How to save cinemas: The ten commandments for succeeding in running the big screens home sweet home in the digital age

Switchboard in a cinema in South West Germany. Signs of the ever changing times. Furthermore a good reminder of the fact that theatrical exhibition is a game of technology after all. — The theater I took this foto in, resides a centuries old building in the middle of town and has one screen. Photo by author.

Free from distractions, the black box of a cinema is still the best place to enjoy content of all kinds, to best immerse into the worlds of films, series, games or music. At least, as long as VR hasn’t solved the riddle of its mandatory need for bulky headsets. 
 
 So, in theory, nowadays, in the age of content, owning and running such theaters should be a good business. With auditoriums filled up by cinema enthusiasts as well as gamers and series bingers.* 
 
 In practice, it’s the other way around. Box offices numbers are reported to be down, many theatres lament about their struggles. With the blame for such decline being put on many shoulders**.

Personally, I love going to the movies. But I know, this love is considered an anachronism by a growing number of people these days. 
 
 Whats not liked about todays cinema experience in the circles of these naysayers? Out there you can find a lot of different answers to this question — most of them are only partially right imho. But this is not the place to discuss them all. Nevertheless, overall, I strongly believe its different then what the cinema businesses commonly think it is.
 
 In a nutshell, without anticipation of any of my ten commandments: It’s not the cinema itself what the naysayers dislike. It’s how cinema is presenting itself to them. 
 
 However, so far there are very little signs of self-criticism within the diverse bunch of theater owners and cinema operators. Way too often, those who manage and/or own the real estate do not seem to recognise their own responsibilities in identifying what it takes to win in a marketplace full of growing competition for eyeballs and shifting preferences in consumer spendings on time and money.

So, instead of trailblazing new paths in creating fun and financially attractive experiences, I see a lot of whining about the good old times. I see retreat, misunderstood financial controlling schemes and a whole lot of effort trying to continue doing things in the old ways despite us living in new times. 
 
 Because of all this and due to recent self-experiments in going to the movies, I’m really concerned now about the future of cinemas in our multi-screen-age. More then ever before.
 
 After all, cinemas globally still claim to be the supreme discipline in film exhibition. A status increasingly questioned by all forms and sizes of screens from the living room to devices in everyones pocket. 
 
 Thats why it’s high time to fight back for the cinema world. And it is not and option to do so. It is mandatory. If theatrical wants to have a least a slight chance to survive on a recognisable scale beyond 2025, it needs to get back to basics. Now. 
 
 For those in charge, to execute change successfully, here comes a set of laws, that should be obeyed moving forward.

The ten commandments for succeeding in running the big screens home sweet home in the digital age

1) 
 People show up to enjoy a certain program. That’s the main value proposition. 
 
 2) 
 Top quality in seating, picture and sound isn’t innovation, it’s standard. Spotlessness is a virtue. 
 
 3) 
 As part of the entertainment industry, cinemas offer people time to relax and have a good time. Understand well what this means. 
 
 4) 
 Make sure staff is in high spirits to always welcome every customer showing up.

4a) 
 Never ever hire dull people for anything involving customer interaction,
 
 5) 
 Give every customer at least ten good reasons beyond the program itself to come back soon again. 
 
 6) 
 Cinema as a place is all about community. Your premises have to reflect on that a 100%. 
 
 7) 
 The customer experience doesn’t stop until the customer actually has stepped out of your premises.

8) 
 Use the communication channels of our digital times to build 1000 true fans each for your cinema. Mobile is your friend, not your enemy.
 
 9) 
 Different tastes in programs, different tastes in concessions. It’s not a problem. It’s a chance. 
 
 10) 
 Your audience has a 4-dimensional experience:: Smell, look, touch, emotion. Use this to be a great 5-Star host from a to z. 
 
 10a) 
 God is in the details.

Voila! Excuses for ignorance of any of these ten aspects are not acceptable. As, for a good part of my career so far, I have helped building and running a cinema chain for over a decade myself. I know well about the obstacles and challenges of this business. I know well how stubborn relevant players in the field act. And it is because of that, I’m writing this. I see no way around executing my ten guidelines, if cinemas want to stay relevant in the future as esteemed places of media consumption. 
 
 You want to experience an example of how to do things right? Travel to the US, go to one of the Arclight Cinemas. These people get a lot of things right. Not all of them. But more then most other players in the industry.

I wrote about this connected to some observations around my Berlin Filmfestival 2017 experience already once before. You can find that post here. Turned out, there was so much more need for a more concise plan for change. 
 
 Top off: I will do an extra post to emphasise details on each one of the above commandments over the next couple of months (probably rather: years .-) ) — So, stay tuned.

Please note: My current company generates part of it’s revenue from theatrical releases of films.

*For the sake of focus I do not go into detail here about the enormous scale of opportunity for cinemas in the booming conferences & gatherings & meetings space. So many events are happening these days everywhere. But rarely in cinemas. Spaces that are designed by default to offer great acoustics and views for seated people. — Why?
 
 **Things, some theater owners like to blame: the internet, audiences not interested in “anything”, piracy, the economy, high consumer prices in general, bad deals Hollywood studios force down their throats, bad deals all other film makers force down their throats, bad movies in general, mobile phones, too many Super Hero movies, to many Star Wars movies, people that put their feet on armrests, not enough Harry Potter movies, not enough subsidies from governments / cities / communities etc., TV, Netflix, DVDs, BlueRays, the end of the Lord of the Rings franchise, Roger Moore not being James Bond anymore etc. etc.

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