Earlier this year, Cineworld CEO Moshe “Mooky” Greidinger had an idea: Slash ticket prices to 3 pounds at his U.K. theaters to celebrate the reemergence of the box office.
The larger-than-life exhibitor tried to enlist his rivals on the British Isles, but they said no. Yet he was on to something. A record 650,000 tickets were purchased on Feb. 26, a Saturday.
It was such a success that the newly launched Cinema Foundation in the U.S. decided to stage National Cinema Day over Labor Day weekend and charge $3 to see a movie in any format, including Imax. (The average cost of the most basic ticket is anywhere from $9 to $12. The price can be notably higher in cities such as Los Angeles and New York.)
The Sept. 3 promotion resulted in 8.2 million moviegoers turning up at more than 3,000 theaters across the U.S. to boast the biggest day of 2022 so far in number of admissions. (The irony isn’t lost in terms of Greidinger’s role in this, considering that Cineworld has filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy.)
The Sept. 3 haul was up six times from the preceding Friday, and compares to 2.8 million tickets sold in 2021 and 1.7 million in 2019. And remember, there weren’t even any new Hollywood tentpoles playing this year, with Top Gun: Maverick winning the holiday weekend despite being more three months into its run. Total revenue for Sept. 3 was $23.6 million, an uptick of 101 percent over the Friday before and coming in well ahead of previous Labor Day Saturdays.
The looming question now is whether the Cinema Foundation, which is affiliated with the National Association of Theatre Owners, will offer the same promotion, or a similar discount, on a yearly basis. The Foundation says it’s premature to speculate, but studio insiders expect an encore, even if it isn’t on Labor Day or even a weekend. “What we told the studios was, ‘please try it this year. In exchange, my promise to you is that we will form a working group,’” says Jackie Brenneman, president of the Cinema Foundation.
Brenneman reiterated that the intent of National Cinema Day was to celebrate the theatrical experience as the industry emerges from the pandemic, and to thank moviegoers who helped fuel this summer’s box office recovery.
Every major Hollywood studio participated in National Cinema Day, but executives say they want a level playing field if this is to become an annual event. If film distributors are going to get back far less from their split of the ticket, then they want theater chains to lower concession prices as many did on Sept. 3, including AMC Theatres.
Hollywood is also concerned about devaluing particular films by dropping the price.
It’s forbidden for companies to collectively set prices, and NATO made sure to clear the idea of National Cinema Day with the right people in Washington, D.C., including at the Department of Justice, one source says. And the Cinema Foundation didn’t start promoting the $3 discount until the previous Sunday so as not to cannibalize business over the final weekend of August.
Also, the Foundation only had a month to execute National Cinema Day. If it were to happen again, there would be more time to promote the general idea of celebrating the theatrical experience.
Brenneman’s team, alongside NATO, are hardly the only ones trying to nudge consumers to return to their pre-pandemic moviegoing habits. Exhibitors in major box office markets around the world are staging their own versions of National Cinema Day and slashing ticket prices for a brief period of time following the success of Cineworld’s February experiment, including in Mexico last month.
A version of this story first appeared in the Sept. 16 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.