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Many industries have been bruised as a result of COVID-19 – film being a big one. 

Across the world, cinemas and movie theaters closed in 2020 and again in 2021, release dates were delayed, and streaming platforms surged in popularity. 

UK cinema box office takings in July and August, after all COVID-19 restrictions were lifted, were half their pre-pandemic levels

As the dust starts to settle, what does the future hold for movie theaters, and has our relationship with the big screen changed?

Comfort levels about returning to the movies remain divided.

Our GWI Zeitgeist data from July across 6 markets finds that comfort levels around returning to movie theatres are divided, with around two-fifths feeling comfortable returning and a similar proportion feeling uncomfortable. 

On a market level, we see that France and the U.S. are ahead in their comfort levels, while India is further behind. Comfort levels are also reflected in the number of people who visit the movies at least once a month, which is down 9 points globally since Q1 2020. 

chart showing comfort levels about returning to the cinema are divided

Return to movie theaters also varies by world region, depending on the COVID-19 situation. While attendance is down in all regions, the biggest declines are in Latin America, Europe, and North America. 

However, the good news for the silver screen is that the proportion of those who visit the movies at least once a month has stabilized since Q4 2020 on a global level. 

More good news for cinemas is that regular movie-goers feel far more comfortable returning to the big screen compared to occasional movie-goers (56% vs. 39%, respectively). 

There are likely a few reasons for this. First, they’re bigger fans of going to the movies to begin with. Second, they’re likely more aware of the COVID-19 safety restrictions theaters have put in place than those who visit less often. 

Industry players have a big opportunity to reconnect with their regular audiences and make the most out of their visit. Social media campaigns are an effective way of doing this. 

To celebrate the return of theatrical releases in the U.S., major studios united to create the industry-wide campaign #TheBigScreenIsBack on Twitter. The campaign created a buzz around new releases as well as generating discussion around the globe, enabling audiences to share their thoughts and reactions.

Cinemas need to do more to help anxious returners feel more comfortable.

Almost two-thirds of anxious returners would feel more comfortable going to a cinema if there was regulated social distancing and mandatory mask-wearing. 

This is closely followed by knowing everyone has had a COVID-19 vaccine, showing that consumers are still more cautious than sometimes realized.

For many of these consumers, the basics like social distancing and mask-wearing are still must-haves. 

chart showing movie theaters have the power to ease worries of returners

With the majority of anxious returners being far more likely to watch films using streaming services, cinemas need to ensure these individuals feel safe returning. An important step is making the public more aware of their safety procedures.

With the pace of vaccination in the U.S. reaching a plateau, some states are taking steps to further protect the public. Following New York City’s lead, the Los Angeles City Council recently passed a motion which will require people to show proof they’ve been vaccinated in order to enter businesses. 

Under this proposal, people in Los Angeles who’re eligible for the COVID-19 vaccine will need to show evidence of at least one shot to enter movie theaters. 

Countries which are further behind in their immunization plans should build on the examples offered by the U.S.

Despite viewers turning to the small screen during the pandemic, movie theaters haven’t lost their magic.

Using GWI Zeitgeist data, we find that regular cinema-goers are more likely to watch films on the big screen than occasional cinema-goers. Although many turned to the small screen during lockdowns, our data finds that even among regular cinema-goers there’s a desire to watch movies on both streaming providers and the big screen – it’s not a case of one or the other. 

However, the big screen undoubtedly offers something which can’t be replicated at home. With 43% of regular cinema-goers describing themselves as social/outgoing, cinephiles don’t just attend for the movie, it’s the whole experience they yearn for. They cite the camaraderie, normalcy, and seeing people’s reactions as reasons why they’re thrilled to be back in the theater. 

This group is therefore less likely to see streaming platforms as an alternative to the big screen, but rather as a supplementary mode of entertainment that serves their love of movies. 

Audiences flock back to movie theaters for the whole experience.

There’s nothing quite like a Marvel film to bring crowds to the movie theater. Our Zeitgeist data shows that 43% of consumers are planning to watch Spider-Man: No Way Home, making it the most popular upcoming movie – a mighty ten percentage-points ahead of the next competitor. 

Movie theater returners aren’t just about the films, they want the whole experience. 

After spending a year watching movies on their small screen at home, many consumers have a “go big or go home” attitude and are treating themselves more post-pandemic. 

AMC Entertainment reports that cinema-goers are eating more popcorn and drinking more soda than before. Average food and beverage consumption per person has jumped from $4.76 in the first quarter of 2020 to a record high $7.37 over the same period in 2021. 

People have been stuck at home for too long;  now they want the full movie theater experience, providing chains the opportunity to up-sell to cinema-goers far more than usual.

Given the big divide in comfort levels, industry players should take this opportunity to appeal to their most committed audience, especially during a time when many are indulging themselves more. Marketing should therefore focus on the experiential side of the silver screen which just can’t be replicated at home.

At the same time, cinema chains need to help the anxious feel more comfortable about stepping through their doors, so that everyone can enjoy the magic of the big screen once again.

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