Welcoming audiences back to movie theaters

Welcoming audiences back to movie theaters

By Brontë H. Lacsamana, Reporter

CINEMAS and other places of entertainment are hopeful as they aim for resilience amid economic risks. Since reopening in 2021 after the pandemic-induced lockdowns, movie theaters are attracting more audience members through upgraded facilities and an increased variety of film choices.

Ayala Malls Cinemas reports that operations have been picking up. In September, the division reported that “watching movies in cinemas, long cherished by Filipinos, is experiencing a renaissance.”

“Philippine cinemas successfully achieved a robust box office performance for the year 2022. The same performance was reached as early as September 2023,” said Emee Aganon, head of Ayala Malls Cinemas, in an interview with BusinessWorld.

This year, this renaissance manifested in blockbuster favorites like Barbie, The Little Mermaid, and Insidious: The Red Door, as well as the acclaimed Cinemalaya film festival.

Barbie was Warner Bros. Pictures Philippines’ biggest release in 2023, spurred on by toy box photo booth campaigns in malls nationwide. Meanwhile, its “partner-in-crime” in the “Barbenheimer” moviegoing phenomenon, Oppenheimer, was the highest-grossing IMAX release in 2023, according to Universal Pictures Philippines.

“These films drew substantial audiences back to theaters,” said Ayala Malls Cinemas via e-mail.

Steven Tan, president of SM Supermalls, said in December that SM Cinemas’ response to the returning demand is to make films more accessible to Filipinos.

At the opening ceremony of the French Film Festival, which was done in partnership with the French Embassy, he said, “Film is such a compelling medium to enrich our perspective. This is why we expanded the film festival to two of our iconic SM Supermalls, making French cinema more accessible than ever before.” The festival was held at the cinemas of the SM Mall of Asia and SM Megamall.

Regular tickets for those films cost P150 while tickets for students, seniors, and persons with disabilities (PWDs) cost P100.

Most notably, Filipinos’ clamor for accessible films was seen on Oct. 15, during SM Cinemas’ 65th anniversary, when eight titles were available for only P65 across SM Cinemas nationwide.

Photos of long queues at the mall went viral as audiences chose from the eclectic mix of American, Asian, and Filipino selections under the one-day promo. The films were Instant Daddy, The Creator, The Expendables, Forbidden Play, Monster, Coffee Wars, and Dr. Cheon and the Lost Talisman.

In a disclosure on Nov. 6, SM Prime said “cinemas, event ticket sales, and other revenues increased significantly to P7.7 billion from P3.5 billion in the same period last year” — a whopping 120% increase.

However, despite the seemingly positive growth in the country’s cinema exhibition industry, it pales in comparison to pre-pandemic times.

Ms. Aganon of Ayala Malls Cinemas notes: “Although there’s a considerable improvement compared to the previous year, it’s important to note that the current performance is still 60% below pre-pandemic levels.”

Both companies acknowledge the arduous journey ahead for cinema operators. They cite the potential occurrence of another pandemic, evolving consumer behaviors, and the persistent issue of piracy.

But there will always be people who will want to go to the movie theater, according to Mr. Tan of SM Supermalls. This is why SM opened many cinemas in some of their malls this year: in Bataan, in Sto. Tomas in Batangas, and in Pulilan in Bulacan. Its newest IMAX theater opened in SM Iloilo just last month.

As the country’s largest cinema operator, it has 384 screens combined nationwide.

To keep Filipinos coming back to the movies, it’s also essential to continue bettering their current offerings, as per Ayala Malls Cinemas, a major runner-up cinema operator in the Philippines.

“Cinemas play an integral role in the malling experience for Filipinos. Along with our competitors, we persistently invest in upgrades and introduce new formats to enhance the overall cinematic experience,” said Ms. Aganon.

Both companies told BusinessWorld that audiences can look forward to more cutting-edge projectors, state-of-the-art sound systems, comfortable seats, and enhanced online ticketing systems.

Given these technical advantages, the question that emerges is: What experiences do cinemas offer that (admittedly convenient) streaming platforms don’t? Many point to the communality of watching with a crowd and the sense of exploration provided by an in-person venue, program, or festival.

“There’s something about watching films collectively, with the audience reacting together, that strengthens bonds,” said Mariel Nini, officer in charge of the National Commission for Culture and the Arts’ (NCCA) Sentro Rizal International Cultural Affairs Office.

At the sidelines of the Tingin Southeast Asian Film Festival in September, she noted that although many online platforms have mushroomed, moviegoers are still coming back to the theaters. “There has been clamor for in-person screenings,” she added, on why film festivals are now veering away from the purely online format they adopted during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Patrick Campos, a University of the Philippines Film Institute (UPFI) professor and Tingin’s festival programmer, said that the lockdown “has certainly changed people’s viewing habits, although Filipinos’ exposure to Southeast Asian and world cinema remains the same.”

“Our interest in films from the region is piqued not by popularity, but by thoughtful programming, and audiences turn to festivals to gain insight into other cultures and histories,” he told BusinessWorld back in September.

This is also the reason the Film Development Council of the Philippines (FDCP) licensed the rights to various world cinema titles for commercial release in Ayala Malls Cinemas in August. These included Cannes-winning titles Aftersun by Charlotte Wells and Return to Seoul by Davy Chou.

“More than its aim to encourage audiences to return to the cinemas, this program aims to further expose moviegoers to titles that would help them expand their horizons,” said FDCP Chairman Tirso Cruz III in a statement.

2023 also saw a colorful array of film festivals from embassies such as Japanese, Korean, Spanish, Italian, and so on — all held in person — as well as a much bigger QCinema International Film Festival.

In November, QCinema screened nearly 70 films from the Philippines and around the world, welcoming three times more guests and filmmakers compared to last year, said Ed Lejano, its festival director.

“We know there’s a strong filmgoing market here. Yes, streaming platforms have become the most popular form of entertainment for Filipinos nowadays, but film festivals are back with a vengeance,” he told the press at the launch.

Moving forward, these festivals showing independent and acclaimed foreign titles will be providing a variety to complement the blockbusters peddled by the Philippines’ major cinema operators.

Both SM and Ayala have said they are eagerly anticipating the Hollywood movie lineup for 2024, despite the delays caused by the actors’ and writers’ strikes in the USA.

“Currently, the ratio of foreign movies to local movies stands at 70:30,” said Ms. Aganon of Ayala Malls Cinemas. “We hope that this will improve with more contribution from local movie producers.”

She added that partnerships with foreign distributors will be broadening their offerings. This includes concert films featuring the successful live performances of popular global artists such as Taylor Swift, Beyoncé, Coldplay, BTS and other notable K-pop groups.

For renowned Filipino screenwriter Ricardo “Ricky” Lee, the variety of films in theaters is essential to not only entertain audiences, but also inspire them.

“Aspiring artists and writers, upon seeing the variety of films in theaters, get a strong push to explore storytelling possibilities. These avenues embolden the youth,” he told BusinessWorld at the sidelines of QCinema’s opening night.

“I’m also very optimistic about Filipino audiences. I don’t think streaming will go away because it’s convenient, but I think people are realizing how great it is to watch on a big screen. There will always be a place for it,” Mr. Lee added.

UPFI’s Mr. Campos concludes that pitting movie theaters against streaming platforms is not necessary: “It is not that one is better than the other, but that each mode of distribution and consumption should be considered distinct and worthy of being explored separately.”