National Cinema Day Gave the Box Office a Boost – but Could Discounts Happen More Often?

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In what may become an end-of-summer tradition, the National Association of Theatre Owners rallied together theaters, studios and premium format companies to host the second annual National Cinema Day, with thousands of cinemas selling movie tickets for just $4 on Sunday.

The event was quite successful, with NATO and Comscore reporting that 8.5 million tickets were sold on Sunday with overall grosses standing at $34 million, a 16% week-over-week increase from the previous Sunday. Theaters made more by charging less, in other words — and that’s not taking concessions into account.

The final weekends of the summer are usually slow periods for movie theaters, but the nationwide discount day brought an extra bit of business, so much so that Exhibitor Relations analyst Jeff Bock thinks that the film industry should consider trying these $4 days on other weekends when moviegoing is slow.

“This is something that the industry should really take a look at doing on a quarterly basis,” Bock said. “I think that if they did this, it would make new moviegoers for life. It’s something outside of the box that helps studios and theaters in the long run by making it affordable.”

While many chains have midweek discount days in the United States — AMC, for example, offers $5 tickets on Tuesday to loyalty-club members — National Cinema Day is the rare instance of a major discount being offered on the weekend. Bock thinks studios and theaters should try selling tickets at $4 on other weekends generally regarded as dead zones.

“Try Super Bowl weekend, when no one puts out new films because everyone’s watching the game on Sunday,” Bock suggested. “Try late April when the slate slows down ahead of the summer season, or the weekend just before Halloween when few new films come out. I saw so many people at my local theater this Sunday who were not regular moviegoers, and theaters can get their business three or four times a year through this event rather than once or not at all.”

But multiple sources on both the studio and theater side of the box office expressed skepticism about whether this special event can become more than an annual occurrence.

“I think the data backs up doing National Cinema Day at this time every year, but not doing it at other times of the year,” Boxoffice editor Daniel Loria told TheWrap.

Part of the reason why, Loria argued, is because these are weekends where studios don’t tend to release films with tentpole status. At the end of August, theaters are generally showing films that released earlier in the summer along with a few low-budget new titles. Sony’s “Gran Turismo” was a rare exception, with its release moved to this past weekend with two prior weekends of preview screenings as a way to build word of mouth without the film’s cast around to promote the film due to the SAG-AFTRA strike.

“I think Sony deserves a lot of credit for agreeing to have ‘Gran Turismo’ be a part of this weekend, but studios aren’t always going to be willing to have their new releases be a part of a weekend with a $4 ticket day that reduces revenue,” Loria said.

Creating National Cinema Day required the full involvement of not just of dozens of theater chains but also the studios and other theatrical interests, and exhibition insiders said it took months of talks to get everyone on board. Exhibition professionals who asked for anonymity so they could speak candidly believed that studios would be wary about doing a nationwide discount more than once a year out of fear audiences would get used to frequent lower prices.

“Look at the music industry to see what happens when the product gets too devalued,” one theater owner said. “If people know or expect that a $4 ticket day is coming on an upcoming weekend, and they choose to wait to see a film until that day comes, that’s going to put the studios off of ever offering something like this again.”

While they disagreed about the viability of quarterly $4 ticket weekend offers, both Loria and Bock felt that it was a smart move for NATO and its sister organization, the Cinema Foundation, to announce the return of National Cinema Day just six days in advance, giving the event the feel of a flash sale that made it more exciting for moviegoers.

“Announcing it with just a few days notice might ease studios’ concerns about the public getting too used to those discount days, and the surprise of it could draw people who haven’t tried going back to theaters since the pandemic because they don’t think the experience is worth the price for them. And if they really like that experience, maybe they’ll be willing to pay more to come back,” Bock said.

Some early data suggests that National Cinema Day may be drawing out a particularly price-conscious audience group: families. The two movies that saw the biggest jump in revenue from this weekend’s normally priced Saturday to the discounted Sunday were ones that have families as a core demo: Warner Bros.’ “Blue Beetle,” which jumped 31%, and Paramount’s “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutant Mayhem,” which jumped 37%.

While midweek discount days offer similar price benefits to National Cinema Day, many families aren’t able to take advantage of those discounts while their kids are in school. With four tickets just costing $16 on NCD, and many chains also offering concession discounts on top of that, it’s an offer that many families took up.

“We saw a lot of families at our locations on Sunday, and one of our employees remarked that it felt like a weekend when a big family film comes out,” one theater owner said. “I think there is something to the idea of providing some kind of bundle offer to attract families who feel like they’re getting priced out of going to the movies.”

Whether that involves more National Cinema Days is something that the owner said he wasn’t sure about, and even its creators at the Cinema Foundation are don’t know exactly where the event goes from here.

But Bryan Braunlich, executive director of the Cinema Foundation, said that the event’s original goal of celebrating the moviegoing experience has succeeded beyond the organization’s expectations, and he believes it will continue into the future.

“I think there’s room for National Cinema Day to evolve,” Braunlich said. “But the message that going to the movies matters is really resonating with people. Everyone with a stake in our industry came together to create an experience that was really special for millions, and I think that’s going to have positive effects that ripple far beyond this weekend.”

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