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The Cineworld/Regal Deal and MoviePass Will Finally Force U.S. Exhibitors to Face Innovation

Now that America's top two theater chains are owned by foreign countries, exhibitors will be forced to get serious about change.

Cineworld London

Cineworld movie theater at O2 Arena, London.

Shutterstock / 4kclips

U.K.-based Cineworld’s just-announced acquisition of the second-largest movie exhibitor in the U.S., Regal Cinemas creates uncertainty. AMC Theaters and Cineworld-Regal — the #1 and #2 domestic chains, respectively — are both controlled by foreign owners (China’s Dalian Wanda in AMC’s case). This only underlines the international aspect of the exhibition business. And with that, we also must question the future of our domestic theaters.

Already, grosses from U.S. theaters don’t keep pace with international growth. And while there’s been a lot of excitement surrounding the success of MoviePass, which allows subscribers to buy a movie ticket per day from most major chains, that could be muted by a new yet established rival: Cineworld’s Unlimited Card.

Currently, the Unlimited Card is only available as an annual purchase, at a cost of about $24 per month ($14 more than Moviepass). A full year costs $288. Unlike Moviepass, it offers a 10 percent discount on concessions. Like Moviepass, it limits purchases to non-premium showings, although those are available with a surcharge. Renew the subscription and premium upgrades are free and the concession discount 25 percent.

Unlike MoviePass, of course, Unlimited Card is limited to a single exhibitor. And MoviePass seems to work particularly well for specialized films, which aren’t guaranteed to play at any major chain. Last weekend, “The Disaster Artist” opened at 19 theaters in 11 markets, and sold nearly 10 percent of its tickets through MoviePass. When you consider that the film’s top-grossing theaters don’t accept MoviePass, that means more than one of six tickets sold came via this program.’

"The Disaster Artist"

“The Disaster Artist”

Between the Cineworld-Regal news and MoviePass, today’s other major movie announcement looks a bit pallid: The third-largest circuit, Cinemark, launched its own subscription service with Movie Club. For $8.99, you get one admission per month, a 20 percent discounts on concessions, no charge for seat reservations, and points toward additional tickets.

Cineworld’s acquisition of Regal still needs to be finalized, and it’s unclear if it will bring Unlimited Card to our shores. However, their commitment to innovative offerings when theater chains are struggling to keep up with Netflix, cable, and streaming options might be one reason a foreign company is buying a major U.S. circuit rather than the other way around.

At a minimum, outside-the-box thinking could be one of the most important aspects of Cineworld’s purchase of Regal. An aggressive program like this could force all their competitors to find their own ways to follow the MoviePass lead and direct prime customers to their own theaters.

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