Exhibs stir local commotion

Clever theater marketing gives boost to slumping B.O.

Best Overall Promotion and Showmanship: Joseph Girouard, Brenden Modesto 18

Best Use of Media and Events for a Major Release: Dale Hurst, Carmike 9 Theater

Best In-Theater Display for a Major Release: Jodi Pine, Muvico Pointe 21

Best Use of Media and Events for an Independent Film: Richard A. Keenan Jr., Muvico Peabody Place 22

Best In-Theater Display for an Indie Film: Ali Rae Pierce, Regal City Center 12

Best Use of Newspaper: Jason Blowers, Regal Pinnacle 18

Best Internet/Web Promotion: Thad Welch, Drexel Arena Grand Theater

Best Community Event: Summer Honor, Regal Holiday 6

Amid a 9% overall decline in theater attendance, many exhibitors became active participants in their own rescue last year, drumming up high-concept creative campaigns on their own, which sold out shows, and, in some cases, even upped revenue at neighboring theaters.

Of course, exhibs have a long-standing tradition of local promotion. The first theater owners hung one-sheets and scheduled song-and-dance performances before each show. They also gave oodles of audience prizes to ensure attendance.

But during dry spells, managers have traditionally made even more noise locally, notes Mitch Neuhauser, co-managing director of ShoWest.

“It’s the (manager) who’s got to make it a great experience to get people into his theater,” Neuhauser says. “He’s got to run a great place, make people happy and do creative things to get people to his theater instead of someone else’s — and right now, to get them out of their houses and into the seats.”

“The bottom line is that (local) promotions have a significant impact on theater performance,” says Joseph Girouard, exec director of marketing and promotions for Brenden Theaters Corp.

“In one promotion I did, I heard this little kid, unsolicited, say to her mom, ‘I really love this theater, because they give you stuff.’ The kid summed it all up.”

Girouard is one of eight exhibs being feted at ShoWest Wednesday with a Marketing Achievement award, kudos that are handed out jointly by ShoWest and the National Assn. of Theater Owners, with the major studios providing sponsorship.

This year, more than 100 exhibs submitted entries for consideration, with reps from the studios, NATO and ShoWest judging the winners.

Girouard and his team will take the prize for best overall promotion in recognition of the benefit premiere they produced around “Star Wars: Episode III — Revenge of the Sith” in Modesto, Calif., last spring.

The local Modesto 18 — along with other outlets in the six-location, 86-screen Brenden Theaters group — offered patrons light-saber lessons with an actor dressed as series villain Darth Vader; photo ops were also available with bounty-hunter character Boba Fett, among several other “Star Wars”-releated activities.

The Modesto 18, in conjunction with corporate sponsor Pepsi, also created a contest, with a new Hyundai wrapped in an elaborate “Episode III” mural as the prize.

His marketing budget nil, Girouard snagged free radio time in exchange for movie tickets to promote the campaign. The result? Modesto 18 sold out six theaters for “Episode III’s” opening night — and even more telling of the promotion’s effectiveness, it achieved the No. 1 ranking in the Stockton-Modesto market for the film’s entire run, grossing $257,923.

“We sold out so many of our shows, people had no choice but to go to our competition,” Girouard says.

Of course, a good local campaign benefits from a good local hook — Girouard’s was buoyed by the fact that Modesto is “Star Wars” creator George Lucas’ hometown, for example.

For his part, Richard A. Keenan, managing director of the Muvico Peabody Place 22 in Memphis, used the same kind of local connection to promote Memphis-set indie pic “Hustle & Flow.”

A Marketing Achievement winner this year for best use of media and events for an independent film, Keenan’s theater teamed with “Hustle & Flow” helmer Craig Brewer to host a local red-carpet premiere of the pic. The payoff? “Hustle & Flow” generated $75,376 out of the gate for the Peabody Place 22, which was tops in the country for that engagement.

Of course, it took work.

Keenan and Brewer, a Memphis native, began brainstorming the movie’s premiere even before it had distribution. The film’s composer, Scott Bomar, enlisted his local band. Police shut down a state highway. Once Paramount signed on to distribute “Hustle & Flow,” Keenan and Brewer convinced the studio to underwrite accommodations for the film’s attending talent as well as the premeire’s after party.

“Craig Brewer knew what the theater was like, and he really wanted to make this movie big in Memphis,” Keenan explains. “We would meet on Sundays talking about what we could do, how we could blow this thing out.”

Meanwhile, Thad Welch, director of events and sales for the Drexel Arena Grand, an indie theater in Columbus, Ohio, receives the award for best Internet/Web promotion. Welch hosted an ongoing “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” chocolate room in his lobby, complete with chocolate fountain. Local candy shop Pure Imagination donated sugary treats and dressed their owner as Willy Wonka for photo ops.

Welch built a popular Web site as he went, posting pictures of audience members nibbling free chocolates. For “Chocolate Factory,” Welch’s campaign focused on pulling in a family audience, and it worked. The film’s opening weekend generated $20,284 for the Drexel, 37% better than the pic’s national average of $14,690.

“(Exhibs) represent not only their company, but of all the studios and the films that they show,” Neuhauser notes.