Vista Group International is offering its cinema customers a technology package to help them reopen, including managing self-serve, contactless transactions and ticketing to achieve social distancing, free of charge through to at least October 31.
Chief executive Kimbal Riley told BusinessDesk the new features are being developed within existing modules but that not all customers take all modules.
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"In a situation like this, it's fundamental for us to set up and help. There's no question that our customers' health and our health are linked together. It seemed like the right thing to do," Riley said.
"Pre-Covid, we didn't have what we're calling dynamic social distancing" software, and all aspects of the package have and are still being developed after Vista consulted customers around the world about what they would need to reopen.
"If we didn't have it, we've built it, or almost finished building it," he said.
Free deal may get extended
The timing of the free-of-charge period will depend on how quickly cinemas reopen and could be pushed out beyond October 31 if reopening takes longer, Riley said.
Vista has customers in more than 90 countries and claims 51 per cent of cinemas with 20 or more screens outside of China. Its software ranges from assisting cinema operations through to marketing and distributing movies and to help manage customer loyalty programmes.
Evo Entertainment Group, which opened its theatres in Texas on Monday, is one of the first to use the social distancing ticketing system Vista is offering which will allow it to limit occupancy to 25 per cent.
The software forces a two-seat spacing between groups or individuals within a row as well as alternating rows to create six feet (2 metres) of social distancing behind and in front of customers.
Riley said that globally under normal conditions, cinemas typically operate on between 12 per cent and 18 per cent occupancy, although that varies greatly between individual new release blockbusters and art house movies.
Limiting occupancy to 25 per cent means "there will be times when they have to have more screenings," but, in principle, cinemas should be able to operate profitably at that level.
"One of the great tricks in running a multiplex is trying to make sure that the right movie is showing in the right auditorium," Riley said.
An operator doesn't want to sell out a movie showing in a 50-seat auditorium and have empty seats in a much bigger theatre.
China was the first country in the world to go into the coronavirus crisis and the first to reemerge afterwards, but after a short period in which between 200 and 500 cinemas reopened, they were closed again and remain closed while other part of China's economy have reopened.
Riley said he wasn't sure why that happened, but it could have been by government fiat.
Reports from China back that up but those cinemas that did reopen had performed very poorly with customers staying away.
Riley said he tries not to speculate publicly about customers but he is expecting a slow month in Texas.
"We don't have any evidence that people wouldn't go – it's a matter of getting them feeling safe and I think that will happen in time."
Evo's group chief executive, Mitchell Roberts, said a key focus for his company in reopening is to earn the trust of moviegoers and to give them confidence about returning to cinemas.
"Understandably, some people may be nervous about returning to social spaces and we owe it to our clients and staff to set a great example," Roberts said.
"The support and understanding from Vista Cinema during this time has been tremendous and tools such as dynamic social distancing are key in helping us adapt our cinemas so staff and moviegoers feel they can return safely."
Popcorn and soda
The software allows customers to buy both tickets and items from concessions, such as popcorn and drinks, both remotely over the internet and within complexes through self-scanning to avoid having people queuing within complexes.
Vista hasn't just waited until cinemas started reopening. It has also been working with ScreenPlus, a subsidiary of Hamilton-based SHIFT72, to provide exhibitors with their own streaming services to tide them over until they can reopen.
The venture allows cinema operators to compete against other streaming services, such as Netflix, by marketing to their existing customer base.
But with most cinemas around the world closed because of Covid-19, it isn't surprising that Vista shares are among the most beaten up on NZX.
They are down more than 65 per cent year to date, an even worse performance than other hard-hit companies such as Tourism Holdings, down nearly 61 per cent, and Air New Zealand, down more than 57 per cent.