The Fourth 'D': Differentiation is the dimension we need


Enough already. I don’t want to see one more article about how 3D is going to transform our industry, how it’s the most significant thing since sound or color. At ShoWest, the topic was so inescapable even my cab driver wanted to talk about it. In fact, I’m so “3D’d out” that I’ve now begun deleting any electronic article I receive with “3D” in the subject line before even opening it (although that probably means I’m missing out on all sorts of juicy stuff about who’s paying for what).

I shouldn’t be surprised. Over the years, our industry has traditionally looked to technological solutions to combat competition for our consumers’ time and money. From sound and color to IMAX and 3D—and everything in between (e.g., CinemaScope, “Sensurround,” Cinerama, etc.)—we have tried to “wow” audiences into theatre seats. To paraphrase Dr. Phil, “How’s that workin’ for us?” You decide: U.S. theatre attendance in 1946 was more than four billion; today we’re hoping to reach 1.5 billion.

You don’t need a psychologist-turned-TV host to tell you that that’s not “a good thing” (No, wait, that’s a different TV host …). It’s especially sobering when you consider that the U.S. population has roughly doubled in that same time period.

Now, to be fair, one could certainly argue that without the many technological advances implemented over the years, theatre attendance would have suffered even more…and you’d probably be right.

But just as with the advent of sound or color imaging, the “next big thing” can always be duplicated, both at your competitor’s theatre and, eventually, at home. Witness the advent of the “megaplex,” featuring stadium seating, wall-to-wall screens, digital sound, cupholder armrests, etc. The first one was built in the United States in 1995 (by AMC), but virtually every theatre built today features these amenities. Yet our industry, notwithstanding the last several months, has seen a steady decline in attendance even as these reimagined movie palaces have proliferated to near- (some would say over-) saturation levels.

So should we “pay no attention to the man behind the curtain,” just put on those oh-so-stylish glasses and enjoy the show?

In a word: “No.” I would submit that if we want to truly reverse this trend, we need to look beyond technology.

While three “D’s” are nice, what we’re really looking for is a fourth, more all-encompassing “D”: differentiation. 3D is just one of many ways for us to differentiate the movie theatre experience from what can happen at home. After all, only a small portion of the encouraging start we’ve had this year (at the time of this writing, box-office revenue is up almost 15%, and attendance is up almost 13%) can be attributed to a 3D film (Monsters vs. Aliens). So let’s not let our fascination with technological solutions overshadow the cheapest, most effective way to differentiate the moviegoing experience: our people.

Walt Disney may have said it best: “You can dream, create, design and build the most wonderful place in the world, but it requires people to make the dream a reality.” While he was referring to his theme parks, Walt’s quote is as applicable to 3D technology as it is to any other improvements we may make to “revolutionize” the movie theatre experience. A 3D film (or any other film) is a product, that is presented (initially, hopefully) at a movie theatre; but it is part of an overall experience that is created by people. The theatre staff and management represent the final step in the process of transforming the “dream” imagined by the filmmaker into a “reality” for our audiences.

The delivery of that overall experience is one of the key factors that can differentiate watching a film—or other content—at a movie theatre from seeing it at home, on a computer, or a mobile device. To be sure, other factors contribute to a film’s success: story, directing, acting, star-power, effects, marketing, etc. Any one of these factors, done poorly, can sink a film; and each one, done well, can work together to create that elusive “secret formula” that makes for a successful theatrical release.

But despite 100 years of experience, those factors remain just that: an elusive secret. Academy-award winning screenwriter, playwright and author William Goldman once famously said about our industry, “Nobody knows anything,” referring to our inability to predict what our audiences will like or not like about a film.

I would contend that that’s true about every factor involved except how they’re treated at the point of delivery.

We may not know how audiences will respond to another “furious” Vin Diesel (which 20-20 hindsight can now answer), but we can be pretty sure about how they will respond to a dirty auditorium, stale popcorn, or a rude usher.

So what’s not a secret is that the finest film in the world can be spoiled by a poor experience at the theatre; it can be similarly enhanced by a good experience. I’m not suggesting that clean facilities, fresh food and friendly staff can overcome a “bad” movie, but they can go a long way toward ensuring that a bad film doesn’t necessarily make for a bad overall experience; and they can make an “adequate” experience into a “magical” one.

Think about what Starbucks has done to the “experience” of getting a cup of coffee. Face it, the coffee at Starbucks is high-quality, but at the end of the day, it’s still just coffee. So why have so many millions of us flocked to their stores over the years, willing to pay more for what used to be a “breakfast beverage” than we would for a good happy-hour martini? Perhaps it’s because of that latest Frappuccino flavor they’ve added? Somehow, I don’t think so.

It’s more likely that we appreciate a good product, delivered by knowledgeable, passionate people in a clean, well-kept environment, that we appreciate the person at the register that smiles, makes eye contact, calls us by name and knows what our “usual” is.

Is 3D the “magic wand” that will “transform” our industry? Could be…at least to some degree—but not without friendly, passionate, well-selected, properly trained people to wave it.

Keith Wiedenkeller welcomes comments or questions via e-mail at