In March 2020, during one of my many periods of not knowing how to process the pandemic and Lockdown, nor how the future might look for exhibition, I undertook the research project PRESSING PLAY. You can download the results of that survey here.
With the advent of the second major Lockdown in January 2021, the introduction of the mass vaccination programme and subsequent ‘roadmap to recovery’ the time felt right to return to Pressing Play.
This was a time when the sector was still unsure about its future and was rapidly experiencing major changes. But this time we could perhaps also see a possible conclusion to the pandemic.
PRESSING PLAY (AGAIN) was launched in early February 2021 and remained open until April 2021.
As well as providing an update to the first iteration of the survey, the ambition of this edition was to look into the impact of the changes happening to film distribution.
Pressing Play (Again) covered the areas of:
How we feel future attendance by different audiences may be impacted by COVID-19.
Specific barriers to attendance cinemas might face.
The nature of the messages that cinemas will adopt to encourage audiences back into their screens.
How exhibitors personally feel about attending events.
And what type of activity may be presented as part of reopening strategies.
SELECTED HEADLINE FINDINGS
Over 50% of respondents were confident about returning to their own social lives.
73% of respondents have confidence that audiences will return to cinemas.
Just 3% of respondents were ‘very worried’ about whether audiences will return to cinemas.
Less respondents in 2021 were anxious about the speed that audiences will return to cinemas than in 2020: 40%, compared to 63% a year ago.
48% of respondents anticipate a major impact on cinema attendance by customers aged 65+, compared to 60% a year ago.
Exhibitors remain less anxious about the impact of the pandemic on cinema attendance by younger adults and families, compared to other age groups.
Fear of infection remains the most significant expected barrier to attendance.
60% of respondents understand that changes to customer viewing habits may be a barrier to attendance.
The sector is eager to reopen its doors quickly.
Almost two thirds of exhibitors don’t intend to create an event of their reopening.
52% of exhibitors were concerned about how customer viewing habits have changed.
Lack of relevant content to screen is a concern for 45% of respondents.
71% of respondents will lead their communications with a variation of ‘Our venue is clean and safe’ as a key reopening message, 64% with a message about shared experience, and 50% with one revolving around cinema offering an immersive escape.
The need for audience safety remains paramount, but the value of the cinema experience and our venues’ role in our communities is vital.
Only one third of exhibitors do not feel threatened by new models of film release.
Exhibitors’ programmes may become more specialist or event-based in the months ahead.
As I write it’s been about four weeks since cinema exhibition was upended by the Government’s advice about staying away from public spaces and the subsequent UK-wide Lockdown measures were put in place.
Like many working in exhibition and distribution I have been in shock, and like many I spent the next few days making changes to distribution plans, postponing cinema bookings, talking to clients about suspending exhibition projects and mentally processing the position we suddenly found ourselves in.
As I surfed through the DABDA curve I started to think about what happens next and how we can best emerge from the other side. As a punter who enjoys cinema, arts & culture, bars and restaurants I began to consider which messages might encourage me back into a public life, and what we might need to keep at the forefront of our minds whilst contemplating our reopening plans.
However quickly we come back, on the other side of this closure the world will be a different place for cinema. We will need to have more empathy than ever with our customers in order to ensure that they continue to be our customers.
What messages should we use? What might our programmes look like? How can we reopen safely and reassuringly and also give the celebration of our art form priority?
To try and find some insight into how we may react to this pause I have created Pressing Play, a short snapshot survey for exhibitors. The survey asks questions about reopening plans, expectations of attendance, impact on specific audiences, and more. I’ll be releasing the complete findings after the survey closes on Monday 4th May, but there is already some initial feedback emerging which may help shape our planning and communications going forward.
RETURNING TO OUR SOCIAL SELVES
We are presented right now with an unprecedented playing field in terms of marketing messages, where our aim must be to focus on the very concept of going to the cinema and on resuming our social lives.
This is reflected in the many conversations taking place around possible national/international marketing campaigns by industry bodies to reignite attendance and bring the public back to cinemas with confidence.
As a starting point my survey asks respondents how they themselves feel about going out in public again. Responses have varied wildly, with some people not worried at all and others placing themselves at the very top of the anxiety scale.
The result is that the mean average from a scale of 1-10 is a fairly hopeful 4.8/10, but perhaps a more robust statistic is that that 60% of respondents have rated themselves as a 5/10 or higher on the scale, with 20% as 7.5/10 or higher.
Concern is in abundance, as we should anticipate.
The survey also looks at potential impact on attendance and our expectations of how specific segments of our audiences may react when we are able to reopen. Setting audiences into 5 basic segments – families, young adults, adults aged 30-60, senior citizens aged 60+ and audiences for access programmes – respondents were able to consider the potential behavior of each segment.
Here is a short summary of how we feel attendance may be impacted from initial findings taken at the time of writing:
Won’t change dramatically (up to 5%)
Reduction up to 25%
Heavily impacted (25%+)
Families with children aged under 18
Chosen by 35% of respondents
Adults aged 18-30
Adults aged 30-60
Adults aged 60+
Audiences for access screenings
We can see here that respondents feel fairly confident about younger and older adults and families returning to our cinemas, but less so about adults aged over 60 or audiences for access programmes.
Looking at barriers to attendance in the surveynaturally fear of infection was understandably selected by most respondents (90%), followed by the change to habits caused by the cultural impact of Lockdown (56%) and the results of the public’s engagement with new VOD strategies (50%). Also, 34% of respondents are worried about the nature of content available to screen when cinemas are able to reopen, and 13% see priceas a potential barrier, post-pause.
Pressing Play also addresses communications, specifically what the backbone of our messaging might be.
There are multiple and varying messages emanating from our sector at the moment – watch parties and online events are connecting organisations with their communities whilst their venues are unavailable, many organisations have made requests for public support, and we are seeing venues proactively looking to the future, reflecting on what we are learning right now and beginning to discuss what’s next, visibly planning a way forward in partnership with their communities.
It is the sense of ‘community’ that resonates with many respondents when considering their communications plans.
From initial survey results the strongest marketing message was being able to offer a shared experience once again. This was chosen by 52% of respondents.
50% recognise the significance of identifying cinemas as community hubs;
45% chose a key message being about the cleanliness and safety of the environments we offer;
and the need for the public to support cinemas, and the content of our programmes were each selected by 35% of respondents.
These messages echo Maslow’s Hierarchy Of Needs, a psychology theory which considers levels of human motivation. These levels/needs begin with the baseline of Physiological needs (food, shelter etc), and escalate through Safety, Love/Belonging, Self-esteem and Self-actualisation.
Using Maslow as a reference point, cinema is potentially in a stronger place right now. Following Lockdown we will be able to offer our customers deeper, more magnified versions of pre-Lockdown levels of safety, belonging, self-esteem and self-actualisation.
So what will we actually do when we get the green light to fire up our projectors?
Plans are forming nationwide for reopening parties, seasons, audience votes, free ticket offers and more, but how quickly can we return to business? 58% of us are anxious about the speed customers will return, and only 19% of us are anticipating returning to normal levels of screenings when our doors reopen.
We’ve never been more in need of our customers, and they’ve never been away from us for so long. It is clear that we must make our return to business count.
In coming weeks I would suggest that we begin to ask ourselves the following questions:
How can we mitigate the greater risk that is now temporarily attached to our cinemas – what programming will make going to the pictures ‘worth it’ for our customers and get them out of the house?
We know there’ll be limitations on content available to us for a little while – how do we open our doors to our communities and still have something they want to enjoy on our screens? Recent experiments in China with reopening cinemas with repertory titles didn’t work – might that work in the UK, or could we reactivate different segments of our customers with different types of programming and events?
How can we make the cinema feel like a safe place for them and convey that with confidence?
What will we say, and what visible reassurances might we put in place? Will we temporarily reduce seating capacities, introduce new training programmes for staff and tell them about our new cleaning schedules?
What is your core message to your community when you reopen?
Looking at the messages that emerged above, what might the most powerful marketing messages be for your audiences?
Which of your audience segments might need more careful consideration?
How might you talk to young people, families, or older audiences? What programming and activities will you offer for them?
How can we celebrate our artform with our customers and not to our customers?
Are there ways we can programme with our communities – introducing audience votes or other similar initiatives may give us relevant and dynamic platforms with which to screen older and more readily available titles – and sell some tickets too!
How flexible can we be with ticketing?
Should we change our pricing policies, offer season tickets or look carefully at our refund policies to help alleviate any worries that audiences may have about visiting?
How soon should we – and can we – start?
The world will return quickly and we’ll need to be ready to put our plans in place – whatever they are. It’s paramount that we continue to talk to our customers during this time, keep them at the heart of our plans, and ensure that those plans are transparent.
Should we maintain our new online communities?
Those close links to customers that many of us have nurtured online whilst our doors are closed has been a terrific outcome. Have our watch parties and online events given us a new platform to use in order to keep our conversations going outside of the cinema? Do they add value to our offer and help bring audiences closer to us?
After witnessing the energy of the exhibition sector in recent weeks, and the ways in which organisations have adapted at a time of crisis I’m confident that we’ll bounce back. It might be a slower return to full-time operations than we’d like, and there may be more hardship than we’re comfortable with, but we’re hardwired to want to be together and enjoy social experiences, and in this situation that’s one thing firmly on our side.
The Pressing Play survey is open until Monday 4th May. If you would like to complete it and receive a copy of the results, please visit bit.ly/pressingplayJT
Jonny Tull is an exhibition and distribution consultant.
I’m delighted to be working with Third Films from this autumn providing audience strategy consultancy for their upcoming projects.
It’s a fantastic chance for me to be part of Third’s production process, to learn some new skills and to apply my experience in audience development and programming to a new arena. Really looking forward to it!
Here’s the release:
North East production company Third Films looks to audiences consultant in innovative new approach to development
Production company THIRD FILMS has joined forces with a Newcastle-based audience development consultant to road-test a new approach as it develops its upcoming slate.
With 6 feature films currently in funded development Third, based in Newcastle upon Tyne, has enlisted freelance Newcastle marketing and film programming consultant Jonny Tull to give guidance and advice to the company on audience strategy for its in-development features before they head into production.
Third have produced 8 features since 2008 including the Newcastle-shot and Venice premiering BYPASS, released in 2015, and which starred rising film and TV actor George MacKay (Captain Fantastic, Pride, 11.22.63).
Where most film productions connect with the public much later in the production process, Third’s lead Producer Samm Haillay is keen to challenge this model, hoping to nurture the audience for his projects at the earliest stage of the development process.
“We’re doing this so we deliberately start to think about the people who want to watch our films as early as possible. That’s where Jonny comes in. His experience and understanding of cinema audiences mean he will be a great addition to our team. This is a new way of working for film production and Jonny coming on board as Audience Strategist and working alongside us from the earliest point in the production process will give us a unique insight into how our projects will best connect and resonate with filmgoers.”
Jonny recently left Newcastle’s Tyneside Cinema after 22 years, where he worked in senior audience development and film programming roles. Having embarked on a freelance career he’s now working with clients across the UK. He hopes to draw on his many years of experience for this role:
“I’m delighted to work with Samm and Third Films again. Samm has always been a visionary producer and keen to explore new ways to bring his work to the public. Having only just recently branched out as a freelancer, I was eager for a production project to get my teeth into and this gives me a chance to take my specific experience in working with audiences and place it in a really useful and vital new context.”
We know that how the public chooses how to consume film is changing FAST, so I wrote something for Film Hub North about how knowing the habits of your audience is vital – as is staying true to your organisational aims – take a look here!
Read it here too:
At the recent Independent Cinema Office Screening Days event (at the Phoenix in Leicester, 1-3 July) I was struck by the recurring conversations I was having with colleagues. We talked – over our lunchtime sandwiches, our end of day glasses of wine and our between-film coffees – about the movies we saw: they were ‘festival films’; or we lamented how nobody would come to the tougher titles we had loved; and we relished the dead certs’ considering the joys of a healthy opening weekend.
This isn’t new, and this discussion is one of the many great things I enjoy about attending Screening Days. But whilst I headed home after the event I pondered on how many of the films I’d watched that I would pay to see as a customer. I’ve recently left a venue and I’m now starting out as a freelance consultant, and experiencing Screening Days from my new vantage point made thing feel different…
The more I considered it, the more clearly I could picture the scale of the gulf that needed to be bridged between the customer and the venues screening specialised film. As someone who has had the benefit of a career working across both marketing and programming I’ve always tried to ensure that each element informed the other. Would a film find an audience? Who are that audience? How many of them are there? Will people REALLY pay to see this on a Saturday night? All useful questions to ask when trying to work out your slots, length of run or when forecasting your admissions, and crucial ones when you’re trying to wring the most out of the resource that is the hours in your screens.
As we now all know, we face a challenge in exhibition, and that challenge makes understanding the psychology of our customers all the more important.
Audiences have more choice than ever and their time is precious. As a society we are becoming more comfortable with technology and the quality of content premiering on streaming services is rising and rising. Most importantly, distributors – forever our partners in cinematic matrimony – are now embracing digital platforms more and more, extending their market penetration without our help.
It’s not all doom and gloom though: alongside all this change to life outside of theatrical exhibition, inside our cinemas the situation is brilliant. We develop vivid and diverse projects and programmes, we have a wealth of amazing cinema history to draw on and new film releases remain strong. At Screening Days the quality of the programme was incredible: emotionally resonant, brilliant stories are still being told and our audiences will continue to enjoy them.
But for the collective experience of watching film together I think we’re at a crossroads.
With so much distraction from our artform and the method we use to deliver it, and with so much pressure on time and easy opportunity to engage with screen-based media, the decision to go to the cinema becomes a harder one for our customers. Combine that with escalating ticket prices and audiences start to become more and more risk averse in their choices and the number of visits per person a year will continue to drop. As a customer, whilst it’s a fairly easy call to decide to head out and watch the I, Daniel Blakes, the La La Lands or the Moonlights, the perceived value (time/money/effort) of a cinema visit to see a little-promoted new documentary or relatively obscure and independent foreign language title (and which can be streamed at home for less) can start to diminish if it can be seen for less without the ‘hassle’ of going out. In turn, the impact on venues is to become as equally risk-averse, for example minimizing screenings for challenging films, and taking less leaps of faith on more ‘difficult’ titles.
My Screening Days experience really hammered it home: people are different and have different opinions, needs and desires like any animal. Facing the changes we do, I think we need to consider this to keep pace – by understanding and embracing the psychology and decision-making processes of our customers at a deeper level we will better know our playing field. With that in mind the question of “Will people pay to see this on a Saturday night?” becomes more and more relevant. Consider the entity that is your own audience. How well do you know them? What does your attendance data tell you? What excites them? Do you know what works best on a Saturday night? And at what time?
If you aren’t doing this already, interrogate at your attendance data, research your audience and ask them why they come to your venue, and learn from it.
This is all crucial information to have at hand, but whilst taking stock of the knowledge we have on customers and attendance and using it wisely to inform your marketing and programme strategy is important, we have to remember why we are doing what we do in the first place and not lose focus.
It would be too easy to fall into a trap that only reflected customers’ habits, and into a future that held an unadventurous and ‘safe’ programme. Our sector is responsive. It has moved a great distance in the last twenty years because we have listened to our customers about the experience we offer. We have diversified our income streams and we have altered our buildings, changing them into places to hang out, even when not seeing a movie. And it has worked.
This is positive change, I feel, but the danger inherent is that we could become distracted from the mission, and when the wine list becomes more important than the film schedule we will lose all that is important to us as independent cinemas.
So, whilst we must listen to our customers, learn as much about them as we can and deploy this information well to enhance our business, we must also protect and champion the collective experience we all know and love, continuing to challenge and excite the brave explorers on the fringes of our attendance figures who want more than what’s hurtling through the Oscar corridor. With so many great stories on our screens and so much brilliant film history to work with our venues are monuments to ‘specialness’, and as programmers we exist to guide explorers through that specialness, through amazing storytelling and experiences.
This diversity in our programming, above all, is the mission.
If, in service to this mission, we get the balance right – between insight and instinct, culture and commerce – then we will continue to thrive and inspire.
Cherish our artform.
Champion the collective experience we provide.
Listen to our customers.
Empathise with our customers.
Challenge them to take risks.
Enable them to do so.