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Millennial Movie Fans: The Battle of the Five Armies

It’s a time of war.

Five forces, locked in bloody conflict, light against dark, in a fight to the death. Old adversaries clash in bitter skirmishes, as fresh rivals reveal new fronts to a timeworn battlefield. All the while, uneasy alliances are forged in the face of the common foe: malevolent and intangible, a shadowy presence hiding in plain sight, its bitter poison laying waste to the very earth itself.

It’s an ancient battle for a very modern prize: the love (and lucre) of the Millennial movie-watcher.

An appropriately dramatic analogy, perhaps, but the point is still clear: Studios, Multiplexes, Streamers (think Netflix and the like) and Brands are facing up against an army of Pirates in a conflict set to shape the future of film. So now, with the battle lines drawn for 2015, how can brands best prepare themselves to strike a telling blow in the war for Millennial film fans over the coming year?

With this question in mind, it’s worth considering the relatively unprecedented context presented by 2015: in cinematic terms, this could well be the single biggest year the industry has ever seen.

Not one, but three billion-dollar movies will be hitting screens in the coming 12 months. In May, we have Avengers: Age of Ultron – sequel to the third most successful movie of all time ($1.5bn worldwide gross, according to Box Office Mojo); Spectre, the follow-up to Skyfall (at $1.1bn, Bond’s biggest ever outing), appears in November; and that’s not forgetting a small production in December by the name of Star Wars: The Force Awakens, the latest episode in the $4.2bn box office mega-franchise.

On top of that, in sequel terms, we’ll see the conclusion to The Hunger Games (the preceding movie having made $695m worldwide), Jurassic World, Ted 2, Mission: Impossible 5, Furious 7 and Magic Mike XXL. When you add in Pixar’s Inside Out, Josh Trank’s reboot of comic book The Fantastic Four and – ahem – Fifty Shades of Grey, there’s something in there for just about everyone.

So where does this leave Millennials? After all, a trip to the cinema represents only a single touchpoint with Film as a passion point…and an expensive one at that. With the average price of a cinema ticket in the UK now £6.53 (a 26% hike since 2007, with London seats topping £13) and US tickets hovering around the $8 mark, it’s not hard to see why a trip to the movies is becoming less of an impulse decision. In 2014, research published by Nielsen in America identified a 15% drop in attendances from the previous year amongst 12-24s.

The average Millennial’s world is fast-paced and relentless. Whether picking up emails from work or endlessly checking feeds for social currency and connections, they are seldom ‘off’. For the Multiplexes, this creates an interesting and relatively unique dilemma: while the cinema is considered by Millennials as one of the last places where they can still genuinely disengage from life, attendances amongst this group are still declining.

Time-poor, experience-rich

With the average length of the year’s highest-grossing movies up from 118.4 minutes in 1992 to 141.6 minutes in 2012 – not counting the incremental half hour of adverts and trailers – starved of smartphones and live pausing, Millennials need to commit or quit when considering a trip to the cinema.

What’s more, it’s fair to say that the cinematic experience itself at the Multiplex is generally not up to par for the young, free and single Millennials. As born multitaskers and social animals, there’s an expectation that a night out offers more than just silent contemplation of an IMAX screen. Look at the popularity of Secret Cinema, the immersive movie experience encompassing themed costumes, food and event production, whose 2014 UK screenings of Back to the Future saw 17,000 of the available 66,000 tickets sell out in under five minutes. There’s even proven to be an audience for East London’s Hot Tub Cinema pop-up events, with the Hot Tub Time Machine 2 surely a shoo-in as content for screenings this year.

Similarly, more ‘regular’ viewing experiences are available for the Millennial multitasker, with the Electric, the Everyman chain and the Roxy Bar and Screen leading the charge in London in terms of luxury and/or homely seating, refreshments and even mid-movie debate. Grab a beer and order some food; make a night of it; feel sociable and connected.

While brands may struggle to have an impact on the long-term Multiplex experience itself, there may be a mindset shift occurring here, with Cineworld’s acquisition of the independent Picturehouse chain in 2012 a conscious (albeit controversial) move to recognise and grow both brands in tandem.

The question is, what can brands learn from the independents that they could take to a national level in partnership with Multiplexes? One of London’s most popular independent theatres, The Prince Charles Cinema, a stone’s throw from Leicester Square’s Empire, ODEON and Vue, provides a few clues as to how sponsors might help the chains get a little more creative, whilst engaging relevantly with Millennial audiences.

Double-bills, seasonal themes, franchise marathons, fancy dress evenings – even sing-along events (Frozen being the spectacle du jour) – you name it, the PCC could be the ultimate incubator when it comes to replicable in-theatre ‘moments’.

All you can eat content

Whether the big chains like it or not, the Millennial perception of acceptable pricing policy is changing. The Streamers have it right: at £5.99/$8.00 per month, Netflix/Amazon/Hulu have this audience wrapped up, feeding the Millennial binge-watcher a constant supply of on-demand content, all for a low (or, at least, acceptable) monthly charge. So why haven’t the Multiplexes adopted the same approach to generating a regular subscriber base? To date, of the UK’s major chains, only Cineworld offers this with its Unlimited card, £16.40 granting you as many screenings as you can fit into a month.

Stateside, the cross-chain MoviePass subscription service lets users go to a film a day for $35, a ‘premium’ version of which (think 3D and IMAX showings, not just standard 2D) AMC – the second biggest Multiplex in Northern America – is also now trialling.

The question is, if the Multiplexes aren’t offering this themselves, then how could a sponsor make this happen? And we’re not necessarily talking for free: Orange Wednesdays – arguably the biggest thing to happen in cinemas in the past 10 years – was essentially a customer BOGOF. With EE now having walked away from the offer, perhaps a reboot is in order (this is the cinema, after all), especially now that Aleksandr Meerkat and chums are now involved.

How about adding a premium bolt-on to your monthly mobile phone tariff and then using your NFC-enabled smartphone to claim tickets as often as you like, every month?

I’d buy that for a dollar (or even twenty).

Instant gratification

Another area where the big boys – in this instance, the Studios – could learn from the Streamers, is in how they deploy Video on Demand (VOD). The hacking of Sony Pictures’ systems in late 2014 – their very own Nightmare Before Christmas – actually went some way to demonstrating that whilst physical distribution in theatres is critical, it’s not essential.

Following the decision (by the major cinema chains, rather than the studio) to pull the release of the North Korea-baiting comedy The Interview, Sony Pictures finally released the movie as VOD content, making $15m in the process. Sure, this is still short of the reported $44m production budget, but (if you believe the financial documents released by the hackers) just about covered stars Seth Rogen and James Franco’s fee.

The controversy of this particular film aside, from a sponsorship perspective, the lack of a physical presence for a movie in theatres presents an opportunity for the right brand to create the necessary real-world touchpoint for consumers. Whether through Coke Zero’s excellent ‘Unlock the 007 in you’ Skyfall tie-in, or more standard marketing real estate, sponsors have the unique ability to meet Millennials half-way, and bring them closer to the movie itself.

Another related consideration for brands is that of simultaneous cross-platform release schedules. This is not a new phenomenon, with examples of ‘opening days’ synchronised across multiple media stretching back at least a decade, from such film-makers as Steven Soderbergh and, more recently, Ben Wheatley. Although unlikely to ever replace the release model for the summer blockbuster – where even the most extravagantly proportioned household flatscreen will fail to do justice to the scale and seat-juddering spectacle of a good movie theatre set-up – the provision of both immediacy of content and a choice in how to view it are drivers for Millennials across the globe. This would likely also prove popular for Gen Xers with childcare issues…

How about a sponsor-driven release day, with loyal customers or promotion winners provided unique access to either a VOD stream, DVD or viewing party – rather than just the typical activation of a local premiere we’ve come to expect? The trick is realigning the Studio- Multiplex licence agreement, which generally provides a 3-month exclusivity period to the theatres before movies can be distributed as hard copies or as digital pay-per-view content.

Any sponsors wanting to demonstrate how much they ‘get’ the Millennial film fan would also do well to consider supporting lower budget movies through this instant medium. With the blockbusters often hogging screen time at the Multiplexes, the opportunity for brands to use existing VOD technologies to drive audiences to the best new, yet otherwise unheralded films may help rather than hinder some of these productions. IMDB’s #1 rated movie amongst users, Frank Darabont’s The Shawshank Redemption, was almost completely overlooked when on general release, with only VHS bringing it into the homes and hearts of millions across the world. What if yours was the brand that had first said ‘Welcome to Shawshank’, and facilitated bringing a masterpiece to the masses?

If you love something, give it away…or, more likely, share it

It’s the ultimate double-edged sword for the industry.

Avatar, the most successful film of all time ($2.87bn worldwide gross), is also the most pirated (hitting 21 million individual downloads as far back as 2011) – demonstrating a curious co-existence and begging the question of which came first.

Whilst it’s often digitally savvy, legally unfazed Millennials who help perpetuate online piracy by viewing and distributing studio content, there’s little doubt that sharing is critical to the movie marketing ecosystem.

Without word-of-mouth recommendations, film forum debate and the excited re-posting of trailers and outtakes, there would be no cult classics or sleeper hits, and viral teaser campaigns for movies such as The Dark Knight or X-Men: Days of Future Past would fall flat.

Encouraging Millennials to share what you want about a movie (rather than just its BitTorrent download address) is the key for studios. This is something that the team at our sister agency Trailer Park know all about. By building excitement about the Multiplex experience, they maximise their profits, and by drawing attention to the must-see lower-budget films – which perhaps don’t get so much airtime on general release – even the little guys get to benefit.It only takes a short flick through Twitter, Facebook or Reddit to discover a wealth of talented individuals lovingly creating their own take on the films that touch them. From alternative homage posters, brain-bending FullMovieGIFs and the niche but nifty 8-Bit Cinema animations – the democratisation of design has enabled credible, cool fan-made marketing campaigns to live and breathe across the social networks.Marketers that could appropriately leverage the creativity of the talented masses to deliver genuinely shareable content or relevance to the Millennial audience will win here.

As we enter into 2015 proper, for the big players in film the audiences have never been more empowered, and the stakes have never been higher. One thing is clear, however: in the Battle of the Five Armies, it’s the Brands – in particular, the sponsors of film – that have a genuine opportunity to help raise the standards for the conflict ahead.

It’s showtime…

Jonathan’s blog comes from Synergy’s Now, New & Next sponsorship outlook for 2015, which can be viewed in full here.