Sunday, November 11, 2007

Confessions of a cinema programmer

Meet the man who decides what you get to watch on the big screen

Weekend • November 10, 2007

Kenneth Tan

IF YOU'RE a movie buff, chances are you bought one or more of the 16 million cinema tickets sold in Singapore last year. Have you ever wondered, who decides what films get shown where, for how long and why?

At certain times of the year, all theatres seem to be screening the same fare. Or a good movie you've heard about has come and gone before you've psyched yourself up to see it. The people to blame for all this are a special breed of entertainment executives — the cinema programmers.

Is it a dream job? It can be — for anyone who lives and breathes movies. A cinema programmer interfaces and negotiates with film distributors to select and schedule movies on a week-by-week basis. He is responsible for the repertoire on offer in each auditorium, at each multiplex, down to the finest detail of specific session times.

It isn't easy to make such decisions. The programmer's personal tastes aren't necessarily representative of a particular audience segment. The job requires insightful analysis of what people want to see and when they most want to see it.

So how are cinema programming decisions made?

Anticipated popularity

Unless you own and operate a cinema complex for purely altruistic reasons, the cinema programmer will always aim to get the most popular movies and attract the largest possible audience.

Movie distributors often organise trade screenings, which allow programmers from various cinema circuits to preview upcoming content at a centralised place and time (usually with a sales presentation extolling the film's merits).

Programmers also test-screen films on an internal, individual basis. Consuming a product before selling it to the public is better than "selling blind"; but sometimes, lead times don't permit this and programmers may have to rely on market intelligence and reports from other countries that have already released a particular movie.


The cinema programmer's job is to "maximise bums on seats". This isn't as straightforward as it sounds. A movie that effectively appeals to 100 paying patrons per screening is better programmed in a 120-seat auditorium than in a 200-seater.

An A-List blockbuster such as Transformers will have a substantial audience even after six weeks of release, but a lesser-known film could dwindle in audience size to single digits in a mere fortnight.

Perfect a priori market knowledge isn't possible, so the programmer must juggle a gamut of quantified data (such as overseas box office results) and qualitative judgment (based on experience and consumer insights) to make smart programming decisions.

Cost-of-Goods: "Film hire"

If popularity and capacity were all the programmer had to worry about, the biggest blockbusters would always have the longest runs in the largest halls.

But there is another crucial part of the equation. Movie distributors — representing the studios that produce the content — charge a percentage of every ticket sold as their cost-of-goods.

What that percentage is, depends on the relative clout of the movie and the cinema operator, as well as how new the film is. With each passing week after its opening, a film's hire rate swings in favour of the cinema operator, as an incentive to "keep the product on the shelf" for a longer period of time.

The difference of a fraction of a percentage point in film hire can translate into millions of dollars at the bottom line. These terms of business are negotiated title by title, site by site, auditorium by auditorium, week by week. It is one of the most challenging aspects of a programmer's role.

Competitive environment

Movies aren't scheduled in a vacuum. There are times of the year, such as school holidays and major festive periods, during which the cinema business enjoys the most lucrative trading potential.

The tricky thing for programmers is that every movie firm wants to open new films on "good" dates. Sometimes, it is better to opt for a "clear" date on which yours is the only noteworthy movie coming onto the market, even if it isn't peak season.

For example, in May, Pirates of the Caribbean at World's End opened on a fabulous date — the 24th, just when mid-year school holidays were starting. Spider-Man 3 opened on Labour Day (May 1), when some of the target audience were still having school examinations, but Peter Parker enjoyed the advantage of three clear weeks before the onset of competition from Captain Jack Sparrow.

Also, the potential impact of campaigns and events in and around the mall cannot be ignored. The programmer must be alert and act on it, networking and developing close relations with peers, suppliers, retail neighbours, mall managers, webmasters, newspaper and magazine editors.

Potential catchment audience

Where each multiplex is located affects who buys tickets, for what types of movies, and in what ways. Cinemas in posh residential estates require different programming strategies from those in bustling downtown malls.

If a particular cinema complex observes many offices with large numbers of employees in the vicinity, that programmer can, and should, go all out to screen and sell corporate-friendly film fare — and food and beverage as well.

A guaranteed, pre-sold full house of 300 corporate guests is a powerful incentive to any smart programmer whose choice of films will be directly influenced by the nature and needs of that audience.

Geography is also borne in mind when screening times are planned. The last show can end late(r) if the cineplex is in a housing estate where patrons can walk home. City-centre cinemas generally have earlier night sessions.

Human traffic

Multiplex scheduling is an art. Inexperienced programmers, who allow too little turnaround time between the end of one movie session and the start of the next in the same hall, can cause major traffic jams in cinema foyers. On the other hand, multiplex business optimisation is very much about packing in as many screenings as possible.

Staggering of start times is also important to maximise the likelihood that patrons will buy food and beverage from the cinema's concessions counter after buying their tickets.

F&B revenue is, in some instances, even more significant to the cinema operator than the literal box-office receipts — after all, the ticket proceeds are shared with the movie content provider, whereas the popcorn and soda money is not!

I know of no other job in the entertainment industry, or anywhere else, which, in the same breath, stretches and hones the financial, logistical, experiential and judgmental skills of its practitioner.

Whether you marvel or sulk at your next multiplex movie, spare a thought for the person who made all those decisions, behind the scenes, so that Your Show Can Go On.

The writer is Managing Director of Golden Village Singapore.

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