Theaters Seek Ways to Build Movie Habit

The lines may be a bit longer tonight and tomorrow at your neighborhood multiplex, the popcorn a bit more in demand. Academy Award nominations usually produce more box-office business, bringing the ticket buyers out, playing on personal guilt that just maybe we’ve missed something. Like a good movie.

The messages hit the public prints Thursday: “Nominated for 12 Academy Awards” . . . “5 Academy Award Nominations,” etc., etc. Columbia, operating on the well-established economic theory that two is better than one, came up with “A Special Double Feature,” pairing its nominees “Misery” and “Postcards From the Edge” at certain blessed arenas. “Edward Scissorhands” refused to be ignored, proclaiming its place in the nominations derby, in this case its single nomination for makeup.

So if you get in line they’ve got you right where they want you.

What we’re witnessing is the traditional early Academy Award messages to sell movie tickets. But a number of other Hollywood social scientists are lusting after audiences by finding them through computer-age methods. For good reason, too. While Hollywood filmmakers ended last year with a rush and a second $5-billion year there were actually fewer ticket buyers out there. Higher prices made up for the missing moviegoers while higher filmmaking costs impacted on bottom lines all over town.


Then there’s the Hollywood domino effect: What’s hot at the box office is often what’s hot at video-store cash registers in rentals and sales.

What’s not so hot stays that way.

In the Depression era, motion-picture theater owners used two gimmicks (marketing is today’s term of endearment) to build audiences. An outdoor sign that claimed “Cooled by Refrigeration” was one method while the other was the institution called “Bank Night,” a form of Bingo with giveaways like dishes and glassware. The gimmicks worked and empty houses filled.

Now consider what’s being hatched elsewhere.


The folks at America Multi-Cinema have been testing a bank-night variation. It resembles the frequent-flyer program. The more tickets you buy, the more punches your membership card takes and the more points you accumulate toward a goal. Slow nights like Tuesdays get you more points than weekend nights. At various levels you might win free popcorn. Soft drinks! Movie souvenirs! At an exalted level, free admissions.

AMC has been flying this idea in several locations across the country and reports good results both from the traditional under-25 crowd as well as the hot new target audience: those mature folks beyond 30. Next month the company plans on going wider with this program, possibly even into the heartland called Hollywood.

One reason for this program is obvious: It builds ticket sales. And since most business is repeat business, the program helps make moviegoing a habit.

To qualify for the AMC program, players first complete an autobiographical form where they reveal not only the traditional age and sex, but also such lifestyle items as education, career, income levels. That information goes into a data bank, enabling the movie marketeers to plan future specific strategies about getting more ticket buyers into line.


Now consider what marketing specialist Joy Scott of Van Nuys hopes to do. Via Demographic Research Co. of Los Angeles she wants data banks to deliver names and addresses of specific sets of people and then go after them through direct marketing, in most cases the mails. Surgical selling, if you will.

The traditional way of marketing a movie is to make it, test it before a sample audience, ask the audience a series of questions and then figure out how to sell it.

Scott and the folks running the DRC data banks hope to put a statistical spin on all that. She plans on first determining who might want to see a particular movie. Then she’d get the computers to crank out names and addresses of those well-defined targets, those demographic look-alikes.

Here’s a fictional way of how that might work using the unreleased fantasy movie “I Was a Robocop for the Royal Canadian Mounties.” Thinking the movie would appeal to science-fiction enthusiasts and/or Canadians and/or horse people and/or law-enforcement members of a certain age, Scott might go to her computer and call up names and addresses of people who subscribe to sci-fi publications or who rent sci-fi videos or who ride horses or who once lived north of the 48th parallel. Specialized, personalized mailings then would go out.


Scott believes that as competition intensifies in the entertainment fields for a shrinking audience--where are the baby boomers of yesteryear?--producers, especially independent film and television executives with limited budgets, will be looking for niche audiences--usually audiences somewhat older than the traditional under-25s, with more spendable income, with more specific interests and backgrounds. And once sold those specialized audiences stay in the data banks to be sold another day, or to be sold the videotape or laser-disc versions later.

The ticket to your next movie may be just a data bank away.

To Ed Mintz of Las Vegas, your next movie ticket just may be a telephone call away, the ubiquitous 900 number. Mintz gained some fame locally a few years back when the Z movie channel existed on local cable. He would do exit polls at movie houses and then announce his CinemaScore: men under 25 gave it a B, women under 25 gave it a C, for example.

He’s doing the same through touch-tone dialing and his CinemaScore Hotline. First he polls a few hundred people in various cities and gets their grades on new movies. The 900 caller then can find out what the under-25s or over-25s or both of them graded five movies in their region. First scores are ready Friday night and refined by Saturday morning.


“People are getting more selective in their movie buying. They don’t want to gamble on bad movies,” he says via telephone. His idea is to provide some direction to movie going so that the potentially satisfied consumer might become a repeat ticket buyer or repeat telephone user. His service also provides a variety of menus. Push a certain button and you get a rundown on scores for movies of the past year. Another button gets you grades on long-running movies. Later this month he hopes to offer information on past Academy Award winners as well as listing upcoming movies so that you can budget your theatergoing several months in advance.

His service costs about the same as a ticket: $1.95 for the first minute, 95 cents for each minute after that. Most calls, he says, average around $5.

He sees the 900 telephone line as a sort of all-inclusive information source on movies. He has deals with USA Today, the Hollywood Reporter and the AMC chain for versions of CinemaScore. It’s all part of what he feels is increased interest in the movies and the desire to make right choices.

Not to worry, though. Somebody out there will help us make those choices. All we’ll have to do is get our cards punched.


Or our buttons pushed.