Movie theater comeback emphasizes digital experience

Digital Signage Today conducted an email interview with Richard McPherson, Sr. product manager at Sharp/NEC, about the post-pandemic movie theater and how it is leveraging digital experiences not merely to survive but to thrive in the new era.

The movie theater industry is working to recover from the impact of the pandemic, and theater chains hope to leverage lessons learned by the retail, restaurant and hospitality industries to build a new movie-going experience for the post-pandemic era, with a special focus on the emerging popularity of interactive digital experiences and new technologies. Digital Signage Today conducted an email interview with Richard McPherson, senior product manager at Sharp/NEC, about these changes and to find out just how the movie industry should go about revitalizing itself and evolving not just to survive but to flourish in the 21st century.

Q:How has your professional background given you a unique perspective on the current state of the movie theater industry?

A: I’ve worked for almost three decades with Sharp/NEC and have gotten to know the needs of our clients in various sectors, including entertainment/movie theater clients.

Q:The pandemic affected everyone intensely, but just how bad did things get for movie theaters?

A:As you have seen in the news, there have been bankruptcies, consolidations (and) fewer major films (let alone any new films) along with a reluctance of some occasional moviegoers in returning to the theater. Fortunately for the industry, major films are starting to increase, also many new films and the number of releases are growing. Production is very high right now and sound stages are running near capacity. Reluctance is mainly seen from the senior crowd — this demographic group will take time.

Q:Leading up to the pandemic, there was a lot of buzz about the theater experience of the future, from 3D+ to new interactive experiences like AR. As theaters combat the dual threat of pandemic jitters and increasingly impressive home theater systems, what is the path forward to regaining audience trust and loyalty? Is moviegoing dead, or will it be reborn as one of the great American pastimes?

A: It is understood that there are challenges to overcome, but there is nothing that can truly replace the true movie experience. Due to the pandemic, some of the new ideas, such as 3D+ and AR, are on hold. Exhibitors had spent a great deal of money on new projectors, seating, digital signage, etc. to improve the overall experience but the pandemic shut off their cash flow. So the expectations are they need to get back in the black before adding anything new.

Q:Let’s zero in specifically on one of the hottest trends in digital signage, DOOH, A/V and entertainment: “interactivity.” That’s the magic word, and everyone’s excited about “interactive experiences.” Not to be redundant, but can you tell us in a bit more depth about why interactivity is so powerful now, and how the movie industry is coming to grips with it?

A: Interactivity is being seen throughout the industry. The goal is to keep patrons in the building. Products like Sharp/NEC’s large screen displays, business projectors and dvLED support patrons in attracting and capturing people’s attention. Another great example that can help keep patrons in the building is one of our newest and most innovative products NaviSense. Using computer vision, a form of artificial intelligence that gathers and analyzes visual data, can help theatres gain an understanding about the environment and customer behavior to make better decisions and enhance the customer experience.

In the past, people showed up for the movie and then left to do other things. Those other things could be bars, electronic games, interactive games, bowling, etc. We are seeing many theatres remodel and re-purpose their existing facilities; for example, if you had a 14-plex, you may remodel and make take half of this building and build it out as an entertainment center. One half of the building will be seven screens for movies and the other half for entertainment. Theatre buildings are becoming entertainment centers.

Q:We see a lot about display tech going beyond 3D up to 9D. What exactly does that mean, and do you think that traditional movies will be replaced by 3D+?

A: The jury is still out for 3D, will it make a comeback with better presentations? Better stories? The release of Avatar should provide a better understanding on the popularity of 3D.

Q. One of the effects of pandemic was to make industries far more aware about safety and accessibility issues. How can movie theaters address these concerns to create the moviegoing experience of the future?

A: Theaters responded quickly to the pandemic and invoked sanitized cleaning between shows, blocked off seats for distancing, app ticketing, etc. Theaters already accommodate accessibility issues with ramps, wheelchair access and equipment for the hearing and visually impaired.

Q:Everyone talks about the rise of streaming and home theater systems — heck, streaming companies sometimes launch movies and series in theaters now! Streaming companies have played with interactive movies redolent of “Choose Your Own Adventure” books some of us remember from childhood. We also hear a lot about IoT, AR experiences that integrate user devices for a personalized experience and more. This raises a question: are we going to see a future where the traditional, passive experience of seeing a movie is replaced by something far more personalized and interactive?

A: Possibly, theaters make nice test locations. Many times a single screen in a complex is converted to test new experiences like surround screens, gaming centers with active seats, etc. The challenge will be balancing enough new stories or experiences against higher production costs which may take additional time to realize the required profits.

Q:A brief sidebar question is warranted here. What is the future of the home theater system? We’ve already maxed out displays to the highest resolution the human eye can see. Will home theater take a cue from interactive and emerging tech like 3D+, hologram technology, AR and so on? Will we see a hybridized marriage between the traditional and home theater industries?

A:Home theatre systems are constantly improving; however, these are home theatres. A home theatre will not match the environment of a 50′ screen or larger, sitting in a dark room with 400 people and being immersed in a visual event.

Q:Okay, so this is going to be super broad. In the context of all these developments, there’s often a media conversation portraying an embattled “Old Hollywood” with vintage distribution models at war with new platforms and creators. Do you see Hollywood evolving or even being displaced in the new world of film? What exactly is the future of movies in the 21st century? What trends should producers and consumers really be paying attention to in the next few years?

A: As studios are all owned by major corporations, it does shift the dynamic a bit; however, the distribution model that has been in place for years is still a viable system. The changes are happening in other forms of entertainment that are being booked in theatres. Non-theatrical content (is) showing up more and more in cinemas: streaming of live concerts have proven to be a new “thing.” In the past some older concerts would be shown as special screenings. Since the pandemic, current concerts have been getting booked more and more.

A major recent success was a BTS concert shown theatrically, for one night only. It grossed over $20 million. Other “off” times are gaining popularity; churches have been renting auditoriums, corporate meetings / conferences during the daytime hours, AMC recently launched a ZOOM conference; auditoriums have capacity during the daytime hours. These are just a few examples. Gaming is making a nice entry — mid- to large-size auditoriums are also being rented out for gaming competitions.

(2023, January 31). Digital Signage Today. Retrieved from