What are the first things that come to mind when thinking about the benefits of the cinema experience? Most likely it’s something about the big screen, powerful sound system, delicious popcorn, and seeing the newest releases, of course. Even infrequent moviegoers realize that some genres are meant for the cinema, like action and pretty much anything starring Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson.
No matter how big televisions get or how tasty microwave popcorn can be, going to the cinema is a unique experience with several features that cannot be easily recreated in home conditions. Interestingly enough, one of the greatest features of the movie-going experience is often overlooked.
Over the past two years when most of the major studios resorted to placing films originally slated for theaters on streaming services, like Disney’s Soul, Black Widow, and Luca, or released films day-and-date on streaming services, like Warner Bros.’s Wonder Woman 1984 and controversial “Project Popcorn” simultaneous theatrical and streaming release of its entire slate of 2021 films, it seemed that only one person truly understood this unique overlooked experience of going to the cinema: Tom Cruise.
Modern technology has allowed us to stay on top of world news and communicate with others 24/7. This ability to know about an earthquake on the other side of the planet just minutes after it happens can take all of us out of the present moment. Yet being able to video call a friend on another continent may take away your ability to notice what your next-door neighbor has been going through for months. While social media and digital communication apps have enabled us to build online communities, the result is that these technologies may isolate us from our local communities – and this argument was being made long before the pandemic further physically isolated us from others.
Thus, we live in a constant state of awareness, but very little of that focus goes toward the here and the now. Likewise, watching a movie at home rarely means actually paying attention to the movie.
So with so many distractions at home at the tips of our fingers, many are finding it difficult to find time to sit quietly for two hours to look at a huge screen in the company of both their loved ones and strangers. It’s hard to put away your phone, if not for the common social media addiction, then for the fear that you might get an important work email that needs to be responded to immediately.
Going to the cinema is one of the few serene experiences left in everyday life. Sure, watching an action blockbuster may not sound like a serene experience on its noisy surface and may seem to differ little from playing a video game or spending two hours scrolling through Instagram.
But the truth is, meditation (otherwise known as sitting quietly for minutes or hours at a time) as we know it is not the only way to center yourself in the present moment.
This brings us back to Tom Cruise.
While Disney and Warner Bros. pursued streaming strategies for movies originally slated for theatrical release during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, Cruise was one of the lone holdouts with his 30-years-in-the-making sequel, Top Gun: Maverick. As the star and one of the film’s producers, Cruise refused to allow the movie to debut on streaming. He insisted that the movie was an experience made for cinema.
Audiences proved him right. Three months after its release, Top Gun: Maverick has grossed over $1.3 billion worldwide. In several countries, the film was still among the weekly top 10 movies at the box office in mid-August. While Paramount Pictures, which released Top Gun: Maverick, typically puts its theatrical releases on its Paramount+ streaming service 45 days after they open in theaters, Top Gun: Maverick was still playing in thousands of theaters worldwide and nowhere to be seen on Paramount+. Along with 2021's Spider-Man: No Way Home ($1.9 billion gross worldwide), Top Gun: Maverick proved there are millions of people who still want that serene experience.
What it means
Going to the cinema is a way to spend time with your loved ones, and give them your full and undivided attention without actually talking. You get to share an experience, which is often far more valuable than a conversation. Sitting in a dark room leaves no space for disturbances in the form of your phone, chores, work, and a dog that needs a walk.
The cinema-going experience is especially valuable for families. Children need to spend time with their parents without the endless distractions of home, like phones and computers. Even though it’s challenging, it’s also important to make time for your kids and give them your undivided attention without distractions.
Universal Pictures understood the value of the family moviegoing experience. Like Cruise, Universal chose to delay its latest film in its animated Despicable Me franchise, Minions: The Rise of Gru, until July 2022 -- two years after its original July 2020 release date. Bolstered by a brilliant international marketing strategy that included live events across the globe, Minions: The Rise of Gru grossed over $750 million worldwide and has become the biggest hit animated film since the start of the pandemic – and though Universal made the film available for digital download just one month after its release, the film continues to play in thousands of theaters worldwide because families still want that “going out” experience.
How to communicate the solution to your audience
This feature of the cinema-going experience is extremely powerful, though often overlooked. Many people don’t even realize how big of a role it plays in their decision to go to the cinema over pursuing other entertainment options, like eating out or going bowling. The most significant downside of this feature is that it is under-communicated.
At a time when an increasing amount of entertainment content is released through straight-to-streaming services, professionals who work in the entertainment industry need to learn how to communicate the benefits of the cinema-going experience. One way this can be done is by focusing marketing efforts around this feature. For example, cinemas can try to appeal to families by targeting them with ads. Paint the moviegoing experience as an opportunity to bond with a shared experience and spend time together with no distractions.
Another option is offering family movie passes at discounted prices to encourage whole families to visit the cinema. The same goes for snacks! Create a family menu and offer it to everyone (perhaps include a healthier family menu, or a family menu for special dietary needs to give families more options). Show more family-friendly movies and organize events for families that want to relax and unwind together. Working with families in this realm can offer many opportunities.
Considering the movie-going experience is best enjoyed with someone, cinemas use the same tactics to appeal to couples and groups of friends. Including phrases such as “quality time” in marketing campaigns will make parents remember that their children can never focus at home as well as in the cinema. Instead of online shopping, cooking dinner, and listening to Spider-Man in the background, invite your guests to actually watch the movie.
Of course, that someone you are enjoying the communal cinema-going experience with might actually be a room full of strangers. Going to see a movie by yourself can offer that same peace of mind and meditative quality to an individual. In fact, a parent might go to a cinema to see a film not appropriate for younger audiences as a means to have some alone time. So while appealing to families is important, keep in mind that there are many other types of movie-goers, too (so don’t neglect those adult audiences!)
Rethinking the Strategic Value of Cinema
All kidding aside, Tom Cruise isn’t the only individual to understand this experience. But Top Gun: Maverick and Minions: The Rise of Gru are two of several major films that are bringing audiences back to cinemas. And their success – and struggles with subscription rates and quality content faced by streaming services – are causing studios to rethink their streaming release strategies.
With both studios and families prioritizing cinema-going again, there’s no better time than now for cinemas to also rethink their own communication strategies to make sure that they are appealing to families in their local communities, too. After all, the popcorn simply doesn’t taste as good at home, does it?