Gen Z at the Movies: Re-imagining the Cinema Experience

A young woman is talking on her phone in an auditorium

The power of The Force is a very good thing for millions of fans, and especially for Hollywood and movie theaters. In 2015, thanks in large part to Star Wars: The Force Awakens, U.S. box offices reached record revenue of $11 billion. And analysts predict that stocks for theater operators like AMC Entertainment will also enjoy the “Star Wars bump.”

But will the power of the Star Wars and other “event movies” continue to lure Gen Z? Consider this: in 2014, Americans aged 12-24 saw 32% fewer films in theaters than they did in 2008. And in 2013, according to a Motion Picture Association of America report, the number of frequent moviegoers between the ages of 18 to 24 fell by a record 17%.

Teens crave experiences that offer an exciting alternative to what they could be doing at home. The traditional cinematic experience (anti-social, disconnected, everything off) just does not jibe with Gen Z’s worldview (hyper-social, connected, always-on). While some theaters have started to introduce things like reserved seating, restaurants, and premium concessions, most aren’t designed to meet the needs of the next generation of moviegoers.

But what if teens had creative control of the movie theater experience? What if theater owners and Hollywood worked with Gen Z to inspire an entirely new way to enjoy the movies, and boost attendance and ticket and concession sales in the process? We asked a group of Gen Zers directly. Here’s what they said.

Make it social

For Gen Z, the lack of social options at the movies is a big problem. Of course, this isn’t about allowing people to talk during the show. This is about re-imagining the movie theater as a vibrant social hub for hanging out and having fun.

One teen’s idea for bringing this to life: design the theater to be “easier to sit the way we want to sit. More comfortable. So we don’t have to worry about annoying others.” Why not get rid of seats all together and create “a free-flow environment where you can interact with other people and watch the movie”? Or make it a space to “watch movies in groups, like at a festival. It would be less individual and more of a social event.”

Make it seamless

Teens have a low tolerance for the logistical challenges of seeing a movie. “It’s a pain to get everyone together,” one teen lamented. The obstacles they complained about most included: not being able to arrive together, not being able to sit together, and not being able to pay together.

While movie theaters are increasingly focused on upgrading the physical experience, maybe it’s time to consider the types of digital improvements that could alleviate some of the logistical challenges associated with going to a film. More flexible reservations and ticket-sharing systems are ways movie apps like Flixster or Fandango could address this teen challenge. Or transportation services like Uber could offer teens discounted trip and ticket packages for groups going to the movies.

Make it more than movies

There is no reason why the theater shouldn’t be a more significant experience to Gen Z than simply the house of a two-hour movie. “Sitting in a seat, in a theater, just looking at a screen isn’t exciting enough to us,” one teen said.

Theatres can provide opportunities to do something with the content, rather than simply consuming it. Last summer, Coca-Cola inked a deal with Cinemark Theaters to stream the League of Legends World Championship to the big screen. Or what about one-time-only events? On Sept. 16, 2015, at precisely 12 p.m. EST, Kanye West live-streamed his Yeezy Season 2 fashion show from New York Fashion Week to more than 30 theaters across the globe.

Unlike any generation before them, Gen Z has grown up with access to everything, everywhere. This always-on connection impacts their expectations for any and all experiences. Movies are not an exception.

The reality is, Gen Z has already begun to reinvent the movie-going experience. The key will be to stop assuming that what worked so well the past 100 years will work just as well in the next century. Listen to, collaborate with, and learn from Gen Z. Theaters can’t afford not to. And neither can Hollywood. But together, they’re a force to be reckoned with.

This article was originally published in MediaPost.


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