Gather By The Flickering Light: Some Thoughts For Executives In The Entertainment Industry

Brenda Boudreaux

From the earliest days of human existence, people have gathered in front of a flickering light to share stories. This is an essential part of what it means to be human. It’s a matter of survival. In fact, we still sit in front of the flickering light at the cinema today. However, if you ask someone why they go to the movies, they’ll say, “to be entertained.” And if you ask them what it means to be “entertained,” well … they’ll have a hard time putting it into words. As SAP’s head of entertainment industries for the Americas, understanding what entertainment is and why it’s important is part of my job.

Do you know where the word “entertain” comes from? I looked it up. It’s a French/Latin word that means “to hold one’s attention.” Pretty cool, right? The objective of the entertainment industry is to hold the customer’s attention, and my job as an experience management engineer is to help entertainment executives achieve that goal.

Holding someone’s attention is no easy task these days. While the 21st century has countless ways of grabbing people’s attention, it seems to have even more ways of distracting them, making the challenge of holding someone’s attention a highly competitive business.

The history of cinema is a terrific example. I did a little digging and discovered that film first grabbed people’s attention in the 19th century at arcades and fairs. Those of you born after 1980 may not know what those are. (Google it!). But back then, for 25¢ a person could peer into one of Thomas Edison’s kinetoscopes for one minute and be captivated by The Great Sandow flexing his muscles. At that price, two-hours of movie watching would cost $30. In today’s money, that would be $850! Suddenly, that $10 to $12 movie ticket doesn’t sound too bad.

The first cinema, the Nickelodeon, opened in Pittsburgh on June 19, 1905. For 5¢ you could watch The Great Train Robbery, which still only lasted for 12 minutes, but at least it was far cheaper and more entertaining than Sandow’s muscles.

Then vaudeville began using films as a “chaser” ― a closing act to send audience members off. But pretty soon those films became more entertaining than the variety acts themselves and the live performers could no longer hold the audience’s attention.

So just about 15 years after the Nickelodeon opened in Pittsburgh, cinemas were springing up in towns all across the country. Then big cities began building “movie palaces,” which were huge, ornate theaters that held their audience’s attention with a spectacular fantasy environment.

I was fascinated to read that even during the Great Depression in the 1930s, people went to the cinema as a way to escape the misery of their everyday lives, if only for a few hours. Of course, the movie houses capitalized on this and helped lure them in with inexpensive but filling popcorn. Other businesses got in on the act by partnering with the cinemas for special events like bank nights and dish giveaways.

In the golden age of the 1940s, theater-goers were captivated by the allure of their favorite stars. Under the studio system, the vertically integrated film companies (who had a major stake in cinemas) were adept at creating a magical customer experience both on screen and throughout the culture at large.

That quickly came to a halt with the 1948 Paramount Decision. The studios no longer owned the cinemas, and that led to a slow but significant shift in the cinema experience in the second half of the 20th century.

Provoked by a population shift to the suburbs and the advent of television, movie houses scrambled to find new ways to hold an audience’s attention. Beginning with bigger screens and 3D movies, cinemas went on to embrace features like better sound systems, more comfortable seating, improved concessions, and more.

However, features and benefits are only a small part of the whole brand experience. Instead of being a magical place for the community to gather around the flickering light to share stories, many cinemas have become mere outlets (albeit well-appointed outlets in some cases) for the distributor’s content.

Conversations about going to the cinema used to go this way:

“Do you want to go to the movies?” “Sure. What’s playing?”

Now the conversation is:

“Do you want to see the new Star Wars film?” “Sure. Where’s it playing?”

The movie theater experience is often secondary to the movie watching experience. At the office on Monday, someone may ask if you saw a good movie over the weekend, but they’re not likely to ask what theater you attended. Today, it’s more likely that you didn’t see the movie at a cinema at all. Indeed, according to the MPAA 2018 THEME report, Americans spend twice as much on home entertainment as they do at the theater.

Our research revealed that more than 80% of fans desire a more immersive and content-rich experience when attending a live event. Cinemas can create a better customer experience by going beyond being an outlet where patrons can view new releases and become a desired destination themselves. For entertainment executives, this means going beyond placating or even satisfying customers to understanding and delighting them. It’s about figuratively building a movie palace for the 21st century. It’s about providing a refuge from the outside world, as they did during the Great Depression, and giving them an experience that lasts beyond the time spent at the cinema, as it did during the golden age of Hollywood. It’s about enticing them with the flickering light and sharing not only a story, but an experience they can take with them.

Accomplishing this means building an intelligent entertainment enterprise that has complete insight into all parts of the business. It requires hiring not only qualified but enthusiastic and knowledgeable employees. It means having complete control of the procurement process and being able to anticipate seasonality, anomalies, and trends. But most of all this requires a complete understanding of the market segments and the attitude and lifestyle of patrons. It’s less about selling tickets and popcorn, and more about befriending customers and creating the best entertainment experience for your patron’s time and money. For an excellent example of this, watch this video about Arclight Cinemas 12-week transformation.

The goal is to turn customers into fanatics. It requires engaging customers on their own terms, anticipating what they’ll do next, and engaging your entire business operation to meet those needs. It’s called customer experience management (CXM) and it’s about designing, optimizing, and delivering experiences that improve customer loyalty and brand awareness and equity while cutting costs. In fact, a recent study by Qualtrics, an SAP company, showed that customer experience leaders grow 2x faster and maintain operations that are 15% leaner than the average company.

Instead of serving your customers, you need to draw them up to the flickering light and enchant them. The art of captivating customers is thousands of years old, but it’s more sophisticated than ever. Customers are more discerning and demanding than ever, and with greater competition for their attention, innovation is imperative. In my next blog, I will look at how entertainment venues can manage the customer experience beyond the venue gate.

Learn how Qualtrics Experience Management is helping media companies unlock insights hidden deep in experience and operational data.

Brenda Boudreaux

About Brenda Boudreaux

Brenda Boudreaux is the Industry Executive Advisor for Experience Management Engineering of Sports and Entertainment Industries at SAP America. Her primary focus is in Entertainment, leading the development of the segment and providing strategic direction as well as evolving and driving the global digital transformation for the SAP solution portfolio for gaming and all entertainment sub-industries. Brenda has an extensive and diverse background in the gaming industry having held roles in sales and business development, product management, casino operations, regulatory, and finance. During her long career she’s worked for companies such as International Game Technology (IGT), Caesars Entertainment, Stations Casinos, and the New Jersey Casino Control Commission.