EXCLUSIVE: Chaotic times call for creative measures, and in the midst of a box office that’s been greatly impacted by the pandemic, not to mention the lack of major studio tentpoles, exhibition is thinking outside of the box to restore moviegoer confidence and encourage their return to the cinema.
In a few words: Private watch parties.
It’s another option that exhibitors like Cinemark have been offering moviegoers: The opportunity to privately rent a movie theater and watch it with a group of those individuals you’re comfortable with (~20 people) for the price of $99 for a catalog movie showtime upward to $150 for a new wide release.
To say that the offering is popular is an understatement. Since launching the concept at their Dallas theaters, and expanding the concept nationwide including multiplexes in Dayton, OH and in Oxnard, Ventura, and Huntington Beach CA locales, sources tell us that Cinemark has sold well north of 22K watch parties, largely boosted by Christopher Nolan’s Warner Bros. thriller noir feature Tenet. This past weekend, Cinemark’s Lincoln Square 22 in Seattle, WA, and Redwood 20 in the San Francisco DMA respectively ranked as the No. 2 and No. 10 highest grossing location for Tenet which overall took in $1.6M in its eighth weekend, clicking past $50M stateside.
This month, Cinemark is offering up popular Halloween title watch parties for Beetlejuice, Halloween and Hocus Pocus among many others. While individual ticket sales are still leading at the average Cinemark location, watch parties have become an ideal supplement repping around just under a third of business attracting an array of demos from families, to little leagues to couples looking to double or quadrupole date with friends.
“Clearly, there is a significant portion of the population that still wants to stay in their controlled group, but they want to get to the movies, so this is allowing them to scratch that itch,” says Cinemark CEO Mark Zoradi about the recent trend for private watch parties at the circuit. “It’s also said to us a lot of people want to come back to the movies, they just want to get over the hump of COVID.”
In Cinemark exit polls, 92% of those attending private watch parties say it’s their first time back to the cinema, while 98% percent of those who have attended a private watch party tell the circuit they would recommend the experience to a friend. In addition, 98% of those attending Cinemark say they’re “very satisfied” with the chain’s health and safety protocols.
During pre-pandemic times, renting a movie theater auditorium can be a costly proposition with the price varying by market. In Los Angeles, it’s not unheard of to rent a 200 seat to 400 seat auditorium at any multiplex for anywhere from $2k-$5K a showtime, and that price can skyrocket during awards season. But in those cases, every seat in the house is being occupied, and with private watch parties, the base price includes 20 seats, which also complies with a cinema maintaining a limited auditorium capacity during the pandemic.
For the time being, private watch parties are a bridge for Cinemark heading into 2021. The chain hopes to continue the concept well after the pandemic quells, but the allocation of screens hinges on the volume of foot traffic coming in, which is expected to increase as studios begin booking their A-grade tentpole fare. Next to the No. 1 and No. 2 financially strapped exhibitors AMC and Regal Cinemas, Cinemark is viewed by Wall Street as being the most stable among the giants with 17 months of liquidity and less than half the debt of AMC. To date, 85% of Cinemark’s 332 theaters are currently open during the pandemic.
“It’s had a double effect: Positive on the box office, positive to help us just cover our costs during a weakened product lineup, and encouraging people to come back that might otherwise have been a little hesitant,” says Zoradi about Cinemark’s watch party business, “Audiences have in turn had a good experience and every person that walks out talks to ten other people.”