Rethinking Cinema Experiences

Rethinking Cinema Experiences
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with Akshay Bansal, Jacob Batist, Charline Chau, Aditya Dabbiru, Jonathan Hung King Sang, Nomi Jain, and Suran Ravi — students in Markus Giesler’s MBA course Customer Experience Design at the Schulich School of Business.

Anatomically, the movie cinema has remained unchanged since it was first introduced over 100 years ago. Whether you took in a five-cent feature at a nickelodeon in 1905, or shared in the cinematic viewing of a three-dimensional blockbuster, Avatar, in 2009, the basic premise and provisions of the movie cinema have stayed fixed: concessions, rowed seating, a dark room with an illuminated screen, surround sound, and a group of people collectively getting lost in a story. When you strip away the modern aesthetics of IMAX screens and D-BOX motion seating, visiting a movie cinema still looks and feels the same.

The evolution of movie cinemas has not fared well as of late. A simple Google search will populate a myriad of articles related to movie cinema attendance in North America remaining below levels achieved in the mid-2000’s, and how evolving external competition from substitute entertainment products continues to thrive. As a result, cinemas have resorted to new screen technologies, seating tactics, and more versatile concession offerings to combat the falling attendance rates. While the appeal of these innovations may seem to result in box office sales growth, revenues have been increasing due to increased ticket prices coupled with inflation.

The commercial appeal of 3D films, in-theatre meals, and reserved seating may present a short term competitive advantage, but the modern movie cinema is caught in a market-driven cycle. Being so heavily reliant on continued investment in cinema technologies and amenities limits the opportunity for sustained growth and profitability, thereby forcing movie theaters to play catch-up with the rest of the entertainment market. By focusing on the aesthetics, the industry has narrowed their efforts so precisely on what they think customers want from their movie cinemas. But what about what customers need?

Whether as a place to socialize, a place to idolize, or a place to be mesmerized, the movie cinema has been a catalyst for the audience’s need to escape. It ushers emotional escapes of first dates and continued date nights. It deprives viewers of their senses in order to escape into entertainment in front of them. It indoctrinates audiences in how to feel social and inclusive, and share a human experience without speaking a single word. Whether it be for emotional or edutainment purposes, being a destination for escapism is why people fall in love with movie cinemas.

During the Great Depression, movie cinemas were positioned as the obligatory passage point for consumers looking for positive escapism from their lives. Turmoil in the financial markets radiated anxiety into the homes of millions of people across the continent. As public insecurity set-in, and with frustrations and anxiety at an all-time high, going to the movies was no longer just an evening of family entertainment, but a needed withdrawal. The movie cinema served as a vehicle to reprieve people of their personal and professional problems. Audiences used the movie cinema to overcome their external stresses through not only the stories they consumed, but also a collective catharsis. It comes as no surprise, then, that the 1930’s represents the highest attendance record in American history, where 65% of the American population went to the cinema.

Drawing parallels to the contemporary political climate and the transparency to concerning social and economic issues, the positive escape movie cinemas can provide is as important as ever. But with each superficial improvement and the additions of new tech and cuisine, the inimitable capability that movie cinemas provide gets overlooked. If they are to help consumers fall back in love with the movie cinema experience, movie cinemas must return to affording customers with the socialization and escapism that they need.

Tailoring the current movie cinema to meet contemporary socialization needs could mean leveraging existing capabilities to claim the cinema as a “third place”. Creating and configuring openly accessible and inviting common areas, and implementing public Wi-Fi access are low cost and potentially highly effective. More than a decade ago, filmgoers would purchase their ticket, use the restroom, buy concessions, and then proceed to line-up for a movie. This served as an opportunity to meet with others, and mingle whether it was about the film you were about to see, or to have small talk about anything else, even if it was with the people you came with. As reserved seating has become more prevalent, there is little to no socializing that occurs. The common areas would allow film goers to spend more time in the theatres whether prior to the movie or post credits. The cinema would no longer be an elongated experience at the gas station, where you get what you want, and you leave. It would now be more akin to your local coffee-house, which allows you to experience what they have to offer, but also serves as a destination to address your social needs.

To address escapism needs, movie cinemas should be positioned as more than just a recreational activity but rather a therapeutic necessity. According to Dr. Norman N Holland, being absorbed in art, such as a film, enables people to achieve an optimum balance of effort and satisfaction. The effort we exert while watching a movie is neither too little to be bored nor too much to feel exhaustion. The stimulation of the feeling of entrancement, a meditative experience that really only the arts can provide, is a key insight that customer experiences at the movie cinemas should be designed around. Like the catharsis movie cinemas provided people during the Great Depression, managers can position cinemas as a form of healthy therapy. The idea of “Using Reel-ness For Wellness” is but one of a myriad of ways to create messaging to advocate to audiences the experiences that await them at their local cineplex. Being equipped with rooted conditions to facility entrancement, viewers can be stimulated to the point of finding a healthy way for their minds to relax. The feeling of Zen that can come through taking in a movie at a movie cinema is a therapy that, in terms of time and cost efficiency, is potentially unrivaled.

The experience of sitting in-front of a screen and watching a film has stayed constant for 100 years, however, everything else has changed. Consumers have a need to socialize more than ever, and they have a need to understand how to improve their well-being. Look at social media, and health/wellness culture in North America. When designing the customer experience for the movie cinema, it is imperative to ask the right questions that focus on the customer’s needs. These are not questions to judge attraction to amenities and technologies, but ones to understand how movies cinemas can return to being anchored in the current social reality.


Bowen, J. (2009, February 22). What Movies Mean To Us In Hard Times. Retrieved from

Cowden, C. (2015, January 06). Movie Attendance Has Been On A Dismal Decline Since The 1940s. Retrieved from

Gambardella, A. (2017). Big screen: Rising disposable income will boost demand, though competition will hamper growth (IBISWorld Industry Report 51213 Movie Theaters in the US, pp. 1-35, Rep.). IBISWorld.

Holland, N. N. (2009). Literature and the brain. Gainesville, FL: PsyArt Foundation.

Oldenburg, R. (1999). The great good place: Cafés, coffee shops, bookstores, bars, hair salons, and other hangouts at the heart of a community. New York: Marlowe.

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