Theater Owners Worried About Losing Younger, Mobile Generation

The box office may be booming, but the kids are not all right.

That was the takeaway from the kickoff to CinemaCon, the exhibition industry confab that began Monday in Las Vegas.

Disney distribution chief Dave Hollis and Yelmo Cines CEO Fernando Evole tried to accentuate the positive as they rhapsodized about the magic of a shared cinematic experience in their keynote addresses to theater owners as part of CinemaCon’s International Day.

However, they acknowledged that multiplexes are engaged in a tug-of-war for eyeballs with the likes of Facebook, Instagram and YouTube that’s resulting in an aging crop of avid moviegoers. The expiration date on this group of dependable ticket buyers was brought to life by a photo Evole showed depicting a line of cinemagoers dominated by a sea of white-haired senior citizens.

“I don’t see those guys here giving us much revenue in the years to come,” said Evole, who runs a circuit of theater primarily based in Spain.

Hollis was less existential in his remarks, but he did acknowledge the challenges that the movie industry faces by using his three mobile-device loving young children as an example of shifting tastes. The exhibition business and the major studios need to “lean in” to these connected consumers, he said, borrowing a phrase from Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg.

He noted, in addition, that over the last five years, attendance has declined among moviegoers ages 18 through 39.

“It doesn’t take much of a leap to think that the technology advances we’re seeing outside of the theatrical space are some how connected to these trends,” said Hollis.

He took theater owners on a two-decade tour of some of these evolutions, noting that in 1995, VHS was still a thing, Blockbuster a juggernaut and the foreign box office a sliver in the revenues of Hollywood studios. Today, the foreign box office accounts for more than 70% of global ticket sales and a panoply of Internet-enabled devices are changing the way that people watch movies and TV.

The solution is to improve the theatrical experience, both Hollis and Evole argued, by offering souped-up sound, 3D, Imax, more comfortable seating and amenities. Keeping business growing also demands a steady stream of so-called event pictures that push people to leave the comforts of the couch.

Hollis argued that a “mobile device can’t replicate the incredible feeling of seeing ‘Star Wars’ or ‘Avatar’ or ‘The Hunger Games’ on a giant screen.”

Cinema owners and studios must work more collaboratively, he said, to show “there is nothing like going to the movies, there has never been anything like going to the movies. It’s on all of us to keep that a truism.”

He closed his remarks with an image of two hands clasping, a fitting illustration of the theme of CinemaCon — a four-day lovefest between two factions of the entertainment space that often lead with their elbows.

For his part, Evole indicated that theater owners should demonstrate more flexibility on the issue of windowing. That’s historically been a sticking point. Exhibitors have viewed any attempts to reduce the traditional 90-day period between a film’s theatrical premiere and its home entertainment release as a threat to their business.

He suggested embracing different release strategies for different types of films and what he termed “window segmentation.” There may also be more cross-marketing opportunities.

“We can’t change the future and we can’t fight changes,” he said.

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