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Free popcorn. Cheap booze. Private ‘Black Widow’ screenings. How movie theaters are luring fans back

A concession worker scoops up popcorn
Movie theaters are offering discounts on concessions, including popcorn, and special screenings to draw customers back to the big screen.
(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

Cinema Cafe, an independent circuit of dine-in movie theaters on the coast of Virginia, is a country away from the Hollywood premiere of Universal Pictures’ “F9: The Fast Saga.” But the small chain of six movie houses is welcoming the release in its own way — with a car show.

Caitlin Walker, Cinema Cafe’s head of marketing and promotions, said the company has been working with local dealerships and custom auto shops to bring vehicles to their locations to make an event of the blockbuster’s release next weekend.

“We’re trying to give our guests more to look forward to as we celebrate moviegoing,” Walker said.

It’s a small example of a larger push by theater operators, including single-screen arthouses and the biggest international chains, to lure customers back to cinemas as the industry emerges from its long drought.

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Theaters are finally open almost everywhere in the U.S. In California, capacity restrictions are now lifted — a major relief for venues that previously had to limit their seating by at least 50%. After months of uncertainty, studios are sticking to their release plans for big movies, having seen some success with films such as Warner Bros. and Legendary’s “Godzilla vs. Kong” and Paramount’s “A Quiet Place Part II.”

Warner Bros. angered Hollywood with its decision to put movies in theaters and on streaming service HBO Max simultaneously. It now faces a turning point as the studio’s parent company prepares its film strategy for the streaming age. In the background, a new owner: Discovery.

Though the box office has shown signs of life in recent weeks, total sales remain far behind where they were before the pandemic. Last weekend, movies grossed $57 million in the U.S. and Canada, down 58% from the comparable period in 2019, according to Comscore.

“In general, you’re seeing how all the pieces are moving in the right direction to get us to the new normal, though we’re still not there yet,” said Cinepolis USA Chief Executive Luis Olloqui.

Tuesday marks the beginning of Cinema Week, a six-day effort by theater owners representing 30,000 screens in the U.S. and Canada, as well as studios and other companies, to offer food deals, drink specials and advance film screenings. The goal is to help get consumers back in the habit of moviegoing after a year dominated by Netflix and other streamers.

Incentives, which vary by company, include free popcorn, movie poster giveaways and early showings of Questlove’s music documentary “Summer of Soul” and drawings for private screenings of Marvel’s “Black Widow.”

Help from studios and other vendors is crucial for theaters at a time when exhibitors’ marketing budgets are tight and some companies, such as ArcLight Cinemas, have decided to give up.

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ArcLight Cinemas and Pacific Theatres’ parent company has said it will not reopen the theaters after the pandemic. Acquiring the locations could increase AMC’s presence in Los Angeles.

“It’s impactful for the industry to have this rallying point,” said Brandon Jones, a film marketing executive who is one of the coordinators of the campaign. “I think Cinema Week created a lot of momentum and hope that the industry can come to together and champion moviegoing.”

Here’s some of what exhibitors and studios are doing.

Discounts and giveaways

Major chains including Leawood, Kan.-based AMC Entertainment, British-owned Regal and Plano, Texas-based Cinemark will entice moviegoers with deals on popcorn and other concessions. Some circuits are offering additional benefits to members of their loyalty and subscription programs and deals to encourage new signups.

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Mexican-owned Cinepolis, for example, is getting a jump on Cinema Week by offering half-off wine by the glass on Monday. Tuesday features discount tickets for members of the chain’s rewards program as well as $10 margaritas.

Other Cinepolis deals include half-off popcorn and candy on Wednesday, followed by $2-off beers on Thursday. Incentives on other days include double rewards points for members on food entrees (Friday), appetizers and desserts (Saturday) and tickets (Sunday). On Saturday and Sunday, the chain will serve $5 Bloody Marys and mimosas.

Cinemark, the nation’s third largest exhibitor, is hosting $5 screenings of the original 2001 “The Fast and the Furious” at its locations, which include multiple Los Angeles-area theaters.

Members of the chain’s rewards program can enter to win their own screening events, which include a small popcorn and soda for each attendee. Members of Cinemark’s free loyalty program can enter to win a one-month upgrade to its movie subscription program, Movie Club, which includes a free movie credit and 20% off concessions.

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AMC, the world’s largest theater chain, is holding sweepstakes for free tickets and memberships to AMC Stubs A-List, the chain’s monthly subscription service for moviegoers.

Some smaller chains are getting into the deals action as well. Landmark Theatres in Los Angeles (Landmark on Pico, Landmark Westwood and the Nuart) will have drawings for a free season pass, free 25-ticket pack and free theater rental. On Tuesday and Wednesday, Landmark will have discounted pricing on tickets and half-priced concessions.

Film screenings

Studios and distributors including A24, Disney, IFC Films, Lionsgate, Netflix, Paramount, Sony Pictures, United Artists and Universal are supplying theaters with early screenings, sneak peeks of scenes from upcoming movies and other materials to support the back-to-theaters effort.

Cinema Week will hold drawings for five private watch parties for Marvel‘s “Black Widow,” Disney’s “Jungle Cruise” and 20th Century Studios’ “Free Guy.” Searchlight Pictures’ “Summer of Soul,” which premieres in early July, will screen early at theaters in Atlanta, Chicago, Dallas, Detroit and Seattle on Tuesday.

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On Wednesday, IFC Films will showcase “Werewolves Within,” including at Los Angeles theaters; the film releases more broadly June 25. Warner Bros. is giving away private watch parties. Also, Paramount is teaming with theaters to hold double-features of “A Quiet Place” and “A Quiet Place Part II” for the price of one ticket.

At Los Angeles arthouse theaters, the Landmark on Pico will have a sneak peek of “Summer of Soul” on Tuesday for members of the chain’s free loyalty club. The Landmark also has the Wednesday sneak preview of “Werewolves Within.” Los Angeles-based Laemmle will also host “Werewolves” that same day. Many of the screenings are planned for weekdays, when theaters often struggle to fill seats.

Alamo Drafthouse, known for its quirky themed screening programs, is planning its own events, including a showing of a secret movie from the nonprofit American Genre Film Archive.

The chain, based in Austin, Texas, is also launching a Harrison Ford film series to commemorate the anniversary of “Raiders of the Lost Ark” and brunch screenings of “In the Heights” and “The Notebook” to showcase its new menu of breakfast-friendly food items and cocktails. The chain is doing a repeat of its “Dazed and Confused” Zoom-recorded cast reunion, which it first introduced at other locations before its Downtown Los Angeles theater reopened.

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“We’re seeing that people are excited to go back to the theaters anyway, but we just wanted to put our own Alamo flair on it,” said Alamo programming head Kayla Pugh.

In conjunction with Juneteenth, AMC this week announced a series of film screenings, starting Friday, that features movies by Black filmmakers and tells Black stories on the big screen. The AMC program includes “Do the Right Thing,” “Harriet,” “The Water Man,” “Fences,” “Moonlight,” “Barbershop: The Next Cut” and “Love & Basketball.”

Causes

Some return-to-theaters initiatives have a charity component as well.

For example, a portion of revenue from Cinema Week merchandise sold through the initiative’s online store will be donated to a campaign called Big Screens Big Hearts supporting the Will Rogers Pioneers Assistance Fund. The fund, run by nonprofit Will Rogers Motion Picture Pioneers Foundation, provides aid and counseling to theatrical exhibition, distribution and vendor workers dealing with illness, accident or injury. The merch store offers coffee mugs, tote bags, T-shirts and other items.

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Also, Universal, AMC Theatres, Regal, Cinemark, Harkins Theatres and Marcus Theatres are offering free “F9" tickets to hospital workers in certain major U.S. cities, recognizing their contributions to their fight against the coronavirus crisis.

If Cinema Week is successful, Jones said, he hopes it will be the first of many such events promoting moviegoing. “We definitely think this is something the industry could rally around at least once a year,” he said.


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