Smart Move: Chris Prichard searches for Santikos cinema intelligence

Cinemas Features

“We have a strong desire to be a data-driven company—using data to make wise business decisions,” says Chris Prichard, director of cinema intelligence at Santikos Entertainment. The San Antonio, Texas-based circuit of eight locations with some 84 screens was subject of back-to-back profiles in the August and September 2016 editions of Film Journal International. Although director of cinema intelligence might very well represent the first position in exhibition to acknowledge the importance of the emerging field, Prichard says data has been part of the decision-making at Santikos Entertainment for quite some time.

“Probably two, three years ago, there was an emphasis on knowing more details to help us make better choices. We started with a small footprint, and tried some things, and it has evolved and grown. We are still actively seeking better tools to give us even better insight into what our guests want, where the guests are, what their preferences are. How to reach out to them with a personalized message that is relevant to them at the time when they want to get it. Cinema intelligence is about trying to really micro-analyze our challenges.”

Prichard goes on to detail how Santikos deployed software on measuring guest satisfaction even before their loyalty program kicked in. “That grew into using mapping demographics, census software to understand where our guests were coming from, along with looking at our credit card data to see…how frequently guests were coming in. It became part of the loyalty program, and working with Vista on points of sale like many exhibitors in North America do, the subsequent partnership with Movio enables us to analyze so much more rich information about our guests.”

“Now, we have a suite of tools that can analyze data, and allows us to answer questions coming out of that data. I feel so much more informed now than ever before,” Prichard notes, making a comparison. “I have been in this industry since 1982, and it has come a long way. The use of our own data today certainly is different from the old days. That was more like ‘How do you think this one is going to do next weekend?’ and ‘Okay, let’s play it.’ The wealth of information is a welcome and fascinating challenge right now.” And somewhat of a culmination point for Prichard, who over the years oversaw operations technology and innovation as well as marketing for Santikos. “The data we pull is relevant to a lot of different areas. The communication of available information to those areas…is not necessarily about me finding out the answers,” he observes. “It is more about me finding a way to get the answers and then making sure that this information is available to the people who do need that information, so that they can use it and make their own decisions.”

With the number of tools at his disposal now, has the sheer amount of data grown exponentially too? “Yes, you can very easily drown in the data, if you were going in looking for the data to tell you something. Without really knowing what you are looking for, you can just get buried in data. It really helps to have a good platform on which to analyze, to know what you are looking for, that brings you results and delivers them in a way that is both consumable and understandable. The last thing I want to do is send enormous spreadsheets full of data to the different departments here at Santikos. It is much easier to give them the tools that they need to answer their own questions.”

How about approaching data from the opposite direction? Let’s assume someone has a question—could you address the data to provide the answer? Could you use data to back up the answer that you may already have or think you have? “With the absence of data, any decision needs to be put on pause,” Prichard cautions. “It is fine to have hunches, but actual data almost always supports the right choice.”

Speaking of hunches and the proverbial gut feeling about a film’s potential, while there will always be “surefire” movies, does Prichard think data can help support more adventurous decisions based on “Well, let’s give this movie a try”? To use an example, is there a way to have predicted that Wonder would develop as wonderfully as it did? “There are both some old techniques and definitely some new data that can foretell how a film is going to do. Social-media tracking and a lot of online tools that allow you to see what the preview views are provide small clues on a film’s performance. I certainly rely upon my sources for forecast data, or for comp [comparison] films; and the results are normally pretty spot-on. [But] every now and then there’s a surprise.” Insidious: The Last Key is one example that opened just before our conversation. “I expected it to do well, but I didn’t expect it to do that well,” Prichard admits. “Even though my forecasting software said Insidious was going to do above what I had it based on with comps and everything else, it still did surprise me.”

Equally surprising, at least to the uninitiated, is the amount of detail to drill down into. Last year, Santikos partnered up with Cinema Intelligence, a division of its point-of-sale provider, Vista Group. Prichard explains, “The Cinema Intelligence platform is referring to my theatre’s data. As I am pulling up comps for a film booked at a specific location in any given week, the software checks the comps’ performance in those locations, not only by the week, certainly, or the day, but by showtime, even by the hour.” In terms of scheduling, Prichard “knows on Monday how a film is basically going to perform at a location, whether it needs one screen, two screens or three. As forecasted data goes in, I can supply the results to theatres and management, to payroll for spending estimates, to accounting for budgeting. Everything sources from there and feeds to a lot of different departments.”

As smarter decision-making will indeed assist in maintaining smooth operations, optimized placement of films also helps the films themselves. How have Santikos’ distribution partners responded? While they obviously develop their own projections—and their very own opinions about how a movie will do—distributors should benefit as well from better insight into Santikos theatres. “The relationship we have with the studios is always give-and-take,” Prichard contends. “We do what we think is best for us, they what is best for the film. And we meet in the middle. It is not they get their way and we get ours. We compromise, and we work to help each other.” With eight locations, Santikos data is very specific. “We know our market, we know our locations, and we use the data to make the best decisions for all of us. I don’t have a hundred locations to juggle and try to make sense of.”

Being focused on one market that the chain has expertly served since the days of the Nickelodeon (Louis Santikos officially founded the company in 1915), does he really need all that data? “Every week,” Prichard responds without hesitation. “Like most theatres or most chains, a certain flow of information starts every Monday as you are choosing the films based on your attendance forecast. You are sharing information with all the different teams involved, so they can order, they can schedule employees, they can stock. It all really starts with the central projected attendance data: Much, much planning for the next week begins based on that.”

With attendance well covered, does data help with ancillary sales as well? Beyond staffing and having plenty of people scheduled to pop all that corn? “That is probably a next frontier for us,” Prichard predicts. “We certainly know averages, we know what to expect, attendance-wise. We can plug those variables in. I think as we evolve the next step will be about this film going in that auditorium, because it offers in-theatre service of food and beverage, and per-caps were raised by two dollars. We track all our sales by person through the loyalty program. Gaining insight into their preferences, we reach out to guests with targeted offers. We are trying to utilize data in every way possible so that we can provide a better experience.”

Prichard believes that the tools at his disposal to make smarter moves on movies are all relevant. “In preparation for the call, I started writing down all the analytics tools that we use. For perspective, we certainly use Movio, Cinema Intelligence. We use our Facebook social analytics, our website Google Analytics, our Visa reporting analytics, our credit card insights, census data, mapping software; and Listen360, a platform we use to gauge guest satisfaction… I was sitting there thinking, ‘Is that all?’ before realizing, ‘Oh, I just named ten.’ And next year, who knows, will there be three or four more of these tools? It is interesting, honestly, how much this has grown so quickly.”

Asked for a personal definition of cinema intelligence as a tool, Pritchard names “the insight that we have now to be able to both maximize our revenue and to create the very best guest experience. All this information ties back to knowing what we should deliver, what the guest expects us to deliver, when to deliver it. Everything becomes apparent: what needs to happen to achieve guest satisfaction, where they expect us to do more. In turn, this insight guides us as we grow and train, get better. Like most companies, we are always trying to improve, grow and just get a better understanding of the information that is available to us.”

While it is “fascinating,” Chris Prichard offers a cautionary note in closing. “You can actually get lost. There is so much information out there that you can figuratively just drown in it. However, data is so very important to moving forward. It is beneficial, by helping you save money, make money, and deliver a better experience to the guests. Managing the data and extracting information takes time and you need to learn a little bit. You need to have the interest and the passion to really chase down the answers. It is fun.”