To Text or Not to Text… As exhibitors mull over policy, mobile device use shows potential

Features
Technology

William Shakespeare once penned the immortal words “To be or not to be…” A modern-day question in the theatrical exhibition world is whether to allow moviegoers yet another venue for utilizing their smartphones and other mobile devices (aka “appendages”), at the risk of disturbing their fellow theatre attendees. In other words, “To text or not to text…”

As newly appointed AMC CEO Adam Aron quickly discovered, this is an emotionally charged issue with plenty of passionate opinions on both sides. No sooner had the ink on his company’s proposed Carmike Cinemas takeover bid barely dried (pending successful completion—expected sometime in Q4 of 2016—AMC will leapfrog Regal to become the top global exhibitor by screen count), when Aron opined in an interview that his circuit was “open to considering allowing texting from mobile phones and tablets in its auditoriums.”

Possibilities under evaluation included specific auditorium sections that would allow texting, as well as full theatres that might permit this practice. It was naturally assumed at the time that AMC was seeking to court younger, tech-savvy moviegoing audiences with its pro-texting posture.

Hold the phone, so to speak. Just a few days later, Aron retracted his prior position—some would say “flip-flopped”—and declared that AMC had reconsidered allowing in-theatre texting due to popular demand (aka backlash) from its moviegoing constituents.

In a tip of the cap to modern-day media practices—and perhaps as a concerted effort to reach and appease some of the same Millennials it sought with its initial pro-texting policy—AMC Tweeted the below statement:

NO TEXTING AT AMC. Won't happen. You spoke. We listened. Quickly, that idea has been sent to the cutting room floor.

With in-theatre texting now seemingly shelved at one of the leading global exhibitors, at least for the foreseeable future according to the Twitter post, are mobile devices still important to the fabric of the cinema business? Also, what are some of the in-theatre uses we are seeing for smartphones today, and what might we encounter at the multiplex in the near future?

According to Fandango senior VP Kevin Shepela, his company’s movie mobile ticketing numbers are rising at close to a 50% clip, year-over-year. Traditional box-office ticketing for the same timeframe is up less than 2% during this period, according to Box Office Mojo.  

“More than half of Fandango’s tickets are sold via mobile and our app has been downloaded 54 million times,” stated Shepela. “We also recently rolled out a new mobile ticket at more than 3,000 screens that doesn’t require exhibitors to use barcode scanners. Fans simply redeem their tickets via an unduplicated image on their mobile devices.”  

Here are some other recent examples of how mobile technology is being creatively utilized in the theatrical exhibition world.

*Snapchat, the increasingly popular social platform, recently teamed with Twentieth Century Fox to facilitate advance X-Men Apocalypse ticket purchases directly from the studio’s video ads for the tentpole, which hit theatre screens over Memorial Day weekend. Swiping up at any time during app-based video ads allowed users to purchase theatre tickets from the mobile site of either Fandango or MovieTickets.com.

As a component of the joint promotion, for 24 hours, several days before the theatrical release, domestic Snapchat Lenses users were invited to transform themselves into nine different characters from the sci-fi film.

The app also allowed Snapchatters to send X-Men-related photos and videos to friends, as well as post them to Story timelines. By further engaging with a prequalified audience, Snapchat helped deliver a consumer call-to-action ticket, promoting purchases for Fox’s title and helping drive expectations of a better conversion rate.

*BirdCodes (using QR scanner technology) were added to a wide array of Angry Birds-branded merchandise, in conjunction with the May big-screen release of The Angry Birds Movie (distributed by Columbia Pictures).

In addition to teaming up with leading megabrands such as McDonald’s Happy Meals, Pez candy dispensers and Lego sets, game creator Rovio also embedded a QR code in the film’s closing credits, encouraging smartphone device owners to turn their devices back on in order to unlock a new area of the Angry Birds Action! game. To add further incentive, the code also included an alternative ending to the movie.

While BirdCodes helped enhance the post-feature experience for many, another company has been focusing on making the time spent in the auditorium before the movie starts incrementally more enjoyable for patrons. TimePlay Inc., which boasts 23 issued patents and nearly twice that number pending, is capitalizing on its IP (intellectual property) that covers use of a mobile device with a display screen, allowing cinemagoers to play interactive games on a shared theatre screen. 

According to TimePlay VP of marketing Aaron Silverberg, “Our goal is for the audience to be as excited for the preshow as they are for the movie.” Apparently, it’s working. According to statistics supplied by the company, 95% of TimePlay users arrive early to the theatre to participate. Their organization is also working on several initiatives that transcend beyond gaming, such as:

*Expanding its footprint with exhibitors to deliver a fully interactive preshow where the audience is continually empowered and engaged from end-to-end.

“This includes a mix of different interactive experiences such as games, opinion polls, syncing media on the cinema screen with user devices as well as interactive storytelling where the audience decides what they want to see,” stated Silverberg.

*TimePlay is also collaborating with Hollywood to create an entirely new experience for cinemagoers through interactive trailers.

Sitting in a darkened room full of relative strangers while playing with your mobile device sounds like the definitive solitary activity. But TimePlay is striving to allow individual user participation, in combination with the big screen at the front of the auditorium, bringing audience members together in a unique shared social experience.

In addition to the ubiquitous coming-attraction studio movie trailers, the cinema preshow has also become very important real estate for advertisers, as they seek to push their messages to, and build their brand buzz in front of, a captive audience awaiting the start of the feature film they came to see.

Domestically, there are two clear leaders in this space—National CineMedia (NCM) and Screenvision Media. In aggregate, they cover a footprint of approximately 85% of the 40,000 cinema screens in the U.S. TimePlay is now teaming with both.

*Its alliance with Screenvision Media will enable brands to integrate into Screenvision’s “Front & Center” preshow, with interactive experiences such as branching video and multi-player gaming with leaderboards and prizes. The companies are targeting 1,000 screens rolled out by January 2017.

*At NCM’s fifth-annual upfront event this past May in New York City, CEO Andy England highlighted an impressive statistic about Millennial moviegoing habits, declaring that 358 million tickets had been purchased by that cohort on its screens in 2015. Audience Entertainment and TimePlay are now joining forces with NCM to bring gesture-based and mobile-phone-based interactivity to theatres. Following an initial launch on about 500 screens, they plan to more than double that in the near future, allowing an increasing number of consumers to interact with various brands, live on the big screen.