The rise of the cinema subscription model
For years, exhibitors have offered enticements to lure in customers. Patrick von Sychowski considers the latest “unlimited” offers and wonders which will gain traction.
When MoviePass recently reduced its monthly ‘unlimited’ cinema offer in the US from $39.99 to $9.95, it had no idea of the interest it would unleash in terms of uptake and also the focus it would place on non-standard ticket schemes. Schemes to boost cinema-going frequency have been around for years, but growth of subscription services like Spotify and Netflix, and smartphone commerce, means there are more ways than ever to enjoy cinema. We look at what’s on offer.
1. ‘Unlimited’ Subscription Schemes – Cinema-own
France, the birthplace of cinema, is arguably also the birthplace of the “carte illimitée” that is offered by both UGC-MK2 and Gaumont Pathé. The first of these, UGC Illimitée, celebrates its 18th anniversary this year, having launched in 2000 before most homes had internet or smartphones. As well as giving access to more than 1,000 films released annually across its cinemas, its Premium Club also offers special members’ benefits such as exclusive events and preview screenings.
Gaumont Pathé soon retaliated by launching Le Pass Solo, which has typically been €1 or so cheaper, but, like UGC, requires a 12-month subscription and a €30 joining fee, to prevent people cancelling and re-joining. Both offer access to affiliated independent cinemas, most notably Paris’ arthouse MK2 circuit for UGC. France’s third chain, CGR, does not offer ‘illimitée’ but instead bulk discount cards.
Gaumont Pathé provoked a backlash when it changed the pricing tiers of its CinéPass in 2017, offering the Duo for couples and add-on payments for IMAX and 3D (which were previously included). The company defended its move saying it was offering greater choice.
Cinemark became the first US exhibitor to launch an in-house ‘unlimited’ offering last November, partly in response to MoviePass. However, its Movie Club deliberately set out to differentiate itself by offering just one film per month at $8.99, but with 20% off concessions, no booking fees, advance seat reservation, no tie-in, the ability to ‘roll over’ unused tickets and the ability to buy a ticket for a companion at just $8.99. By May it had 230,000 members.
Cinemark’s CEO, Mark Zoradi, explained, “We considered these different designs, took the best aspects from each, applied it to the exhibition industry and configured multiple concepts we felt possessed the greatest ability to generate the broadest consumer appeal and grow attendance and profits. We then conducted consumer research to guide and validate our thinking.” As Celluloid Junkie’s J. Sperling Reich notes, “Cinemark’s MovieClub initiative is focused on driving incremental movie attendance,” rather than competing with MoviePass’ all-you-can-eat offer.
Having vocally denounced MoviePass, AMC caused a splash when it launched its Stubs A-List premium tier offering this summer. For $19.95/month users get 3 tickets/week for any screening (including premium screens), as well as the ability to pre-book and reserve seating. “Today AMC is giving consumers a choice and providing anybody else trying to sell movie tickets a determined competitor,” said AMC’s CEO Adam Aron in not-so-subtle dig at MoviePass. “The MoviePass Effect has made its mark. The model is here to stay,” retorted MoviePass’ CEO Mitch Lowe.
When Blackstone acquired UGC’s UK operation in December 2004 and merged it with Cine-UK to form Cineworld in 2005 there were questions about whether it would continue UGC’s ‘Unlimited’ scheme. In the end it stayed and, by 2007, had 185,000 subscribers. Cineworld expanded the Unlimited Card to Poland in 2015, where it is said to “perform strongly” and it is thought that it will launch it for its newly acquired Regal cinemas in the US within the next 12 months.
Cineworld no longer reveals how many subscribers it has, but Casey Cohen, head of marketing told CT that, “Cineworld’s Unlimited scheme is great value, offering customers unlimited cinema trips and film viewing for £17.90 per month (or £20.40 for London West End cinemas). The Unlimited card also unlocks a world of benefits, including discounts on snacks and drinks, discounts at restaurant partners, free months when you recommend friends, and access to advance screenings.”
Odeon UK followed Cineworld’s lead offering its patrons to watch “all the films you want as often as you like, for one monthly fee” in both the UK and Germany. Commenting on the scheme to CT, Odeon’s chief commercial officer, David Anderson, said “We’ve been very pleased with the success of Limitless in the UK and Ireland, and Unlimited in Germany. Guests easily recognise the benefits of these subscription services, and we see a great future for them.” Odeon has not commented about whether it will roll out the service across its 14 European territories.
For £17.99/£19.99 a month (exc/inc Central London), Odeon’s Limitless now also offers 10% off F&B purchases, and exclusive access to member preview screenings. “These are proving popular,” says Anderson, “Preview screenings launched in June with “Ocean’s 8”, and “Whitney” will be next.”
Anderson observes that “Limitless and Unlimited have broad appeal across our demographic segments, which is encouraging, particularly with teens, students and young people. The number of guests who are using their subscription memberships to explore new titles and genres continues to rise, which we believe is a great positive for us all.”
While Vue does not offer any ‘unlimited’ schemes in the UK, its Polish Multikino subsidiary has previously offered its Multikino All Inclusive ticket in 2015 that allowed patrons to see as many films and eat as much concessions as they wanted in a single day. There was also a Multikino Unlimited for subscribers to the NC+ pay-TV service, though this is no longer active. It should be noted that Vue has instead of an Unlimited card focused on cutting prices across its UK multiplexes to as little as £4.99 for regional sites, £5.99 for outer London and larger cities and £6.99 for Central London (excluding the West End).
Curzon offers its ‘Cult’ membership, where £350 per year gives you “free entry to all films” at its cinemas, as well as other benefits, while the cost for “Cult Local” is £200 in places such as Oxford and Sheffield. One of the few other arthouse chains that offers it is Berlin’s Yorck Kino, whose Kinoabo is priced at €18.90 per month (12 months minimum) or €129 for six months or €229 for one year pre-paid.
2. ‘Unlimited’ Subscription Schemes – Third Party
MoviePass received little traction when it charged $39.99/month to watch a movie a day. Acquired by Helios + Matheson Analytics, it dropped to $9.95 in Autumn 2017 and that changed. It has generated countless column inches, grown to over 3 million subscribers, been lambasted by AMC and had questions raised about its viability as H+M’s share price dropped from $38.86 in 2017 to penny stock status in recent weeks. It is now looking to raise
$1.2billion and grow to 20million members but has changed its offer several times, fuelling speculation about its demise, recently announcing it would introduce ‘surge’ pricing at weekends, as well as a bring-a-friend option and premium screen options.
In the UK, newcomer cPass tried to launch a MoviePass copy-cat, but appears to have gone quiet. More worrying for MoviePass, upmarket chain Alamo Drafthouse began testing a subscription service in its Yonkers, NY cinemas this August. Whether MoviePass can raise cash until it breaks even is an open question, but the model has been firmly established. Sinemai offers cinema subscriptions in the US, Canada, Australia, UK and Turkey. Unlike MoviePass it is not ‘unlimited’ but has monthly tiers starting at $4.99, depending on one, two or three tickets per month, standard or premium screens and with a family plan option too. Sinemai stresses its pricing model is sustainable and its app offers a litany of movie-centric perks, such as Uber integration and exclusive discounts. However, some users claim their Sinemia card was blocked by certain UK cinema chains.
3. Discount Days
With cinema being a weekend driven business, exhibitors have long discounted mid-week shows. Examples are Vue’s £4.99 Monday (instead of £5.99) and AMC’s $5 Tuesday. The practice was criticised at this year’s CinemaCon by studio representatives who felt it was proliferating to the point where such extensive discounting devalued the cinema experience.
4. 2-for-1 Schemes
Selling two tickets for the price of one has been offered ad-hoc for decades — Vue previously offered a 2-for-1 card for £3.99/month, but discontinued it after 2008. The concept had great success in the UK with Orange Wednesday, launched in the 2003 to subscribers to the Orange and EE mobile phone networks. The concept was copied elsewhere, such as by Norway’s ChessTirsdag 2for1.
When EE pulled the plug in February 2014. the UK Cinema Association soon found a new sponsor in comparethemarket.com, and re-launched it as Meerkat Movies, now available on Tuesdays and Wednesdays. comparethemarket.com says it is gaining valuable insights about customers.
In the US, Buy 1, Get 1 Free has been offered for certain films and times by Fandango, AtomTickets and MovieTickets.com platforms. Such offers are sometimes linked to specific credit cards and/or banks, with AmEx in Hong Kong offering Buy-1-Get-1-Free ticket offer for 3D and 2D movie tickets on Thursdays and Fridays.
5. Bulk, Discount and Money Back Offers
Bulk ticket offers are either sold by cinemas themselves, most often in the form of corporate packages, but in some cases also by third parties, such as GroupOn. These bulk offers to consumers are typically packaged as either gift vouchers or pre-paid cards with cheaper per-visit tickets.
France’s CGR promotes its bulk discount cards —rather than offering an ‘unlimited’ card — with five shows for €6.70, 10 for €6.20 or 15 for €5.70 each. (see graphic). In August of last year 24 independent cinemas in Paris launched a joint pre-pay card to compete with the ‘unlimited’ cards from multiplexes. The Cine Carte CIP offers savings of up to 50% with a five ticket card for €30 being valid six months or a nine admissions €48 valid nine months.
In addition to its corporate Limitless Card membership, Odeon UK offers an e-voucher program launched by Opia in 2015. Opia says that “The e-voucher program enables businesses to incentivise employees and clients with codes that can be redeemed online for cinema bookings.”
Online discount sites such as GroupOn also tend to offer ticket bundles to the large cinema chain. A recent promotion offered five Odeon tickets for £25, though this not only excluded 3D, iSense and IMAX but also some recent Hollywood and Bollywood titles (“Ocean’s 8”, “Jurassic World 2”, “Race 3”, etc.). In the US GroupOn offers deals such as $10 for a $20 Regal Cinemas eGift Card. Dealflicks.com claims to have saved US customers over $8m on discounted combo ticket and concessions deals. In the UK there are cash-back offers from sites such as TopCashBack and Quidco. Similarly reward points earned in store can be redeemed for tickets with some chains from Nectar and Tesco Clubcard.
6. Loyalty Programs
Loyalty programmes have been common for years, but are increasingly relevant because of the ability to collect customer data and more targeted offers. Cineworld’s Regal doesn’t have ‘unlimited’ schemes, instead offering Regal Crown Club loyalty program, which, similarly to airlines, offers different tiers depending on visits: Emerald (6+ visits), Ruby (10+ visits) and Diamond (20+ visits), but you have to spend $150 to get a single ‘free’ ticket. Points can be traded for concessions, seat upgrades and more. There can be different tiers, such as AMC Stubs Insider, which is free, while AMC Stubs Premiere is $15/year. Where memberships cost money outside the US, it typically includes a number of free tickets, such as Picturehouse, which offers Regional (£50), London (£60) and Central London (£85) membership.
The number of schemes for watching films in cinemas can sometimes seem bewildering. However, this is deliberately so, as cinemas try to think of different ways of segmenting audiences and targeting each group with an offer that will persuade her, him or them to go more frequently. It is no secret that distributors are not keen on most discounts and flat-fee schemes that encourage increased viewing, seeing it as a not-so-covert attempt by cinemas to get patrons to come and buy more concessions.
Yet there is a growing recognition that the proliferation of ‘all-you-can-eat’ online media consumption (Netflix, Amazon Prime Video, Spotify, etc.) has created an appetite amongst consumers for flat monthly fee that allows them to see as many films as they like in physical locations, as well as on their devices. Getting young people away from their devices and into cinemas by fostering affordable regular cinema visits is something that both exhibitors and studios see the value in. The future will see more customised options in every market, making consumers the biggest winners of this trend.