New Technologies to Unleash Mini-Theatres with On-Demand Movies - ICTA New Technologies to Unleash Mini-Theatres with On-Demand Movies - ICTA

New Technologies to Unleash Mini-Theatres with On-Demand Movies

February 25, 2020

New Technologies to Unleash Mini-Theatres with On-Demand Movies

CelluloidJunkie Executive Editor, J. Sperling Reich, used the talents and insights of Tony Adamson; SVP, Strategic Planning for GDC Technology; Brock Bagby, EVP, B&B Theatres; Theresa English, Principal of TK Architects International and Chris Johnson, CEO, Classic Cinemas, to debate if ‘small is beautiful’ is the next trend in the exhibition industry.

“Multiplexes and megaplex, drive-in and dine-in, all have been phases in the cinema industry” said Adamson, “and in my opinion, the next phase is the mini-theatre.” Why? Millennials prefer to socialize in small groups but don’t like to be part of large crowds, hence the growing popularity of 10 to 40-seat mini-theatres, especially in China and Europe.

These theatres can be luxurious, with recliner seating and dine-in food choices. But they also bring design challenges in building ‘small,’ not like the 500-seat auds that he prefers to see a movie at, cautioned Adamson.

  1. Sperling recounted agreed, based on experience with Australian mini-venues, such as the Kino Cinema in Melbourne, “with a luxury setting that is always packed.” But in China these mini-theatres often occupy renovated retail space.

Adamson maintained that one doesn’t need 50-ft high screens, just 20-25 ft high ones for a mini-theatre and that brings cost savings, along with the benefit of putting the movie-experience into sites that can’t accommodate a huge, 500-seat theatre, as is being discovered in China. And the same could hold true for other countries. “There are stores closing all the time in the USA that could become mini-cinemas, and I would attend a mini-theatre whose 25-ft screen, as Mark Louis of Alamo Drafthouse remarked, is much more impressive than a 65-inch TV screen.

The mindset of exhibitors that favour bigger is better, must change. Mini-theatres are happening, said Adamson.

Revisiting the appeal of repurposing retail to build a mini-theatre, Reich asked Bagby what it would take for his circuit to consider building mini-theatres. “Look at the mass closings of retailers, like Lowes. What would it take for you to consider occupying some of those spaces with minis?”

Bagby cited their Lyric-theatres’ concept as proof that B&B had begun that journey. “We have only 38 seats, all reclining, with private bathroom and private bar, in-seat dining and such, with each Lyric, which is a small, upscale theatre within a larger multiplex. So we’re doing mini-theatres now, and they’re wildly successful.”

Reich put the spotlight on Classic Cinemas’ Johnson, whose business is famous for renovating older theatres and bringing them into the modern, experiential era, by asking if he could announce a mini-theatre expansion at this ICTA session. “For Classic, the emphasis has always been on the moviegoer and for us, the best technology is a dark room, no matter what the size,” mused Johnson.

Bagby interjected that, with the end of the VPN era, he’s not beholden to three or four studios and as VPNs end, this flexibility means that mini-theatres might flourish, since there’s no obligation to play a blockbuster or tent pole movie and draw in hundreds of attendees each night. Reich said that’s where he was headed, that technology is enabling the mini-theatre, since one could never envision this concept using 35mm film format. Still, whether to build a mini-theatre as part of a megaplex or in a retail environment comes down to physical parameters, and Reich asked English which she would prefer to do?

“Well our millennial audiences like smaller spaces; they have to in one way, given the size of their apartments and such, so when they want to get more than 3 or 4 friends together, they want movies ‘on demand’ in an environment that is more like the old theatres you used to find on Main Street USA,” said English. It gives the exhibitor an opportunity to expand one’s circuit in small steps, rather than gamble on building another big multiplex, with large screens, she said. Mini-theatres also fit with “sustainability aims, as it’s a smaller footprint and using existing facilities, even retrofitted, has less of an [environmental] impact than one would with new construction.”

If you’re going into a now-closed retail outlet, what would you need, asked Reich. “Well, you wouldn’t need as large of a structural bay but you would need to solve the projection aspect, and I know there are manufacturers working on smaller projectors” that fit these smaller spaces, said English. Why open up two mega-theatres when you can potentially fit six mini-theatres without moving [support] columns, and “now you’re talking real [cost savings] and larger revenue numbers, and a chance to compete with some competitor down the street.”

So what are the necessary market conditions for a mini-theatre build and operation to work, asked Reich.

“Well, the problem with multiple concepts and multiple sizes is that you have to service everyone of them, so sometimes it’s better to have a single big-screen venue and seven smaller, identical screen and seating auditoriums,” said Bagby. The ease of booking content plays well also to mini-theatres, added Johnson, unless the content provider looks negatively on delivering it up for just 20 seats or so.

Adamson said it’s a booking problem that has been solved, citing GDC’s GoGoCinema on-demand cinema platform and web-based booking app. “With today’s technology, all those functions can be fully automated…so mini-theatres are making a lot of sense today, given that construction costs have gone way down; projection equipment is getting quieter, lighter and less expensive; a better platform for booking shows is available, and all these elements have come together because we’re in a digital world,” noted Adamson.

It’s all about timing, maintained Adamson, who reiterated his belief that the era or phase of the mini-theatre is upon us. English agreed that the digital projector is perfect for mini-theatres, but cautioned that the safety and sightline clearances for laser-illuminated projectors may not make those a good choice for mini-theatres. “And going back to what Brock [Bagby] said, it’s all about walls. If you are working within existing walls in a retail space, a mini-theatre’s costs might be attractive but if you’re building new walls, they might not.”

Adamson maintained that it might be better to have 10 mini-theatres than two huge, PLF theatres for dense urban areas – for example, Chicago – where the movie-going audience is a younger crowd, located perhaps in a downtown office building that might not otherwise be occupied.

But “coming into an office building and putting in 10 theatres” where the costs would be prohibitive to make them into the trendy, luxury gathering places that the millennial crowd likes, “well, I personally don’t’ see it.” But Johnson saw a niche for mini-theatres for after a movie has been played extensively. “Oscar-buzz like Parasite can draw 800 people in my theatre but 20 people missed seeing Joker” and that’s where a mini-theatre would be perfect.

“With reserved seating, having a large lobby simply to accommodate a crowd before seating, makes no sense and in that case, having smaller, mini-theatres where the traffic will be easier in-and-out,” also lobbies for the mini-theatre concept, noted English.

When Reich mused about what it would take to book Netflix’s The Irishman into a 10-seat mini-theatre, for those who hadn’t watched it on their TV screen, and the answer quickly came down to the content provider itself, as noted by Johnson. “You could have a server full of content, and offer pre-bookings, you might be able to do something [with the provider] and I’m sure Tony [Adamson/GDC] would be happy to have that happen.”

Even on a smaller screen for 10 people, it looks better than a TV’s output, but Reich said that digital content kept on a server just required a key to replay, for a movie like Toy Story, that could have a longer appeal, especially in a mini-theatre, for a group.

Adamson noted that, for a movie like the latest Star Wars, there might be a 4-week period after it ends its theatre run when it isn’t available on a streaming platform, and people are booking these smaller theatres in China specifically for it. Themed movies, classical horror for example around Halloween time, will attract people but going back to Asian millennials, their social media like WeChat and WhatsApp make them so connected that, “the number of private bookings [we’re seeing] is phenomenal and it’s not about the price, it’s a simple division of a $500 booking fee by 10 or 20 like-minded friends.”

Another good thing with GoGoCinema is that a small-group booking appears with the selected movie on the exhibitor’s website and people who missed the original run are so happy to see it’s playing again that 20 people could lead to bookings in big-seat auditorium for a reprise, noted Adamson. It becomes a confirmed booking.

Millennials want choice, they want convenience and they want it now, and that goes for movies as well as other entertainment and social consumables. “Some surveys indicate that they don’t want to crowdsource, so they book a private screening or even buy 15 tickets and turn it into a booking,” added Adamson.

Is food and drink de rigueur for the success of luxury mini-theaters, asked an ICTA delegate and the answer was a resounding yes, and in fact B&B’s marketing team is goaled and rewarded on how they can entice the attendee to not just pay for the ticket for a Lyric-mini theatre experience, but also to sell all of the amenities and perks that to come with it. “Millennials will pay for the premium experience, and brag about it, on social, get lots of likes for having had an upscale, mini-theatre experience,” enthused Bagby.

On the other hand, in China, noted Adamson, the food experience is also miniaturized, just like the physical theatre, so vending machines are not considered déclassé; it’s convenience without servers that sells.

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