Social cinemas: Facebook and Twitter help independent theatres build community


A Facebook post showing two Belcourt Theatre staff members sporting Much Ado About Nothing t-shirts yielded 111 likes, seven comments and over 5,000 views for the Nashville, Tennessee movie house, compared to an average post’s 1,500 views. On the Facebook page for the Maple Theater in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan, a photo of Faye Dunaway as Joan Crawford with the caption "Happy Mother's Day everyone!" received around 1,200 views, compared to just 150 for a regular post. For independent theatres on social media sites like Facebook and Twitter, this is what success looks like.

Small businesses like movie theatres have long been encouraged to create a social media presence as another way to reach customers. The Belcourt Theatre has been active on social media since the days of MySpace, and now boasts 19,662 “Likes” on its Facebook page and 13,519 followers on Twitter, in addition to its smaller presences on Instagram, FourSquare, and YouTube.

“We realized fairly quickly that, especially for a film house, it solves the major problem,” Stephanie Silverman, executive director of the Belcourt, raves. That problem is getting out last-minute information. “Our monthly newsletter doesn’t have showtimes, and it doesn’t have specifics on day-to-day activities, because things change. It’s a last-minute kind of business. Social media allowed us to communicate with people immediately. It really, honestly, has been the most amazing tool ever for us.”

While Facebook was once heralded as free marketing and advertising, that’s no longer the case. Facebook for Business changed its algorithm a little over a year ago, resulting in a drop in organic reach for many brands. “It was a little heartbreaking, because thousands of people saw a post, then it was 1,500. We definitely saw the organics drop when they changed,” Silverman recalls. Views still spike naturally for a popular post, but Facebook’s tweak also paved the way for businesses to switch to paid promotions of their posts to reach their audience. Jeremy Mills, social media and communications director for The Maple Theater, suspects that an algorithm tags certain posts as promotional, limiting their visibility in hopes to encourage people to advertise. It worked.

“We resisted promoting posts for a long time, but we’ve come around to it,” Silverman says of paid posts, noting that they only ever advertise to people who have already “Liked” the page. “We don’t do it constantly, we do it strategically. At the end of the day it’s advertising and they need to make money and we need to advertise.”

Mills takes a more active approach to Facebook advertising, but that doesn’t mean he has to spend much money. He’ll spend $5 to $15 a week to ensure his Facebook posts get read by more of the 1,748 people who have “Liked” his page. Since the Maple recently changed ownership, he reaches out to an extended network to try to gain “Likes.” Using Facebook’s “pay-per-action” model, he can set a small budget, say $25, which will only be used if someone ends up liking the page. “I find for us, it works better when I do it user action-based,” he says, estimating that the investment usually works out to less than $1 a “Like.”

While Facebook currently dominates social media—both the Maple and the Belcourt have more users on Facebook than anywhere else—Twitter is gaining traction. “The Twitter community grew more slowly,” Silverman notes. “What we’re seeing now is more people getting on to Twitter and exploring it,” which has closed the gap between the theatre’s Facebook likes and Twitter followers.” Currently, the Belcourt’s Twitter audience is two-thirds the size of its Facebook audience, while the Maple’s 772 Twitter followers make it half the size of the theatre’s Facebook following. Silverman describes the typical Twitter user as “someone who has a particular comfort level with technology and the social media landscape,” and she doesn’t “necessarily see it as totally age-based.” With Facebook, each business is its own fiefdom, interacting solely with customers who opted in, but Twitter is much more flat, allowing users, businesses and boldface names to reach out to one another with few obstacles.

Mills has had success using mentions (@ + the user name), which let a user know they have been referenced, often leading to an interaction through a reply or retweet. “When you “@” tag distributors, filmmakers, actors, you’ll find that a lot of them have active PR people or some of them have their own account. They retweet, remessage you. It’s a sharing process. A lot of these companies that don’t have a lot of visibility with the audience themselves, like the distributor, are happy to have those interactions.”

Since most of Twitter’s users also keep their tweets public, while Facebook users are usually private, the site makes it easier to reach out to regular film fans who are active on Twitter. Mills searched for people based nearby who had listed film terms in their tweets and started following them, though he admits it carried the risk of some finding it “creepy when a business followed them out of the blue.” Still, many followed back. He also started interactions with local critics and bloggers. “Following local film fans and bloggers has been a huge help,” he enthuses. One of his biggest successes was when he discovered a group of classic film lovers who watch the Turner Classic Movies network and live-tweeted them with the hashtag #TCMParty.

He first connected with these local classic movie lovers for the Maple’s series “Secret Cinema,” which features a surprise classic. “The TCM Party people were so awesome about tweeting, making blog posts, and telling their friends about it. It really attracted cinephiles,” he recounts. He’s also reached out to these engaged locals to offer them free movie passes or invitations to employee screenings. “If they enjoy the experience they have in your theatre, they’re going to tell people about it, and then your audience is exponentially growing as long as you have these other connections,” Mills explains.

Through Twitter, it’s easy to find groups that will care about a theatre’s upcoming content. “With things like hashtags, we can find a group that has interest in a film of a certain kind, whether it’s an immigrant community or people who love anime,” Silverman says. “We used to develop these labor-intensive e-mail lists, and that was considered great, because it was e-mail, not snail mail. It’s pretty amazing that you can get the word out about a movie within your community through these networks so efficiently. It has been a real game-changer.”

Social media is also about customer service. Tech-savvy unhappy customers can go straight to Facebook, Twitter or Yelp to lodge a complaint against a business. Smart theatres recognize these criticisms for what they are: opportunities to get better and make people happy again. Mills points out a negative Yelp review about noise outside a theatre that made them reassess how their doors were installed. When the Maple reopened after a renovation, Facebook became a place where people voiced their opinions about the facility’s seats, the coffee bar, and the other new features. “If someone was to say, ‘I don’t like how the seat feels,’ it gave us a chance to ask, ‘Do a lot of people feel this way, or do only a couple of people feel this way?’ I really do appreciate the negative feedback. As much as it can seem mean-spirited at times, it does give you a chance to assess if you’re doing things right.”

At the Belcourt, Facebook made them realize that their parking situation, which requires following special instructions to avoid being ticketed, was much trickier than they thought. “The level of confusion with the parking taught us to streamline and to make it as easy for customers as possible.” They also use social media to “give people a heads-up. If we expect crowds, we can say, A) buy your ticket online, and B) get there early. They can check on their phone on the way over,” Silverman explains. Theatre staff also constantly answer questions in the comments section of Facebook, clarifying programming and answering other queries.

Facebook and Twitter can cultivate a sense of community that’s still very much rooted in place. Both the Belcourt and the Maple mention that Facebook posts of new theatre signs generated a huge amount of discussion and interaction. Posts about the theatre itself create a sense of connection and investment in a local theatre. “We put stuff up there about digital conversion issues, just things that are in our world. People are curious about it and it’s been a good way for our audience to understand some of the decisions we’ve been making,” Silverman says. The Belcourt’s social media interactions have made the staff realize they shouldn’t underestimate their audience. “People are paying attention—they’re coming to us, wanting to know when a movie is scheduled before it opens. They come to us with requests about movies that aren’t in the public eye but they want us to play.”

Silverman emphasizes that social media is still part of a larger marketing plan that includes media buys on radio and television. Is it really worth it for theatres to invest their employees’ time in social media? Silverman says yes. “Hands down, we’ve gotten a return on investment for the time we spend.” In the past five years, the Belcourt has gone from selling 30,000 tickets a year to 105,000 tickets annually. Social media has been combined with other initiatives, but she cites Facebook and Twitter as “one of the biggest influences,” allowing them to “quickly inform people, and put emphasis on things we need to put emphasis on.”

As the Maple and Beclourt strive to grow their audiences and engage existing followers, they still have their limits. Tweeting during movies remains strictly prohibited. “We as an institution despise small glowing objects in our theatres,” Silverman admonishes. “We love this stuff, but if they’re at the Belcourt about to watch a movie, they better put it away before they go in the theatre.”