Vancouver movie theatres innovate to fill seats

Ever since the Edison Kinetoscope exhibition came to town in 1897, Vancouverites have loved going out to the movies. But with the advent of video on demand, DVD rentals by mail, on-line piracy, and vast improvements in home entertainment systems, local movie theatres have been forced to step up their game to keep putting our butts in their seats.

“It’s pretty frustrating trying to show films these days,” Vancity Theatre Centre director Alan Franey says on the line with the Straight. “There are so many different kinds of ways to consume audio-visual materials and entertainment culture in general.”

It’s not the first time cinemas have been threatened. The introduction of television and VHS technology each drew a large part of the moviegoing audience away to the comfort of their own living rooms. Cinemas fought back with everything from 3D technology to stadium seating, improved concessions, multiplexes, and niche-market programming.

In the U.S., innovative businesses like Texas-based Alamo Drafthouse and Portland’s Living Room Theaters have started bridging the gap between homes and cinemas by providing unique amenities like in-theatre dinner service, alcohol-friendly concessions, and couch seating for a more intimate feel.

“There’s always been a sense that you need to be pulling out new tricks to keep those profits coming in,” Franey says. Vancity Theatre’s strategy has been to focus on an audience composed of multiple niche markets. He describes it as a “sort of complementary opposite of what’s on the other screens, not just what’s down at the ”˜megalopolis’ but also on-screen on television.”

Local second-run commercial theatres have struggled in today’s marketplace. West End residents may have noticed that the Denman Place theatre is now up for rent, leaving Kitsilano’s family-run Hollywood Theatre and downtown’s partially second-run Granville 7 Cinemas as the few remaining of their kind. Over the last year, Granville 7 has dropped prices to $7.99 and begun screening some niche-oriented selections, such as Filipino and Bollywood films.

The Rio on Broadway at Broadway and Commercial Drive is currently trying to reconceptualize its theatre by including live performances like standup comedy and burlesque shows. As reported in the June 26 issue of the Straight, a previous attempt to revive the Rio as a traditional movie house failed after businessman Mukesh “Mike” Goyal dropped $2 million into restoring it. He recently handed off ownership to three of Vancouver’s more eclectic entrepreneurs (including weed activist Watermelon).

“I think they’ll do way better [with live performances] than they did on movies,” says Festival Cinemas president Leonard Schein by phone. “They didn’t do well on movies, and that’s why it was sold.”

It can get a bit complicated when you want to change how a theatre is physically structured, Schein explains, noting that there are limitations such as building codes, physical space, sound, and lighting for live performances. Schein says content is king in his theatres, which include the Park, the Ridge, and Fifth Avenue Cinemas.

“The first thing I think is to show good movies that people want to see.”¦You can have the nicest theatre in the world.”¦If [a theatre like] Scotiabank showed films that no one would want to see, people wouldn’t go there, no matter how nice the theatre is.”

This philosophy, plus a mix of strong relationships with local film festivals, as well as Festival Cinemas’ own brand of special programs, such as its “Movies for Mommies” screenings, appears to have been successful. All three locations also offer membership programs that lower ticket prices.

Even the mainstream Scotiabank Theatre began employing this strategy last year, with its SCENE rewards program. Members earn points when using their SCENE credit or debit cards, which they can exchange for movie tickets. It has also started repurposing its theatre space to attract audiences to more than just movies. These alternative uses now include live simulcasts of WWE events and NHL hockey games, and renting out theatres for Xbox gaming.

Though confident about Vancity’s audience base, Franey laments that cinemas with the deepest pockets will be the ones able to screen the most popular movies.

“This is the irony,” he says. “There are more good films made than ever before, because of technology.”¦And yet, the more choice people have, the more they tend to flock to the same surefire bets.”¦When there’s a lot of choice out there, it’s the people with the bigger marketing budgets and the safer formulas that tend to get the attention.”

In the end, though, it all depends on the viewer’s choices, which might get a lot more complicated in the future.