What movie theaters should try instead of playing more commercials

Remember the first time you went to the movie theater as a kid? You got the big tub of popcorn. Tall cup of Coca Cola. Your mom smuggled in some Junior Mints; the only time you'd ever seen her break a rule.

Remember the feeling when the lights went down and... they started playing an insurance commercial?

In an effort to fight declining movie theater revenues, Regal and Cinemark have decided to play five minutes of commercials AFTER the lights go down. And we're talking actual commercials, not additional movie trailers. They will even sandwich in a 60-second "platinum" spot in between (!) the final two movie trailers.

Why? From a dollars and cents perspective, it makes total sense for the movie theaters. I was shocked to learn, in an episode of Seth Godin's Akimbo podcast, that more money is spent per year on movie theater ads than advertising on podcasts. In 2018, movie theater ad revenue was $441 million.

That's a lot of money, but being in front of a packed house watching Frozen 2 or the final Star Wars film, that's probably worth the investment. It's like a mini Super Bowl.

The CEO of National CineMedia, the advertising company who runs these ads, said it best:

“When the lights go out in a movie theater and the phones are gone, it’s one of the few places where you literally have to see an ad,” Lesinski said.

You literally have to see an ad. You have the audience trapped. They have no other options...

I think this is called the caught-in-a-spider-web advertising strategy.

But is this really the experience movie theaters want to create for their customers? Shouldn't this be an absolute last resort?

And hey, I totally understand the need to increase revenues and come up with a short-term solution. I feel like movie theaters are saying, "We don't want to do the commercials, but we don't want to run out of business either."

So I want to throw out a few long-term ideas to help movie theaters engage with their community, inspire a younger generation of movie lovers, and create a better movie-going experience.

"I want to be a YouTube star."


More American kids want to become YouTube stars than astronauts or professional athletes. Seventy-five percent want to either be a YouTube star or a video blogger.

Kids love creating videos. If it's not on YouTube, it's Snap. Or TikTok. This is a big part of the next generation's culture and movie theaters are a natural fit for encouraging these filmmaking pursuits.

Instead of commercials, why not run 2-3 minutes of featured YouTube/TikTok videos from the local community. Give students the experience of seeing their work on the big screen. Telling their friends. Parents telling friends. You gotta see Joey's movie, they're playing it before Star Wars. How awesome would that be?

Maybe you have a YouTube film festival. One night where you show a bunch of different short films and video blogs from the community.

I'm almost 30. Being on TV or being in a movie were things that seemed really cool to me. But I wasn't passionate about having a radio show. I wonder if kids today view movies and TV the way we viewed radio. Being a star on mobile is their thing. So why not meet them where they're at, bring the world of YouTube, Snap, and TikTok into movie theaters? Start creating a generation of kids who wants to see their work on the big screen.

Offer Classes


The majority of kids making videos on their smartphones aren't terribly concerned with lighting and editing. But the ones who are interested in this will be extremely passionate about their craft. These are our future directors.

Movie theaters should offer filmmaking classes. Give these students more reasons to come to the theater in between movies.

And maybe at the end of these courses, they get to showcase their work on the big screen.

College film festivals


The Traverse City Film Festival does a great job of this. Dedicate one of your screens to films from Central Michigan, University of Michigan, Michigan State. Continue to showcase the work of people in the community most passionate about making movies.

Netflix/HBO binge parties


I'm guessing there are some sort of rules and contracts needed for this, but what if a movie theater said, "Hey, we'll be playing Season 1 of Breaking Bad on Saturday night." I mean we binge-watch for hours at home, why not do this with a community?


Movie theaters should have been all over those final seasons of Game of Thrones. Playing it every Sunday night.

Or how about going all-in on nostalgia. Putting Hey Arnold or Recess up on the big screen. Maybe a lil Saved by the Bell.

Not only would people enjoy seeing their shows on the big screen, but they would also meet people who were just as passionate about their show. I'm ready to hear a couple say, "We met at Regal Cinema's Sunday night showing of Stranger Things."

Plus, if people are there for 5-8 hours instead of two, more chances to sell concessions. Maybe you sell lunch/dinner as part of the ticket.

Movie Theater as Bookstore


Physical books are a few rounds of technology behind. When someone opens a book, they've chosen not to turn on TV, not to listen to a podcast, not watch something on their phone, no social media, no Kindle. That's a lot of other competing options.

Movie theaters are in the same boat. Growing up, we didn't really have great TVs. No hi-def. There was only like one kid in town who had anything bigger than a 50'' TV. And you still had to go rent a VHS or DVD. Movie theaters were a far superior option.

But now, given how many streaming options there are and how many houses have 50-60'' super hi-def TV. Paying $10-15 a ticket when Netflix is around that price for the month, just doesn't seem worth it.

Bookstores and movie theaters have to ask themselves one of three questions and which question they focus on determines a lot of what the success will be.


  1. How do we get more people interested in going to the movie theaters/bookstores?

  2. How do we make more money off the people who are here?

  3. How do we make an awesome experience for the people who love movies/books?


The local bookstores that do really well, like Unabridged in Lakeview or Horizon Books in Traverse City, focus on Question 3.

Question 1 takes way more effort. Getting the person who reads one book every few years to suddenly start reading 5-10 per year, that's an uphill battle.


Focusing on Question 2 doesn't work either, because let's say you charge $40 for Michelle Obama's book, even someone who loves to support local bookstores is going to say, "Eh, Amazon has it for $18."

But Question 3, that's a different strategy. You're not trying to convince people to read more, you're zeroing in on the people who already love books and read a lot. You start putting up notecards all around the bookstore. I think you'll love this book. Here's why. You're helping people who love to read find more great things to read. Here's a local authors section. Now you're inspiring the reader/writers in the community. What if I had my book on that table.

The great independent bookstores bring in authors for readings. Host book clubs. Highlight their favorite books of the month. The bookstore becomes a pillar of the community. Book lovers go there multiple times a week. Horizon in Traverse City stays open til 11 p.m. every night of the week!

How do we make an awesome experience for people who love watching and making movies?


Get rid of distractions. Fine to play commercials when people are filing into their seats, but once those lights go down, that's a sacred space. And look, if the movie theaters tries the YouTube/Tik Tok showings, tries hosting classes, tries featuring films from college students and still are running out of money, the commercials will always be there as a revenue option.


But the caught in a spider web advertising strategy works better as a last resort.

Marketing and business-building strategies that are somewhere between or inspired by Seth Godin and Gary Vee. Tune in for more chapters from marketers all around the Midwest.

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