Location, Location, Location: Cinema uses a wide array of tools to build a premium experience

Cinemas Features

Cinema has always used the notion of experience to make it stand out from other ways to consume films, but never before has the cinema exhibitor had so many tools to help build the most powerful, immersive experience for the moviegoer.

We tend to focus on the technology elements, as these are relatively new in cinemas and manufacturers have become very active in developing products to augment the reality of a cinema visit. The technology includes High Frame Rates, High (or extended) Dynamic Range, 4D, laser-illuminated projection, multi-screen formats, wider (or extended) color gamut and immersive sound, but interactive storytelling and Virtual Reality are also on the creative agenda for studios and therefore the cinema space at large. In fact, the first VR cinema recently opened in Amsterdam, making this now an actual reality (excuse the pun).

As cinema enters a new phase of its existence, one based on significantly increasing the experience of the trip, the motivations for visiting the cinema are evolving. Whereas the trip has historically been driven by the film in question or the desire for a social night out, the drivers are becoming more complex, and this is leading to a greater segmentation of the exhibition infrastructure as cinemas find ways to appeal to a broader range of desired experiences, often incorporating new technologies.

Service levels are also a tool in the armoury of exhibitors, from in-theatre dining to waiter service, more comfortable seats, and intimate boutique environments incorporating modern design and furnishings such as leather sofas and expensive decoration. Dine-in cinemas are personified by Alamo Drafthouse in USA, but a number of cinemas (both circuit and boutique) are now trying this out, including U.K.’s Odeon Whiteleys (high-end) and U.S. circuit AMC, to name but two of many. There are different culinary concepts at work, both standard fare or more sophisticated food options, but the idea being tested is really eating while watching a movie. A small U.K. outfit, Feed Me Films, has taken this further by creating a menu to fit in with a film’s narrative, as does Edible Cinema, a U.K.-based venture between Teatime Production and Soho House.

An aspect that is less explored, though, is that of location. Generally, where to put a cinema is an important aspect of its success. However, on this occasion I am not talking about out-of-town or in-town sites, but watching films in an extraordinary location. These can be temporary or permanent, natural or created for the purpose. In the U.K., the past few years has seen the rise of outdoor cinemas and pop-up cinemas based partly on spectacular locations, creating a sub-sector that grossed £10m in 2015: Somerset House has hosted a summer film season for well over a decade, and the British Museum came to it more recently. Outfits like The Luna Cinema and Nomad offer films in parks and stately home gardens and some slightly more quirky ones like a cemetery and a Lido. Other more creative viewing locations include Hot Tub Cinema (what it sounds like), Floating Cinema (a converted canal boat with a small cinema created inside), Rooftop Cinema, Backyard Cinema and even a slate mine showing the horror film The Descent (about a group of people sent down an old mine!).

The location to beat them all is probably Secret Cinema, which isn’t even a location in itself but, at its most creative, converts a site into a version of the chosen film and employs actors to interact with the guests during the visit, which culminates in the viewing of the film that the customer is not told about in advance. The company has put on 55 events over the years (it began in 2005) and has also experimented with music, festivals and nightclubs. Its most recent events have been epic in scale (The Empire Strikes Back and Back to the Future grossed around £10m between them). In March, Secret Cinema staged Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove in an abandoned South London factory with over 35 actors posing as military and non-military personnel, a live jazz band, and a life-size replica of the movie’s famed war room. On a handful of occasions, Secret Cinema has released new films in association with the theatrical distributor as a way to cut through the marketing clutter and effectively become a new premium format.

The majority of these operators work on the margins of the industry, showing older classic films rather than current releases, with the very occasional exception, and they highlight the different consumer dynamics at work. The audience is looking for an experience, social and unique, and it may also be a reaction against the standard cinema auditorium.

Outside of the U.K., though, a new film can be part of the mix: Current big releases are watched on screens in some breathtaking locations. For example, the world’s largest mobile screen (4,800 square feet) is to be found in Dresden, Germany, on the banks of the River Elbe. In Sydney, the iconic Sydney Harbour and Opera House is the backdrop for new releases shown on a giant screen, while in Croatia, the Roman amphitheatre Pula Arena is the venue for current releases under the stars. In Paris, as well as some architecturally spectacular cinemas, there is a floating cinema in an old canal boat (La Peniche), and the Pailleron indoor pool in which the audience sits in a fleet of lifeboats to watch the film. The Olympia Music Hall in France lays out rows of double beds for guests to lie back and take in a new release.

Some of these may fall into the outdoor cinema space, but they share an outstanding or extraordinary backdrop as a way to get the audience to choose their offer over the conventional cinema experience, adding another layer to the segmentation and cinema experience on offer.

The conclusion we can draw is that sometimes the movie is not the driver to a film-watching night out, but rather a catalyst for a wider experience, which is new for the cinema sector. This is not to say films are irrelevant—far from it—but that in some cases the location or concept is everything. Imagine if the industry could use all of these locations and concepts to show new films, under the right security and using the correct technology. Now that would be powerful.

David Hancock is research director, film and cinema, for IHS Technology and the president of the European Digital Cinema Forum. He will present a program entitled “The Experience Side of Cinema” at CinemaCon in Las Vegas on Monday morning, April 11.