Beyond Movies: Cinemas benefit from alternative uses

Cinemas Features

On a sunny October day in 1956, the nuns at Holy Rosary School loaded our fourth-grade class on buses. We were driven to downtown Rochester, New York, to the RKO Palace Theatre to see a movie that had been released just a few weeks earlier. It was the Cecil B. De Mille classic The Ten Commandments; the Catholic schools in the local area had purchased all the tickets for a special morning showing.

The movie was almost four hours long. We ate lunch during intermission. 

Today, special screenings are increasingly joined by the use of theatres for other events and activities; they’re hosted by a variety of organizations who rent the theatre—or individual screens—for any number of purposes. Many involve the showing of a movie, but the real attraction is often the capabilities of the space and the amenities theatres offer. In this roundtable, several experts discuss their experiences with alternative uses of the cinema.

Robert Jenkins (National Director, Sales—Studio Events, Studio Movie Grill): Studio Movie Grill has over 300 screens and we do over 2,000 events a year. We have an event almost every day of the week in one or more of our locations. 

Scot Benson (Director, Corporate Sales and Sponsorships, Landmark Cinemas): We’ll do more than a thousand events this year; there’s an event in some theatres across our circuit multiple times a week. And those numbers are growing.

Mark Mazrimas (Marketing Manager, Classic Cinemas): We have 14 theatres, 111 screens, but I don’t know that I could give you a hard number of the events we do, because it depends on how you want to count. For example, is the purchase of tickets for a customer appreciation day a special event?

Ginny Wehrli-Hemmeter (Event Coordinator, Anderson’s Bookshop):All of the events we hold revolve around books—and we do a dozen a year across various venues. Authors come to us when they have a new book out and when their publisher has put them on tour. We use a lot of off-site venues, but [Classic Cinemas’] The Tivoli is our main partner in movie theatres. We’ve worked with them for many, many years. We try to include a movie if we can.

Jenkins: A large majority of our events and activities involve creating special packages around tentpole films. However, we’ve also hosted continuing-education classes; we’re popular as a venue for conferences and seminars; we’ve offered lunch-and-learn, webinars, product launches, as well as hosted cocktail hours, movie premieres, networking events and reunions.

Benson: We have church groups that come in and hold their worship services every Sunday morning. Twenty-five percent of our theatres have church services on Sunday—ranging from one auditorium to all 12 auditoriums in a 12-plex, in some cases.

Mazrimas: We had a wave of customer appreciation events with different dental groups; we had real estate companies, car dealerships. We call ourselves “Your Hometown Theatre,” so doing events and activities with a hometown connection really works for us.

Wehrli-Hemmeter: The Tivoli is a very large theatre, so we use it for our biggest draws—especially those involving any author who has a connection to the entertainment industry. Julie Andrews, John Cleese, stars like that. We just had Dan Brown there in October. He was talking about his latest book Origin, but he’s also the author of The Da Vinci Code, so we showed that movie after his talk.

Benson: Our biggest single venue event was the national tax season kickoff meetings for H&R Block where they had over 300 people in the theatre, but they were live-streaming it to their entire organization—all 4,500 employees—across Canada.

Jenkins: We’ve been able to offer nonprofit events such as fundraisers and educational screenings during less popular times of the week, but we’re also big on game-watching events—and gaming events. We’ve hosted numerous Mindcraft events where guests can play videogames on the big screen. We’ve hosted Wii tournaments with companies who wanted team-building experiences.

Mazrimas: I’ll give you our strangest one: A local funeral home is using us to reach their future customers. Once a month they bring in people and use our party room with coffee and donuts, give them a little message, and then show them a movie. We’ve not allowed any caskets in the lobby—so far. 

Benson: What works well for us is anything that requires a screen to present. We work with anyone who wants to use the unique aspects of the moviegoing experience to present their content in an impactful and memorable way. 

Mazrimas: When you’re like us and you’re small and independent, you can really like these events for the relationships they help you build with other larger organizations and companies.

Jenkins: The events may also bring in guests who may not come to Studio Movie Grill otherwise and they really drive revenue during less popular times. 

Benson: Most of them are done during times when the theatres are dark. It’s an incremental revenue stream for us and our costs to execute are low. It’s another way for us to get the message out about what we’re doing; they help our brand and awareness.

Jenkins: They also add a level of excitement for our teams; their day is more interesting and that makes them happier in their job because they have more variety in what they do.

Benson: The biggest rule for success is to have an in-person meeting for the group to meet the management staff at the theatre, to understand what the space looks like, what the capabilities are, to make sure their laptop works with the theatre system. And that’s also important to us—to make sure our management staff understands exactly what the group’s expectations are and how we can exceed them.

Wehrli-Hemmeter: You have to make sure you’ve got the right-sized crowd for the space. The Tivoli has 1,012 seats and we want to make sure it’s full for the authors. That’s something we think about when we’re deciding whether to use the theatre.

Mazrimas: From the first phone call or e-mail you get asking for the use of space, it’s important to communicate quickly and completely and realistically. Sometimes the person you’re working with has never done something like this and you need to hold their hand and let your confidence and experience rub off on them. You have to put the work in, but the job of handling these events also should be fun.

Wehrli-Hemmeter: We’re working with several people when we plan these events—the staff at The Tivoli, the publisher, the author’s team, and our customers, of course—and sometimes outside promotional groups as well. So there are a lot of players in it. As long as everyone goes home pleased that they’ve had a great experience, we consider it successful.

Jenkins: We position Studio Movie Grill as an exciting alternative to the “bored” room. We communicate via e-mail; we communicate very strongly via our social-media platforms.

Benson: We promote through our own channels—on our website, in the pre-show before movies, and through pamphlets and other physical materials in the theatres. We’ve also done a bit of Google Display Network and Google Search and LinkedIn advertising for these types of events.

Wehrli-Hemmeter: We also always ask the author to share news of the event directly with their fans—especially a celebrity who may not be associated with the book world already. We do press releases and get local coverage in the papers.

Mazrimas: With many of our theatres in downtown areas, we’re active in many of the downtown groups, whether it’s chambers of commerce or other business organizations—whatever provides us an opportunity to get our foot in the door for auditorium rentals.

Jenkins: We want to get our product in front of as many people as we can and so sometimes those opportunities don’t happen unless we work with third-party booking agencies. They help connect the dots for us.

Mazrimas: We’ve done radio and TV in our market; we also use social media, but in today’s world, word of mouth is really important. When someone tells someone about their great experiences, it often leads to more business for us. 

Jenkins: There is actually no event that doesn’t work well for us, but we exist because we’re a successful theatre showing first-run films. We appreciate and honor the relationships we have with the studios. What we have to do is to plan accordingly.

Benson: We generally don’t have problems working things out with the studios or other distributors, because the vast majority of our events are held during non-operating hours. The biggest challenge is a company looking to do something on a Friday or Saturday night—that’s not going to work.

Wehrli-Hemmeter: For us, advance planning is not only helpful, it’s necessary. Having some flexibility is also helpful—not that we always have that luxury. We also try to make sure that the events we host at The Tivoli are not just a “book talk,” they’re something more. This is a special space and we try to match the ambiance of how it feels to be there.

Benson: They’re in a place that’s associated with fun, with happiness. Attendees are comfortable, they’re relaxed, they’re in a good mood and ready to listen and enjoy the experience because they’re at the theatre. So, from a company’s point of view, they’ve got a head start on engaging people’s attention in what they have to say.

Mazrimas: In the digital world, we can provide a really good PowerPoint presentation on a bigger screen than they can find anywhere else. And unlike some hotels, theatres have figured out how to do comfortable HVAC for large groups.

Jenkins: With the pressures that event planners are under today, there is often a need to balance the experience and the cost. We provide a more creative and entertaining experience for a lower-cost investment. And parking is seldom an issue.

Mazrimas: The first time that Julie Andrews was at The Tivoli, she had not done a live event in a while and was very nice but very nervous. We have a mighty Wurlitzer theatre organ there, and while she was waiting in the green room she heard her songs—her music library—being played on the organ for the audience. She felt so comfortable that she not only talked for a long time, she sent us a lovely note telling us what a good time she had.

Wehrli-Hemmeter: We had J.K. Rowling’s very first event in the United States with children—so there are people here who have first-edition signed hardcovers of that “Harry Potter” book when nobody knew who she was at the time. 

Mazrimas: And then, last summer when Dick Van Dyke came, he changed his whole program because he was having such a great time in our venue. When he invited his wife onstage to sing a song, he drove our sound guy nuts. Those are the moments we really cherish—when somebody’s up there, feeding off the audience and having a great time.

Jenkins: What I really like to hear—and what we hear most often from attendees at events is—“I didn’t know that was possible. I didn’t expect to enjoy this meeting so much. That was wonderful.”

Mazrimas: And what’s cooler than having a movie theatre all to themselves? There’s a feeling of being a part of show biz you really can’t get from another venue.

Wehrli-Hemmeter: Nothing feels the same as being in a movie theatre.