How Movie Theaters Might Thrive in an On-Demand, Long Tail World

Last night, my husband and I went out to the movies — something we rarely do, since we think movie tickets are drastically overpriced and prefer the convenience and selection of Netflix. However, every once in a while we still get the urge.

Since we were in the mood to mock, we went to see the remake of The Wicker Man. We figured it had to be better than the 1973 original. We were wrong — which was good news, given our intent. The remake offers even more heckling fodder, with substantially less coherence than the original. And if you’ve seen the original, you know that’s really saying something.

But I digress…

For a Saturday evening, the huge AMC theater complex at Flatiron Crossing Mall looked pretty dead. If I were managing that theater, I’d be nervous. As on-demand entertainment becomes more popular, what reason to people have to keep making the trip to movie theaters — especially when most of your choices there are overhyped, lowest-common-denominator, gutless, and mindless attempted blockbusters?

I had an idea about that: What if movie theaters joined forces with a social networking service such as Meetup.com to make it easier for communities to pick their own movies and fill the seats? In essence, make it easy to arrange movie parties or similar events?

Here’s how that might work…

Imagine this: A theater chain figures out how many seats they fill per theater, on average, in a given time slot. Then they partner with Meetup.com to offer their theaters for special showings.

Then, Meetup.com users could look over a list of participating theaters by zip code. If there’s one in their zip code, they could nominate films to be shown in that theater. This might be an older film, or an indie or foreign film, or a collection of shorts — shows that might not draw huge audiences for weeks at a time, but that might fill every seat in a theater for a night or two.

The deal would be that when a critical mass of willing participants indicate that they would attend a showing of a particular film at a particular theater for the full ticket price, the theater would list available dates and time slots, and the participants would vote to set the date and time. Maybe the critical mass would be, say 50% above the average per-theater seats sold.

That date would hold as long as a minimum number of tickets were sold in advance. If not enough people end up buying tickets, those tickets sold would be converted to gift certificates good for any performance at the theater. No money back.

It would be nice if theaters could pay Meetup.com a share of ticket sales, or a flat fee, for each movie party organized this way. That way you wouldn’t have to be a paying Meetup.com organizer to arrange a movie party — which might mean more such events would get organized.

I realize that right now the physical distribution system for feature films represents a barrier. Most movie theaters still get the films they show on reels. However, satellite-based digital distribution of movies to theaters and digital projectors are reportedly making inroads. If those changes become economical, it might become easier for theaters to show any movie they want, whenever they want.

…So if a theater wanted to show, say, Dr. Strangelove — or a Bollywood hit, or a documentary, or even maybe the original Wicker Man — just on one screen for a night or two, or even a single showing, they could just put in the order and grab the download.

And maybe movie party organizers could tack on a little extra to the ticket price to rent the theater for an extra hour after the film, for live discussion.

Hell, people could even use this kind of service to organize their own small-scale, on-the-fly film festivals; or to create community-based movie clubs.

Maybe more people would shell out the cash for the high-end theater experience if they could see what they really wanted to see there — and not be so socially isolated in the experience of attending the film.

Yes, I realize theaters could try organizing this sort of service themselves. However, Meetup.com already has a strong brand and user base for organizing local in-person events. Why reinvent the wheel and struggle to build infrastructure and community?

I’ll tell you, if a coordination service like this was easily available, I’d go out to see movies far more often. And not just to relieve my incurable urge to heckle.

OK, like I said, it’s just an idea. Comments? would you like something like this too? Is anyone already doing this and I’ve just missed it? Let me know.

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