Social media-savvy: Theatre circuits utilize new technology to enhance old-fashioned customer service

“Our rule of thumb tends to be: Would we watch it? Would we click on it? Would we like it? Would we share it? And so we try and stay relevant,” says AMC Theatres VP of guest and digital marketing Brent Cooke, offering a succinct explanation for his company’s approach to social media. Recently, the conversion of film to digital projection has roundly dominated the conversation among film exhibitors, from large chains such as AMC down to the most niche art-house locations. Those who go in for the business of movie-theatre marketing, however, have been well aware of emerging technologies, and their implications for audience engagement, for years. Cooke calls social media “tremendously” important.

“I kind of look at it through the lens of, if we turned it off, we think it would have a material effect on our business. An adverse effect on our business.”

Living as we do in an age of increasing digital dependence, the need to keep abreast of tech advancements and “stay relevant” seems self-evident. But how do movie theatres, which compete against one another in addition to Internet streaming services and Video on Demand, achieve and maintain this relevance? If no one has a secret recipe for social-media success, three chains—AMC, Cineplex and Main Street Theatres—are nonetheless doing something right.

One of AMC’s competitors in the Midwest, Main Street Theatres boasts over 11k likes on the Facebook page for its Aksarben Cinema location alone, the largest of its eight theatres in Iowa and Nebraska. The Aksarben has a healthy Twitter presence as well, with over 1,000 followers. While such figures may pale in comparison with those AMC and Cineplex regularly pull in, considering the by-the-bootstraps success of this small family-owned business, its growing online fan base is a significant achievement—one that has and continues to reap tangible benefits.

Andrea Barstow is the marketing director for Main Street Theatres, the voice of its social-media accounts, and daughter of Bill Barstow, the company’s founder. In 1988, the latter “was in the process of getting out [of the military],” recounts Barstow, when “he put his down payment for a small one-screen theatre in the town south of Omaha, about 7,000 people, on his credit card... It was just kind of a crazy story, starting from this one-screen small-town theatre, on a credit card, to, we now have a fourteen-plex, we have a ten-plex” among their locations. “It’s me and my parents. We’re a very small staff… It’s very much in the family, and people like that here in Omaha.”

Barstow attributes Main Street Theatres’ success to the personal connection the people of Omaha and its surrounding areas feel with her family’s chain, perhaps because the Barstow clan places a premium on serving the community. “In the three years we’ve been open [at the Aksarben location], we’ve raised $61,000 at our box office asking for donations. We have a nonprofit of the month, and we keep it to really local nonprofits.” Barstow muses, “I mean, that’s a crazy amount of money.”

When asked if she believes her social-media marketing had a hand in prompting such generosity, Barstow doesn’t hesitate. “Absolutely. ‘Cause I think people are able to see us for who we are.”

It can be difficult for companies to draw a correlation between social engagement and fiscal returns of the kind Barstow was able to so easily tally. And yet, not only have she and her family experienced the benefits of an active online presence through the success of their charitable endeavors, but, in at least one instance, Barstow’s focus on social media has helped bolster the profile of the company itself.

“We do a lot of one-night special events for different community groups. And we did one for Red Tails, part of the Omaha city celebration for Martin Luther King week [in 2012]. We had three or four surviving Tuskegee airmen that lived in the area. We were able to bring them in,” recalls Barstow. “Within a week turnaround, we had 400 people show up. We had these sweet old men come through, we had replicas of planes, and high-profile Omaha city officials. It was just the coolest thing that came together in a week, promoted solely on social media… It was a very organic social-media campaign to get people here, and it was amazing.”

Of course, as each theatre’s representative is quick to point out, social media is best utilized as a medium for mutual communication. Barstow tries to listen to patrons as actively as she tries to promote events, like the aforementioned Red Tails special, to them. In fact, one of the chain’s upcoming initiatives was inspired by a comment she received on Facebook. “We had a mom in one of our small towns tell us that she would love to bring her autistic son to the movies,” says Barstow. This woman wanted to know if Main Street Theatres offered a sensory-friendly film series. (“The sound will be turned down a little bit, the lights will be turned up a little bit, and it’s just a more welcoming environment for these families,” says Barstow of the sensory-friendly experience.)  Barstow admits, “I didn’t know something like this was needed.” Now, however, thanks to one fan’s social-media outreach, Main Street Theatres is preparing its debut sensory-friendly film series at its three largest locations. (The program’s first movie screened in mid-February.)  Says Barstow, “The community part of my job is probably my absolute favorite.”

Cooke also references AMC’s pioneering sensory-friendly film series as a contributing factor to his social-media enjoyment. AMC’s SFFS is several years old and is, judging by the comments Cooke receives via Facebook and Twitter, an enduringly popular offering. “Almost every time we run it, we get feedback of some kind from parents saying, ‘I was in tears at the sensory-friendly program. We took our son or our daughter for the first time and it was so great to have the whole family there for a movie.’”

As befits a national chain, AMC Theatres has over 4.4 million likes on Facebook, 229k Twitter followers (of its main account, @AMCTheatres; the company can claim an additional 15.8k fans of its second handle, @AMCMovieNews) and over 136k subscribers to its YouTube channel, where it streams a movie talk show. On a Friday afternoon circa 2 p.m., 1,763 people were watching AMC’s Movie Talk, a program that asks viewers to submit their questions on the latest casting news, film rumors and other Hollywood highlights, and then answers quite a few of them live on-air.

The program’s emphasis on digital engagement as an ongoing discussion happens to be Cooke’s favorite part of heading AMC’s social-media accounts as well. “It’s the connection with guests,” he explains. “The reason we’ve been so active in the social space is because it allows us to really have a dialogue with our guests. It’s not a push type of message, it’s very interactive.” Not to mention, “This is a fun category.”

AMC certainly appears to have fun on its Facebook page, where the brand voice Cooke strives to maintain is irreverently, often comically evident. For example, Cooke and his team recently posted a picture of famous cartoon characters in silhouette, with the caption, “Can you name them all?” Looking, perhaps, to catch the theatre out, one commentator replied, “The real question is, CAN YOU AMC?” Sure enough, within several hours AMC had accepted its patron’s challenge and named each beloved cartoon, from old-school Felix the Cat to Spongebob Squarepants. Many other fans were moved to voice their appreciation of the theatre’s sporting spirit: “Touché AMC,” as someone commented, aptly characterizes the general sentiment. One imagines such fun interactions only help AMC gain fans—and, ideally, helps convert these fans into guests.

“Guests” is the phrase of choice for Cineplex when it comes to the company’s audience, social-media followers and in-theatre patrons alike. Cineplex has a little over 329k Facebook fans and 77.5k Twitter followers. Mike Langdon, director of communications, emphasizes the importance of “two-way communication” on both Facebook and Twitter, using terms such as “conversational” and “organic” to describe Cineplex’s social-media strategy. “Social media is critically important,” Langdon says, “providing an unmatched channel to engage directly with Canadian movie-lovers anytime, anywhere.”

Of course, it would be disingenuous, not to mention inaccurate, to characterize all movie theatres’ social-media experiences as light, easy and as fun as an episode of, well, “Spongebob Squarepants.” Barstow cites “having a thick skin” as one of the more difficult aspects of being so heavily involved with social media. “People are getting a little out there with their opinions and how things are done. I used to get really worked up on the inside when people would write something negative,” she says, such as when someone would “bring up stuff about our competitors.”

Barstow reflects, “I think a lot of it too is we’re a family-owned business, this is our family’s livelihood and it’s been that way since I was four. We take it very personally.” Over the years, she’s learned to let the inevitable negativity of an open forum affect her less and less. But still: “Especially as social media grows, people think, I mean, they demand that their opinions be heard. And sometimes it’s justified, but sometimes—I’m sorry, things are getting a little wild out there.”

Which, unfortunately, is often the case among industries that turn upon questions of customer service. Previously, difficult personalities necessarily made themselves felt in-person, or at least, over the phone. But at the end of the day each fan, follower, like, share, subscriber, et. al, is a potential customer—to which social media has merely expanded the means of catering. Maintaining professionalism, relevance and novelty within such a large and amorphous space is a difficult balancing act, but much like the typical disgruntled patron, there are some things that transcend technology. Some things will simply never change.

How, for instance, does Cooke promote an AMC event? His response sounds much the same as one would have expected to hear 10, 20, even 90 years ago, when the chain opened its first set of doors. It’s practically archaic—or rather, ageless. “We’ll remind them that if they don’t have any plans this weekend, we’d love to see them."