2020 has been rough for movie fans: Many blockbuster films have been delayed, theaters were closed for months and even now, attending newly reopened movie houses requires accepting a degree of risk.
It’s been even rougher for theater owners, who lost millions in revenue after shutting down for what would normally be their busiest season.
But some theaters have found a lifeline in private screenings, making rentals more accessible and affordable to attract cinephiles beyond the usual birthday-party set.
“It is successful, and it is a significant part of our top-line revenue at this point,” founder of Alamo Drafthouse Tim League told CNN Business, declining to share specific figures. “But the reality is, times are tough in the cinema industry… we’re looking to just try to weather this time until post-vaccine when normalcy returns.”
For Alamo, a dine-in theater chain with 41 locations across the US, pre-pandemic theater rental was a bit of an involved process: Guests had to go back and forth with a private events manager. Now Alamo has automated the whole thing, allowing rentals through the website.
Starting at $150, consumers can reserve rooms at select theaters and choose from a list of old and new films like “Jurassic Park” and”Tenet.” They can invite as many as 30 people — all of whom have to buy their own tickets — and there’s also a minimum total $150 food and drink purchase.
Previously most theater-renters did so for special occasions, “whether it’s a PowerPoint presentation or a birthday surprise or greetings on screen,” League said. “The difference in this Covid era is we [have] really streamlined it: You don’t necessarily have to do something special or unique. It’s packaged for this idea of getting your friends and family together as a group.”
The interest shows at least some percentage of audiences will find a way to go to the movies during the pandemic, Paul Dergarabedian, senior media analyst at Comscore (SCOR). Another workaround is drive-in theaters, which had a renaissance this summer.
“Where there’s a will, there’s a way,” he said. “The drive-in has been really symbolic regarding people’s love for going to the movies. The same can somewhat be said about renting theaters.”
But Dergarabedian isn’t so sure renting theaters will continue to be consumer-friendly after the pandemic, when theaters must focus on filling rooms as much as possible.
“It’s one thing to offer a unique and bespoke service at bargain prices during extraordinary times,” he said. “It’s a whole other deal when some sort of normalcy is restored and this type of offering may not be as advantageous for the consumer nor the theater.
League nodded to that concept, noting that although private screenings are currently a “significant” portion of revenue, that’s a skewed bar right now.
“We’re not in the revenue game right now, we’re [trying to] survive,” he said.
For now, League added, that means creating “a world-class experience for coming back to theaters,” League said. “Some folks just aren’t comfortable going out these days, but [maybe you] are more comfortable with your friends and family, your bubble… so we’ve built this offering.”
At Cinemark (CNK), the world’s third-largest movie chain in the US, private theater rental is also ” something that was a small part of our business prior to Covid but now is more important,” CEO Mark Zoradi told CNN Business.
Renting a Cinemark theater pre-Covid could cost from $250 to $500, depending on the size of the auditorium, which included setup, concessions and other considerations.
Now, Cinemark allows guests to rent a theater at all locations, pick a movie and invite 20 of their closest friends or family. The price varies depending on which film you pick and which day you choose to go. That means it could cost $99 or $175 to rent the theater.
To Zoradi, the draw of private watch parties is giving guests “peace of mind” and a day out during the pandemic.
“It effectively becomes their giant living room,” he said, “with the best speaker system and sight and sound that you can get.”