Movie Theaters Are Trying Everything: Free Tickets, Popcorn, Even the Spa Day Treatment

After two years of preaching the theatrical experience, exhibitors are leaning into old-fashioned promotions dressed up in energy-drink eye masks.

As the Cinépolis cashier explained, this 5:30 p.m. screening in Pico Rivera, California wasn’t just any showtime for “Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness.” She told the family of three that it was part of the chain’s “Self-Care Sunday” series, launched in conjunction with May’s Mental Health Awareness Month: They would be treated to gold-infused under-eye masks, a pre-show breathing exercise, and free popcorn.

“So we each get free popcorn?,” the mom asked with glee.

Cinépolis, which operates 26 theaters in the U.S., is among several circuits that hope launching new promotions and upgrading the theater experience will result in more audiences realizing that they just can’t replicate the in-theater experience at home.

Theater attendance was down 50 percent in 2021 compared to 2019, according to the Motion Picture Association. While Q1 2022 attendance was down only 40 percent compared to Q1 2019, and tentpoles like “Doctor Strange” show audiences are willing to return, there’s still a long way to go.

The bottom line is theaters need butts in seats by any means necessary, whether that means renting out theaters to businesses and government organizations during off-peak hours, live concerts, streamed plays, or competitive videogaming.

“Movie theaters are the perfect venue to put eSports in because they already exist,” said Rick Starr, owner of the East Coast’s four-location CW Theatres chain. “And now — thank you, COVID — we have capacity, right? We didn’t necessarily have capacity in 2019. It would have been a lot harder for us to come up here and say hey, listen, you’ve got 10 screens and they’re all slammed with produce and you’re running movies for sometimes 120 days. Now we have ‘Batman’ at home in six weeks.”

However, most theater owners are still hoping to support their operations in the way that the movie gods intended. For now, that means old-fashioned promotions dressed up in energy-drink eye masks.

Cinépolis Self Care Sundays target afternoon screenings, when the weekend rush slows and there’s often more empty seats, said Annelise Holyoak, the chain’s senior national director of marketing and loyalty. “Our goal is to add value and get people excited about going to the movies again,” she told IndieWire.

Inside the Cinépolis auditorium on May 15, ushers hand-delivered small boxes of popcorn to each person’s plush reclining seat, along with eye masks from beauty brand Grace & Stella and cards advertising mindfulness apps built by PSYT. Before the show began, an on-screen breathing exercise started — punctuated by some giggling teens. “Welcome to Self Care Sunday. You can sit back, relax, and completely let go,” said the voiceover.

Holyoak said the promotion, which runs through June, marks a lot of firsts for the company.

“We’ve always tried to lean into experiential activations, but they’ve been focused on the lobby with photo-ops, fan events, art exhibits,” she said. “We’ve never done anything specifically in the auditorium like this that was a regular thing. We’ve never really pulled in partners before. For movie theater chains, it’s not super-typical to do that.”

Other chains reaching for collaborations include Manhattan’s Angelika Film Center, which in April launched its “Bring a Friend Back to the Movies” promotion in collaboration with Sony Pictures Classics. The deal offered two-for-one tickets to SPC’s “The Duke,” a British dramedy that appeals to the older arthouse audience that’s been slower to return to cinemas.

“This was the first time we’ve collaborated with a distributor really closely on making sure a program like this worked,” Angelika president Ellen Cotter told IndieWire. “I think stepping back, looking at the attendance numbers, it worked. Other distributors are asking about it.”

Cotter said the film was the highest-attended title in the two weeks after it opened at the New York location. And 2.5 weeks into its release, it was the fourth most attended film at that theater in all of 2022.

The promotion was the brainchild of SPC co-president Tom Bernard, a long-time proponent of closer collaborations with theaters. “What we’ve found is that once the older audiences come back to the theater, they continue to come back when they see what they’ve been missing,” he said. “A lot of the audience for specialized films, the older audiences, they had a group of friends they went to the movies with.”

The Angelika also used the occasion to launch its first-ever loyalty program. Free to join, the Angelika Membership lets audiences earn free tickets, popcorn, and half-price tickets on Tuesdays. She said the program should allow the chain to gather valuable data and better market specific films and promotions to people.

“It’s a great way for us to understand our audience even better and make the experience at the movies more interesting to them and more fruitful,” Cotter said. “If you’re going to make the effort to leave, either getting a babysitter, or driving, whatever it is, the experience needs to be one that you remember.”

There’s a theme that connect the Angelika and Cinépolis promotions: Theaters are leaning into selling audiences the idea that the in-theater experience is one they just can’t get at home on the couch. Whether the ability to ignore your phone for two hours, enjoy hot-buttered popcorn, or convene with friends, the theme steers decisions at the biggest chains.

AMC Theatres reported in its quarterly earnings call last week that people are spending more on refreshments — per-patron food and beverage spend last quarter was up 40 percent compared to Q1 2019 — and that they’re more interested in premium-format screenings. Those screenings represented 13 percent of domestic tickets in the first quarter of 2019 compared to 16 percent last quarter.

AMC also announced its largest-scale projector upgrade since the industrywide transition to digital. It will add laser projectors to 3,500 of its auditoriums by 2026.

“With this upgrade, AMC moviegoers can expect improved picture contrast, maximum picture brightness and more vivid color,” CEO Adam Aron said on the earnings call. “In short, a much better viewing experience that will get moviegoers off their couches at home and into our theater.”

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