Movie the­aters branch­ing out

Cin­ema chains try­ing to fill empty seats are host­ing ‘ Minecraft’ con­tests, other events.

Los Angeles Times - - BUSINESS - Sid­dharth. vod­nala @ latimes. com By Sid­dharth Vod­nala

They’re host­ing video game con­tests and other events to f ill empty seats dur­ing off- peak hours.

Salvador So­lis Jr. stared in­tently at the movie screen in front of him, watch­ing peo­ple scram­ble around di­nosaurs.

But the 11- year- old wasn’t at West­wood’s iPic theater to catch a mati­nee screen­ing of the sum­mer block­buster “Juras­sic World.” He and about 100 oth­ers f illed the seats to play a video game called “Minecraft,” where they built di­nosaurs in a vir­tual world con­trolled from their lap­tops and simul­cast on the big screen.

“I liked meet­ing peo­ple and play­ing ‘ Minecraft’ with them,” So­lis said.

That’s ex­actly what theater own­ers are bank­ing on.

Cine­mas are hav­ing to work harder than ever to lure younger pa­trons to the mul­ti­plex be­cause they have more en­ter­tain­ment op­tions in the home, in­clud­ing stream­ing movies on their tablets and play­ing video games online. Re­flect­ing the trend, at­ten­dance at movie the­aters in the U. S. and Canada last year was 1.27 bil­lion, down from 1.5 bil­lion in 2004, ac­cord­ing to the Mo­tion Pic­ture Assn. of Amer­ica.

To boost prof­its, big theater chains have been try­ing new ways to draw in crowds who want to be en­ter­tained as part of a group ex­pe­ri­ence.

“The­aters would like to be your lo­cal des­ti­na­tion for all your en­ter­tain­ment,” said Matthew Har­ri­gan, an an­a­lyst with Wun­der­lich Se­cu­ri­ties.

The three largest theater chains in the na­tion — AMC En­ter­tain­ment, Cine­mark Hold­ings and Re­gal En­ter­tain­ment Group — formed a joint ven­ture a decade ago to help f ill seats that might oth­er­wise go empty dur­ing off- peak hours.

Fathom Events of­fers simul­casts of con­certs, Broad­way shows, big sports matches and other events that can be broad­cast dig­i­tally to the­aters across the coun­try. Those the­aters then can make money by selling tick­ets at a pre­mium.

Video games have also proved to be a pop­u­lar draw. Cine­mark, for ex­am­ple, re­cently part­nered with Co­caCola Co. to present a view­ing party for part of the world cham­pi­onship se­ries of the video game “League of Le­gends.”

“We’ve tried to cre­ate an en­vi­ron­ment that caters to all our cus­tomers,” said James Mered­ith, who heads mar­ket­ing at Cine­mark. “Many movie­go­ers are also gamers and we want to make our the­aters must- visit places for them.”

For the­aters, host­ing video game con­tests and other al­ter­na­tive en­ter­tain­ment also ad­dresses a long- stand­ing prob­lem of low oc­cu­pancy rates.

The­aters f ill only about 16% of their seats dur­ing an av­er­age day, mainly be­cause of very low turnout dur­ing weekday morn­ings and af­ter­noons, ac­cord­ing to Wun­der­lich Se­cu­ri­ties. So the­aters see f inan­cial sense in es­sen­tially rent­ing them­selves out, es­pe­cially since they don’t have to bear much of the cost to host the events.

Bring­ing more peo­ple into the­aters also boosts sales of con­ces­sions, an im­por­tant profit driver .

This new busi­ness model has at­tracted com­pa­nies try­ing to cash in on the trend.

Start- ups in­clud­ing Su­per League Gam­ing, the Santa Mon­ica com­pany be­hind the “Minecraft” event, see in- theater gam­ing as sim­i­lar to sports leagues.

The com­pany was co­founded by John Miller, David Steigelfest and Brett Mor­ris, who saw their chil­dren come home from school to play video games by them­selves. They wanted to give their kids the same so­cial ex­pe­ri­ence that chil­dren who played out­door sports like soc­cer or base­ball had.

“We thought, if base­ball has a Lit­tle League, why shouldn’t kids who play video games have their own league?” Mor­ris said. “Plus there’s the com­pet­i­tive as­pect to it, the thrill of play­ing to win.”

Mor­ris and his part­ners ap­proached AMC, Re­gal and Cine­mark about us­ing their the­aters to host a video game league that will run dur­ing six- week tour­na­ments.

Par­tic­i­pants at the iPic theater paid $ 20 each to par­tic­i­pate in Wed­nes­day’s nearly two- hour video game ses­sion, with the ticket rev­enue split be­tween the theater and Su­per League Gam­ing.

Su­per League Gam­ing’s founders also saw an op­por­tu­nity to help fill empty seats dur­ing the day­time.

“I walked into the theater here and they were show­ing ‘ Juras­sic World,’ which spent mil­lions of dol­lars in pro­duc­tion and mar­ket­ing, and you know how many peo­ple were in the theater?” Mor­ris said. “Three peo­ple.”

Luis Sinco Los An­ge­les Times

Luis Sinco Los An­ge­les Times

FANS OF “MINECRAFT” gather at the iPic theater in West­wood for an event spon­sored by Su­per League Gam­ing. They built di­nosaurs in a vir­tual world con­trolled from their lap­tops and simul­cast on the big screen.

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