Exclusive: ‘The show must go on’ – Eduardo Tardin, Cinemark in “The Paytech Magazine”
Cinemas face a challenge of epic proportions as they exit from the pandemic. Eduardo Tardin, IT Manager for E-commerce with Cinemark Brasil, says APIs are emerging as the heroes of the hour
Can you recall the last time you went out to see a movie… being shut in a room full of eerily-lit strangers in the dark, fumbling to turn off the phone that inevitably starts vibrating in the pocket of the coat you stuffed under the seat, and trying not to elbow the cinema-goer next to you as you wrestle with your oversized pouch of popcorn?
Like many pre-pandemic experiences now denied to us, going out to watch a film is probably imbued with a certain amount of nostalgia. And it’s unlikely it will ever be the same again. But, much like the late Tony Stark’s tear-jerking observation at the close of the Avengers blockbuster trilogy: “Part of the journey is the end.” And for die-hard fans in North and South America, now slowly returning to movie theatres, that journey is being enabled by digital technology that redefines the relationship between cinema and customer.
As Eduardo Tardin, IT manager for e-commerce with Cinemark Brasil, part of the leading chain of picture houses in Latin America, and the third-biggest chain in the States, says: “After lockdown, in which all the movie theatres closed, we had to change our priorities and think about solutions to make the experience of going to the cinema more secure. “It accelerated our desire to create a more digital experience, focussing on maintaining a journey with less friction and more social distancing.”
Cinemark had made strides in the direction of e-commerce long before coronavirus was on the radar. Way back in 1999, it became the first in the industry to offer customers the chance to buy tickets in real time, online, via a link to an affiliate website, enowshowing.com, which it had developed with Dallas tech firm Vectrix. The tickets were immediately printed at the box office for collection. It was clunky, compared to today’s mobile-first e-commerce experience, but it was a start. In 2011, Cinemark Chile started working with technology company Modyo to provide an end-to-end digital experience, including integrated payments, for customers. Every Cinemark in Latin America migrated to the platform, based on a hybrid on-premise/Amazon Web Services-hosted model, in 2018. Then, in 2019, Cinemark signed up to the first-of-its-kind social movie-ticketing platform Atom Tickets, which allows filmgoers to search for films, invite friends via their contacts, reserve seats, order concessions and check in on their way past the box office via the app.
Leaning in to new technologies in this way, to improve the movie-going journey, was part of an ongoing, industry-wide attempt to counter the cannibalisation of box office sales by streaming services that offered the ultimate in convenience.
And it was working. Then Contagion-for-real happened and theatres across the world were shuttered. Cinemark wasn’t alone in haemorrhaging cash. In the third quarter of 2020, it saw revenues across the United States and Latin America drop by nearly 96 per cent. At one point, it was burning through reserves at the rate of around $50million a month, forcing it to raise new debt and revolver borrowing. But the good news is that the appetite for big screen movies hasn’t been as seriously diminished by the pandemic as many feared. Sixty per cent of consumers polled by one US survey in February said they were keen to return to movie theatres within the following three months.
The restrictions imposed by the pandemic, and customers’ expectations, though, including social distancing, contactless service and the need to control and predict demand more accurately, especially given seating capacity has been dramatically reduced, have challenged Cinemark and others to come up with innovative digital solutions. Movie fans booking for its roster of Oscar-nominated films in April 2021, for instance, found features including ‘seat buffering technology’, which automatically blocks seats adjacent to a party as soon as they purchase a ticket. While mobile and online booking is encouraged, some Cinemark locations have also replaced box offices with digital kiosks to reduce contact between customers and staff. And a new grab-and-go-food ordering tool has been introduced, accessed via the Cinemark app and WhatsApp using QR code, to reduce contact with staff and avoid people hanging around in the lobby.
The net result of all this has been to create more customer channels to monitor and integrate, and more tasks to manage – ever-conscious that a prevailing pandemic might force a rethink at any moment. Having an API-first strategy already in place was crucial to handling that, says Tardin. “APIs can bring a fast way to customise customer experience. They make it easy to create new products and features. Combined with an agile approach, and the right software architecture, this helps to accelerate digital transformation, bringing the possibility to work with new forms of business, like selling in marketplaces.
“The strategy depends on your business context and the problem you want to solve, of course, but one of the main benefits is the possibility of enabling the development team to rapidly put things to work, and put the business at a greater advantage. To learn fast and change the strategy, according to customer behaviour.” For instance, through the Atom platform, movie fans who prefer to watch a film with their ‘quaranteam’ of family and friends, can book Cinemark private watch parties for up to 20 guests, selecting from new releases or classic movies, starting at $99 per screening – that’s around a fifth of what it cost for a private viewing, pre-pandemic.
Managing that type of customised demand would be impossible without APIs, says Tardin, especially in an industry which has historically often been wrong-footed by movies over- or under-delivering on expectations when it comes to box office takings.
“APIs and digital technology have an important function in helping us to monitor customer behaviour at the peak sales events, and this data makes it easy for us to know what applications we need to scale and where to focus our performance. We learned from events in the last two years, which helped us to prepare for the next one – so we are ready to receive three or four times our expectations and not impact the experience.”
Undeterred by the previous 12 months, in March 2021 the chain opened a new extreme digital (XD) viewing cinema in Kirkland, Texas, which boasts ‘print at home’ online ticketing. There is also the option to purchase and download tickets via iPhone and Android and movie-goers can sign up to showtime emails with discount concessions coupons and other incentives. Every channel is being squeezed to get film fans to turn out in greater numbers and all eyes are now on this year’s releases, including long-anticipated big-screen spectacles Dune, Black Widow, Godzilla vs. Kong and, of course, the much-delayed final outing for Daniel Craig’s 007 – only some of them ring-fenced for theatrical release in advance of streaming. The question is, given the choice between the sofa at home or a seat in the stalls, will audiences save themselves for the full, movie going experience?
“Many things have changed due to the pandemic,” says Tardin. “All retailers need to stay closer to their customers and understand their needs better. And they need to be able to adapt from a traditional economy to the new economy. The technology already exists to be able to do that and, at Cinemark, we will continue working to integrate our channels and create customer experiences with less friction.
“The pandemic has taught our business a great lesson. We need to learn and adapt, and the technology is a great enabler to help us put that to work fast.”