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  • Jennifer Kellow-Fiorini

Small chain theaters prove cinema isn't dead

I’ve been talking about this subject since 2014 to virtually anyone who would listen. It has been on my “to do” list of posts for too long. Then a few months ago, while waiting in the doctor’s office, I picked up a copy of Time Magazine and I’d been beat to the punch — well almost. Time Magazine’s article talked about a new kind of theater experience being provided by business models like Alamo Drafthouse and Brooklyn’s own Nitehawk Cinema. They specifically talked about the growth of “dinner and a movie” cinema at a time when your average multiplex is struggling to figure out how to get people through the door in the digital age.

There is still a need for a movie theater experience, but, in my opinion, the larger theaters have missed what that “need” is.

In the fall of 2014, I went with a group of likeminded movie fans to see a double feature at The Alamo Drafthouse in Yonkers, New York. I couldn’t stop talking about the place for weeks. At the time, I was taking an Advertising Promotion 101 course at The Fashion Institute of Technology and, after a night at Alamo Drafthouse, I instinctively knew it had a genius business model on its hands. The Alamo Drafthouse in Yonkers sported a huge theater with a long counter running in front of the seats for dining while watching the movie. You could order bottomless popcorn; food ranging from chicken wings to burgers, sandwiches, and pizza along with sodas, beer, alcoholic mixed drinks, and deserts. They played trailers on 35mm film straight out of my childhood, and everyone was having a great time. If I were to describe its brand, it would be a mash up of videos at home with your friends and an indoor drive-in theater — a very specific kind of American nostalgia, the kind we’ve been missing for at least twenty years. I thought, “this is genius, and, if this little chain play its cards right, it has an extremely successful business model on its hands.”

Last year Vanity Fair ran an article right before the Oscars pointing out the epic downfall of the movie theater experience. It talked about how Hollywood had been in denial over falling numbers the same way the music industry had in the early 2000’s when the Internet and Napster came along throwing the industry into chaotic unknown territory. Hollywood had run into this problem before when television came along and the major studio system crashed and, to some degree, when VCR’s meant watching movies with your friends at home. The article stated that the past few years had seen nearly a 47% drop in theater ticket sales, which must be one of the most significant drops in ticket sales ever.

What both articles failed to grasp is that there is still a need out there for a movie theater experience, but, in my opinion, the larger theaters have missed what that “need” is. Larger chain theaters have added roomy lounge chair seating and more 3D IMAX movies. This approach hasn’t seemed to do enough. Ticket prices are higher; concession prices are higher; and not every movie lends itself to a 3D IMAX experience. If you live in a big city like Manhattan, it costs you nearly fifty dollars to see the new Star Wars film with your significant other. Add in kids and it’s a hefty price tag.

Country Brunchin' - live music, brunch, and a movie at Nitehawk Cinema NYC

Country Brunchin' at Nitehawk Cinema Brooklyn NY

Giallo Fever 2 - Argento goes better with friends! Anthology Film Archives NYC (below)

Giallo Fever 2 at Anthology Film Archives NYC

The Beyond - Live score with composer Fabio Frizzi (below)

The Beyond live score performed by the composer

Business models like Alamo and Nitehawk offer slightly lower ticket prices and reasonable prices for food and drinks. More importantly, they offer a kind of group experience like trivia contests; themed nights; live scores preformed by local bands; special kid-friendly programing; and special guests to liven the crowd while introducing the film. In the four years since I first went to the double feature at Alamo Drafthouse, it has more than doubled the number of theaters it has nation wide; started its own magazine and its own film distribution company. Nitehawk Cinema started as one theater in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, but is now set to open a second theater and have had its annual “short films” featured on streaming channels.

I see marketers as more or less assuming that what we want is MORE tech -

Of course, the new frontier of 3D, VR, and AR is exciting and offers its own unique experience. Look at all the new ways to experience storytelling being offered up at the Tribeca Film Festival this month. I think that marketers should also consider why Stranger Things is perhaps the most successful show of the moment. It specifically taps into a kind of excitement that happens when these characters solve a mystery together the old fashioned way — with paper, hand-drawn maps, Christmas lights, and crayons. I see marketers as more or less assuming that what we want is MORE tech, but the success of business models like Alamo and Nitehawk prove that there is still a need for good old-fashioned human bonding, together, at the movies.

The first night at Alamo Drafthouse in Yonkers NY with friends.

Tannis anyone? Tea before Rosemary's Baby at The Commissary at Metrograph NYC

Tea before seeing Rosemary's Baby at Metrograph

#AlamoDrafthouse #Nitehawkcinema #MetrographNewYorkCity #MovieTheaters #experiential #TimeMagazine #marketing

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