine’s Day weekend, Furious 7 (men) in late spring, Minions (families) and Trainwreck (couples) in summer and Straight Outta Compton (urban) in August. Similarly, Universal rolled the dice opening Pitch Perfect 2 opposite Mad Max: Fury Road and crushed it (as well as the wildly inaccurate pre-release surveys predicting an easy win for Mad Max).
So, 2016 is giving us comic book movies in February (Deadpool) and March (Batman v Superman), and awards contenders actually well outside of the Oct-Dec window, like Gavin Hood’s Eye In The Sky (March 11), The Coen Bros. Hail, Caesar! (Feb. 5), Oliver Stone’s Snowden (May 13) and Damien Chazelle’s La La Land (July 15).