Although Europe counts with solid precedents of cinema subscription offerings, this business model was implemented in large scale in the US for the first time only in 2017. In recent weeks, three new subscription solutions have entered the US cinema market launched by exhibitor Alamo Drafthouse, technology solutions provider Influx and ticketing services company Atom Tickets.

Three subscription solutions have entered the US cinema market in recent weeks, launched by exhibitor Alamo Drafthouse, technology solutions provider Influx and ticketing services company Atom Tickets.

Firstly, the US exhibitor Alamo Drafthouse has announced a subscription programme, the Alamo Season Pass, that will be in place by the end of 2019. Alamo operates 278 screens in 36 sites in the US as at the end of 2018 after growing over 30% year-on-year in number of screens in 2017 and 2018, according to IHS Markit’s Cinema Operators Strategic Intelligence.

The Alamo Season Pass scheme is currently being tested and based on the results Alamo will define the final terms of the scheme (mainly price and features) upon evaluating the data.

Secondly, within days of Alamo’s revelation, Influx Worldwide, a provider of digital design and technology solutions for cinemas, announced the launch of Infinity in the US. Infinity is a subscription platform that will allow exhibitors to offer specific seats and showtimes to its subscribers, who will opt to different plans and add-ons such as 3D and PLF.

Finally, end of last week, Atom Tickets, the company behind a social film ticketing app of the same name, entered the market with a different proposition, a technology solution that will allow exhibitors to launch their own subscription service.

Alamo is the third chain in the US to implement a subscription scheme. AMC started its Stubs A-List programme (a subscription tier of its loyalty programme, Stubs) in 2018 to offer 3 films/week and reported 700,000 subscribers in February this year. Before AMC, Cinemark launched its Movie Club scheme in December 2017 in its US cinemas, a more tepid offer of one film a month and discounts in concessions.  

All three exhibitor-led subscription schemes have come after first MoviePass (up to 30 films/month) and then Sinemia (plans from 1 to 30 films a month) entered the cinema subscription services market with exhibitor-agnostic propositions. Moviepass’ parent company Helios & Matheson has just raised $6 million in funding to support MoviePass business, although there are questions about its continuity given the stock of Helios & Matheson has lost most of its value over the past 12 months. On the other hand, Turkish start-up Sinemia is present also in Turkey, Australia, Canada and the UK and its price points are more sustainable in the long term.

Outside the US, among the other exhibitor groups Cineworld, Pathe and UGC offer subscription services. Cineworld’s Unlimited started it in the mid-2000s and it is available in Cineworld UK and Ireland and was extended to Cinema City Poland in 2015. Pathé offers its Cinepass in France (which brings 20% of admissions), Pathé Unlimited in the Netherlands (25% of admissions) and Pathé Pass in Switzerland.  And UGC partnered with Mk2 in 2007 to extend its UGC Illimité to reach these additional cinemas.

Our analysis 

Although Europe counts with solid precedents of cinema subscription models in the UK, Ireland, France, the Netherlands, Switzerland and Poland (having been there for over a decade in some cases), the subscription business model was implemented in large scale in the US for the first time just in 2017.  

When MoviePass experimented with its ‘unlimited’ plan for $9.95 it was a point of non-return for US movie-goers: an “all-you-can-eat” in cinemas was possible – leaving aside the sustainability of the model, which audiences don’t consider. AMC reacted with a compelling proposition that, although costs twice as much as MoviePass’, includes concessions’ and other perks and most importantly premium screenings which MoviePass lacks.

On the one hand, the new exhibitor-led offering of Alamo has a new approach given all its cinemas serve food within the auditoriums. The subscription plan effectively commoditises the content whilst maintaining a transactional, higher-value model in its core revenue, F&B. The key is to ensure that the boost in F&B revenue created by a higher attendance compensates the increase in film rental fees generated by that same boost in tickets with lower price per unit. Of course, the subscription plan also creates an upside with marketing opportunities derived from subscribers’ usage (F&B and content preferences, cinema-going habits, buying habits, etc.) that can be extrapolated to full-paying customers and increase normal margin sales.

The other pivotal point set by Alamo’s proposal is not so much the impact in the US landscape (Alamo had 0.7% market share in terms of screens in 18Q4, compared to AMC’s 12% and Cinemark’s 6.5%, according to IHS Markit) but rather the contrary: the fact that a smaller group can see value in this proposition validates the business model for other groups with dine-in offerings like Movie Tavern (0.4% market share, owned by Southern) and Studio Movie Grill (0.6%). Non dine-in cinemas may opt for limited versions of the plan such as 1-3 films a month instead to help increase occupancy.

In any event, large and small exhibitors will have to catch up with subscription offerings if these new propositions erode market share in their geographical area. In particular, if AMC’s A-List proves to eat up market share nationwide, Cinemark may need to expand its Movie Club service and Cineworld may have to create a version of Unlimited for its Regal cinemas. 

On the other hand, Influx and Atom Tickets propositions are not aimed at larger exhibitors because these already have the ability to create their own solutions (not needing Atom Tickets’) and won’t want to erode brand value by being part of a platform with competing cinemas. Both initiatives are however targeting mid and small size exhibitors primarily to allow them access to this new business model. There are 16 exhibitors in the US with between 200 to 550 screens, for which either of these platforms could be useful.  

Finally, it remains the question of whether AMC, or other large groups if they jump on the subscription wagon, will export subscription models into other territories the same way it is exporting recliner seats or dine-in cinemas to Odeon locations in Europe. The answer will rely on cinema-going culture, and whether F&B concessions compensate for the loss in ticket revenues, and for example Western Europe is less prone to that than the US. On the other hand, the UK, Ireland and now Poland have solid precedents with Cineworld Unlimited.