Before watching Katniss Everdeen take the Capitol by storm in “The Hunger Games: Mockingjay: Part 1,” movie theater chains are allowing fans to sip on “Mockingjay” cocktails, win prizes and shoot a bow and arrow. It’s only laser tag, but the interactive game available at Alamo Drafthouse locations illustrates the lengths multiplexes are going to differentiate the cinema experience from videogames, TV and VOD.
“We want to make this as special as possible,” said Sarah Pitre, director of programming and promotions at Alamo Drafthouse Cinema. “We’re not just showing a movie. It’s about creating an experience. It’s so easy to stay home and watch films at home, so we want to make sure to go the extra mile.”
Other theater chains are hosting costume contests and serving appetizers inspired by Suzanne Collins’ hit book series. They’re stopping short of gladiatorial matches — for now.
It’s easy to see why theaters are pulling out all the stops. “The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1” is expected to be one of the year’s highest-grossing films and is headed towards an opening weekend between $130 million and $150 million. Sellouts are already being reported in some locations, and Fandango and MovieTickets both say the film is on track to be one of their biggest sellers this year.
“It should be hugely successful,” said Eric Handler, a media analyst with MKM Partners. “I’d be shocked if it does anything less than $150 million.”
Exhibitors are eager to prime the pump. The Alamo Drafthouse, for example, is having archery tag contests in which ticketbuyers will dodge rubber arrows. The theater chain will offer custom “Hunger Games” pins to its customers and special menu items such as chili cheese fries with lamb and beef, as well as tracker jacker venom drinks with vodka, ginger beer and berry liquer that are inspired by the film. When customers receive their checks, they will be adorned with a white rose — a reference to the rose President Coriolanus Snow (Donald Sutherland) wears in his lapel.
Cinepolis is also offering its own “Hunger Games” cocktails called “Mockingjays,” that combine whiskey, lemon juice and sparkling apple cider. Its Rancho Santa Margarita location is going a step further and offering face painting, a costume contest and prizes inspired by the films.
“We always want to get involved in the community and this seemed like a great way to get families to come out and give them something special,” said April Mendoza, marketing director of Cinépolis USA.
“With ‘Hunger Games’ it’s just been an immediate sellout,” she added.
Both independent theaters and national chains such as Regal, Cinemark and AMC are hosting movie marathons timed to “Mockingjay – Part 1’s” Thursday debut. They will show the first two films in the series leading up to the latest adventure.
“It’s a shared experience,” said Steve Bunnell, executive vice president of global content programming at Cinemark. “You laugh, you cry and you’re sitting with like-minded people.”
It’s a strategy that theaters such as the Virginia-based Cinema Cafe employed on the “Twilight” films and the “Harry Potter” movies to great success.
“The turnouts are great and we fill up the biggest houses,” said Michael Ogden, Cinema Cafe’s director of operations. “The movie fans love it…it’s a long day, but we try to break it up by doing raffles and giveaways in between films.”
Like the books that inspired them, “The Hunger Games” films unspool in a dystopian future and follow a group of children forced to play in series of life and death contests. The action elements and bleak setting have helped the films achieve a multi-generational appeal.
“It’s gone from a teen book to something adults love,” said Aaron Matthews, cinema supervisor at the Warwick Place Cinema in Marblehead, Mass. “We have a lot of adults coming in saying they love bringing their kids because it’s one of the highest level books their kids have read.”
Ticket sales for the films are a hot commodity, but adding bells and whistles doesn’t always pay off.
Though opening nights still bring out the fanboys and fangirls, Mittler says the mass shooting in Aurora, Colo. during a midnight showing of the 2012 release “The Dark Knight Rises” impacted the way customers approach openings. People no longer dress up in costumes, he said. In the wake of the killings, during which shooter James Holmes was dressed as the Joker, some chains forbade customers from wearing outfits.
“Opening nights used to be festive but the Colorado fiasco sucked the fun out of some of that,” said Karl Mittler, general manager of Cinema 1 Plus, Washington, Mo. theater.
One theater owner privately griped that movie marathons goosed weekday attendance, but required extending operating hours, which made them a losing proposition economically.
Most chains that are offering “Hunger Games” movie marathons are pleased by the results, but a few, such as Cinema 1 Plus, are discouraged. As of Tuesday morning only eight tickets had been sold to its marathon, and general manager Karl Mittler says he would have expected to have at least 100 spots reserved by now.
The good news for Cinema 1 Plus is that other tickets to other showtimes are going fast.
“There are no sellouts yet, but sales are strong,” said Mittler.
That means the odds are still in “The Hunger Games'” favor.