Tech advancements allowed theaters worldwide to handle unprecedented demand for the MCU climax
How has the movie theater business changed in the last decade? Sure, there’s been streaming, declining ticket sales and a wave of recliners, alcohol and other new offerings to entice customers back to multiplexes. But on opening weekend of “Avengers: Endgame,” all those stormy warnings of industry decline never felt more distant.
In theaters around the world, from rural markets to the biggest cities, screenings for the Marvel Studios blockbuster were selling out just minutes after advance tickets went on sale weeks before release. Hundreds of the largest theaters in the country stayed open around the clock for the whole weekend, and thousands more introduced new screenings once all their available showtimes sold out. And then when those new showtimes sold out, they added even more.
Movie theaters have had to turn on all the concession cashiers and bring all hands on deck for event releases in the past — the 1999 release of “Star Wars: The Phantom Menace” comes to mind — but nothing on the scale seen with the release of “Avengers: Endgame.” That theaters were able to so quickly meet that demand is thanks to several key technological advances and trends that evolved in the last decade:
- Online ticketing: Ryan Noonan, public relations director at AMC Theaters, points to online ticketing as the biggest change the exhibition industry has seen in the last few years. In 2010, AMC estimates that around 5% of tickets sold by the theater chain came from ticketing websites. In 2014, AMC added online ticketing to their own website, and this year, it estimates that more than 50% of ticket sales have come from either their site or third party partners like Fandango or Atom Tickets. “It’s an option that our customers are especially using now, avoiding lines for the box office during the winter months,” Noonan told TheWrap. “Before online ticketing, I’m sure everyone could remember having to wait in long lines going down the sidewalk to get a ticket for a big movie on opening night. Now they can skip the line and we can get them into the theater faster.”
- Reserved seating: With online ticketing came reserved seats, another trend that Noonan says has changed how moviegoers approach getting tickets. “I think that having reserved seats has made going to the movies into something that people plan out in advance more often, much like going to a sports game or a concert,” he said. “We try to accommodate those people who want to plan ahead by giving them the option to order concessions online as well as tickets, and for our theaters that helps reduce congestion when we have high attendance.”
- Showtimes on Google: The high attendance all weekend for “Avengers” required moviegoers to know when new showtimes became available. Thanks to the other big tech advance of the decade — showtimes on Google — that was possible. Gone are the days of checking a newspaper or calling the theater for updated schedules. Now, new showtimes for event releases can be created by theaters and posted for easy access for customers within minutes.
Getting that data from movie theaters to Google is the job of French data company Webedia and their recently rebranded cinema division, The Boxoffice Company. Last month, the two businesses announced that they would work together to create a new, enhanced ticketing system for Google that would allow users to search for a movie and find showtimes, and then guide them to Fandango and other sites where they can buy tickets.
“We work with the studios on all major releases to synchronize when advance tickets go on sale, and then we are connected on a minute-to-minute basis with all the point-of-sale outlets like movie theaters to quickly update when new showtimes are added to the schedule,” The Boxoffice Company CPO Marine Suttle said.
“This technology also helps with targeting specific customers based on the movies they buy tickets for, as theater chains and online ticketers are now using their loyalty programs to guide customers to movies that they may be interested in based on their buying habits,” she added.
Movie theater execs insist that streaming is not an enemy of their industry.
National Association of Theatre Owners president, John Fithian, said as much in his interview with TheWrap last month. But no one can deny that in an age where people can access millions of movies without leaving their couch, the process of going out to a theater can feel like a hassle in comparison. While recliners and the best projection and sound can be nice perks, it will be for naught if an infrequent moviegoer is put off from returning to a theater by a string of inconveniences. Continuing to streamline that experience will be key for theaters moving forward.