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World War Z: Movie Theaters Battle for the iPhone Generation so They Don't Become Zombies

How do cinema owners make their product more appealing to teenagers raised on the Internet?

In a world full of economic uncertainty and numerous entertainment options, can a movie theater hope to lure teenagers? And will they shut off their phones and sit quietly for two hours?

Cinema owners are anxiously contemplating the whims and passions of Generation Z, the consumer cohort born in the past 20 years or so. Given the enormous reach of digital streaming of all forms of video to all kinds of devices, many teens find the traditional cinema experience a bit stodgy, if not downright disagreeable.

So the first sessions of CinemaCon 2015—the National Association of Theatre Owners’ annual conference (which started yesterday)—were devoted to panels exploring how to make movie theater attendance a habit for teens.

“The movie experience is one that doesn’t really sync with this generation,” said Bill Alberti, senior vice president of Communispace, a consumer research consulting firm. “This generation is always on—and looking for on-demand [content] on every device and every platform. And you get to the movie theater, and it’s everything off.”

Alberti’s presentation at this week’s Las Vegas gathering was titled “World War Generation Z: The Global Fight to Attract New Moviegoers.” Theater owners, he said, “are really scared of this next generation and being further detached from them.”

Teens embody a major business opportunity, said Patrick Corcoran, spokesman for the theater owners association, and the basic product—a two-hour escape from the world—appeals to them as much as to older patrons. But the Web puts a lot of clutter between the cinemas and the kids. Once, to reach a broad audience, "you knew exactly where to go: You’d hit television and advertise the heck out of it,” Corcoran said. “And now the Internet is millions and millions of places.”

Because they’re so busy with other things, teens aren't the moviegoers they once were, and they don’t rely on films as cultural reference points, said Jacob Elkaer-Hansen, director of sales and marketing for Nordisk Film, a Danish conglomerate that owns three dozen cinemas and makes and distributes movies. YouTube clips often serve as the lingua franca of today's teen discourse. A further problem: Teens often think of video at home—Netflix, Amazon, HBO—as free, whereas “when they go to the cinema, it’s very often the teen who pays the bill,” Elkaer-Hansen said.  

The elusive young cinema customer is reflected in ticket-sales data. In 2014, the share of tickets bought by those aged 40 to 59 years was at an all-time high, with those over 60 buying their greatest share of tickets since 2011, according to the Motion Picture Association of America, which represents the movie studios. But “increases in tickets sold to older moviegoers did not offset fewer tickets sold to 18- to 24-year-olds and 25- to 39-year-olds,” the trade group said. On a per capita basis, movie attendance declined for all age groups under 40. Not that teens are abandoning the local cineplex altogether. In North America last year, patrons aged 12 to 17 and 18 to 24 still bought more movie tickets than other age group, relative to their proportion of the population, according to the MPAA.

Still, the basic business problem remains: People aged 20 and under don't go to the movies as often as they used to, and as they age into their thirties and forties the visits drop even further as they spend more time on careers and with their  children.

The youth issue has become especially critical in North America and Europe, whose aging populations have made older cinemagoers more important to theater chains’ financial success. If teens don’t develop a love of movie attendance at an early age, they aren't likely to turn into cinemaphiles later in life, “and we’re going to get killed in 15 or 20 years,” Elkaer-Hansen said. As it is, the typical person spends only about $1,700 on moviegoing over a lifetime, an estimate based on an average of six annual visits over 30 years, according to Action Marketing Works, a London-based firm that works with cinemas. 

The competitive landscape for movie theater owners isn’t quite as bleak as a Mad Max landscape. Teens love movies, and Hollywood has been doing its part to supply a steady stream of fare to entice youngsters the world over, from summer “tentpole” movies to more narrowly tailored franchises such as Twilight, The Hunger Games, and Insurgent. Those mover series also offer a formula in which teen viewers can expect the heroes to prevail.

"To get the teens to leave the house and go to the cinema, we have to provide them a very good idea of what they're going to gain by doing so," Elkaer-Hansen said. "They need to be certain exactly what they're getting." The studios release these titles in the summer and during the winter holidays, Paul Sweeney, a media analyst with Bloomberg Intelligence, noted. “You really target movies for the demo at the proper time,” Sweeney said. “It works, basically.”

Cinema owners themselves must now become more creative about reaching teens, said Mark de Quervain, Action Marketing Works’ managing director. “If you look at the average cinema website … you can’t find anything that recognizes teenagers,” he said. Most chains offer a student price, but nothing that’s even lower for younger teens, he said, and most don't offer early evening showings that target teens right after school. Cinemas could also redesign foyers to appeal to teenagers and offer downloadable movie videos for teens to share online, he said.

Some theaters in the Netherlands have succeeded with a “ladies night" during the week, in which women come to the cinema for a glass of wine and nibbles as part of the entry price, Elkaer-Hansen said. Such promotions could easily be modified to lure teenagers, with prepaid concessions or other inclusive packages included at a discount. He said very few cinemas have tried "goody bags" with film-related merchandise to appeal to teens' sense of "trophy hunting" in search of unique experiences to share—and brag about—with friends. And how often does a theater chain encourage young people to snap photos during a screening to share online? Some might need to consider it, cinema marketers say.

Teens might like to make a trip to the movies into a social experience with their online friends, Alberti said. “Maybe there's a way to talk on their phones?" he mused aloud, noting how Amtrak has installed a “quiet car" on a half-dozen train routes. “The room itself might have to change," he said, adding that "the theater right now doesn't account for a social experience beyond the physical.” Over the decades, he said, “not many [entertainment] experiences have changed as little as the moviegoing experience.”

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