Reprinted from LF Examiner
, with permission from James Hyder and Diane Carlson
By Diane Carlson
The Royal British Columbia Museum, founded in the provincial capital, Victoria, in 1886 as the British Columbia Museum, partnered with Utah-based Destination Cinema, Inc. (DCI), to open a 369-seat IMAX theater in June of 1998, with DCI as owner and operator.
Between June 1998 and August 2020 the theater had attendance of 8,356,000, compared to 8,542,000 in the museum, a difference of only 186,000 over 23 years! And this was without forced combo tickets that some institutions now use.
In August of 2020, the museum acquired the theater from DCI. The purchase was part of a plan to renovate the building and grounds over the next few years. Museum COO Gary Lacey told local media that “it’s always wise to have control of the site,” in those circumstances.
The final year of operation under DCI—2019—was the theater’s most successful since 2008. As GS theaters regroup and reopen post-Covid, there are valuable lessons from this successful operation that can contribute to the success of other venues.
Diane Carlson spoke with Paul Wild, IMAX Victoria’s director for over 17 years, to gain some of his insights and perspectives on the success of the theater. She also spoke with DCI’s CEO Bob Perkins and Ian McAllister, director of Great Bear Rainforest. Excerpts from their conversations follow.
Note: all dollar amounts are in Canadian dollars, which were worth about $0.77 U.S. dollars at the end of 2019.
Bob Perkins’ View
Diane Carlson: Bob, you have been the CEO and an investor in DCI for over 22 years. In your experience was 2019 a successful year for your theater at the Royal B.C. Museum?
Bob Perkins: Absolutely. We paid about CDN$500,000 to our museum partner for rent, security, and other costs while netting nearly CDN$1 million for our company. And we did this without the museum hosting a blockbuster exhibit in 2019.
DC: To what do you attribute this success?
BP: I made one of the best hires ever when I hired Paul Wild. I have to give him the credit. We both share a hotel background at the start of our careers. That’s in part why I hired him. Our theater work is hospitality work. Paul has a great combination of people skills and analytical skills: he loves the numbers and he loves this business. He’s passionate, knows his market and is a problem solver.
I’ll give you two examples: When we had a bit of a dip in attendance, he and his staff did the market research and what resulted was the Annual Pass program. That was his idea. In 2019 we sold 20,000 passes. He also convinced me to invest in the IMAX laser projection system to maintain our revenue. Imagine: he wanted me to invest $1.5M just to hold on to what we had! Well, we actually have increased our revenue because of that investment. And while 2019 was a very successful year we had, in total, a very good run in Victoria.
Paul Wild on Programming
DC: In 2018 your launch of America’s Musical Journey (AMJ) garnered the Giant Screen Cinema Association’s Best Film Launch by a theater. What lessons did you learn, if any, from that success that aided you in your 2019 effort?
Paul Wild: Given that the other films we launched in 2019 were so different, there were no specific strategies that we applied from AMJ. We connected with a local dance studio and created a flash mob (for the opening events) and rented a jazz club for Aloe Blacc to perform. Great for AMJ but we needed different approaches for Great Bear Rain Forest and Cuba.
That being said, we understood that the key to success was creating excitement in our base, our 20,000 pass holders. This is the key, irrespective of the topic. Honestly, coming off of the award in 2018 inspired us to think bigger. We wanted to increase the excitement and to really knock it out of the park.
DC: Please give me some insights into your programming strategy both for your documentaries and Hollywood films.
PW: Our strategies were based on our core audience of pass holders. In 2019 they were 39% of our attendance. And they brought their family and friends with them to show off “their” theater. We really worked to engage our pass holders; it was not just a transactional relationship. We usually launched the year with a film festival in late January. Sometimes a new documentary would open during the festival and then continue on the schedule.
That was the case in 2019. The festival dates were Jan. 15 to Feb. 21. Volcanoes opened on Jan. 18 during the festival and continued on the schedule post festival. Great Bear Rainforest opened towards the end of the festival on Feb. 15 and then continued on the schedule.
Now, in that case we knew that we were going to have those two films on our regular schedule. With some films we use the festival to gauge our audience’s interest in a new film. I would say that diversity was a hallmark of our programming approach. We wanted to provide value to our pass holders and broad experiences. Sometimes we added a film like Aircraft Carrier to the festival specifically for the sake of variety. It was not necessarily a top choice for most “tree hugging Victoria” audiences, but there was a segment that enjoyed it, and it provided some balance.
We had never been cleared for showing first-run Hollywood films. While initially this was very frustrating, it actually had a silver lining. Because the location is designated second-run, we could cherry pick the titles that we showed and had flexibility in scheduling as few as one showing per day, with lower fees. After 11 years of second-run, our audience understood that they might have to wait a while, but they knew that the big DMR titles would most likely come to our theater. Some told us “no worries, we’ll just wait,” or that they would see it a second time to experience it on our IMAX screen with our sound system.
The other big benefit of second run was that our pass holders could call us to request a title, and they did. The primary job of sales and membership services manager Lea Silver was to cultivate our passholders so that they would come to think of the theater as “theirs.” She encouraged them to contact us about what they would like to see. In fact, there was one pass holder who would call me to see what was coming up and give me her requests. I could tell that when she called that she had a list with her!
One requested film was A Star is Born. Now that is not a film that we typically would have selected, but several members requested it so we played it and had good success with it.
But one of the best examples of success for a second-run DMR was Bohemian Rhapsody. We brought it in for the festival and then extended it to a nine-week run. It really boosted our attendance for 2019. I was in the theater for three of the screenings and it looked and sounded truly amazing. I overheard someone saying that it was the fifth time that they had seen it in our theater.
DC: Can you expand on the documentary programming for 2019?
PW: We had three key films planned for 2019: Great Bear Rainforest, Superpower Dogs and Apollo 11: First Steps Edition. We also featured Volcanoes and Cuba. Great Bear Rainforest was the anchor for our success in 2019. We wanted a destination film and something bright and colorful for spring, so we also launched Cuba at the end of March. Superpower Dogs was our new film for the summer.
We started working with Ian McAllister, director of Great Bear Rainforest, early in the process and screened his rushes in our theater. I could tell from the footage that this would be a great local film.
DC: Working with sponsors of a film can be an important part of the marketing of a film. Patty Collins, from MacGillivray Freeman Films, said that you were, “Always a stellar partner: wonderful to work with and always smart and savvy in working with sponsors.” What was key to your approach to working with sponsors?
PW: I think the biggest thing for me is respecting the value that the sponsor brings not only to the film but to the industry overall. Without film sponsors, we would have fewer films or lower-quality films, and the GS industry would suffer overall.
So, in this sense, you should treat the sponsor with the utmost respect to ensure they get the exposure they deserve, to optimize the value of their sponsorship while leveraging the benefits that might be available. This approach builds relationships. And relationships build trust and mutual respect, and from there, potential opportunities to work well together.
Sometimes we would assist a producer with a relationship that had with no direct financial return to the theater, but was an opportunity for good will and word-of-mouth advertising. For example, Stephen Low had been working with the Royal Canadian Navy on a film project and one of the ships was docked in our area. So we arranged with Stephen to have the navy’s West Coast Rear Admiral (stationed in Victoria) and the crewmembers of the frigate that was filmed come to our theater to see the footage. We ran it for them three times, and they were very pleased. Stephen was happy, too, and we made new local friends who would spread the word about the film. This is an example of how working together helps make the world go around.
Another example that was a direct benefit to us was working with Ian McCallister on the Great Bear Rainforest, by projecting his test footage. He was new to GS so this was a real help to him. And it gave me the opportunity to see what a great film he was going to make. So in this case, being supportive was beneficial to the filmmaker, the distributor, and our theater. In 2019 we had no co-op marketing dollars available, but we certainly had cooperative sponsor relationships!
DC: Can you speak a bit more about long lead time for maximizing your marketing success?
PW: Long lead time is really important to extend your marketing reach through partnerships with other organizations, especially when you have limited funds. But it is also key to your own campaigns. I think that one reason that we hit it out of the park with Great Bear Rainforest was our long lead-time sales strategy. We were reminded again with America’s Musical Journey that we really need to create excitement in our local community. Now, our pass holders are our critical audience base and supporters. Great Bear Rainforest was scheduled to open in February as part of our film festival. And our passes go sale on Nov. 1. We made the Great Bear Rainforest the centerpiece of our pass sales campaign. Our first marketing materials with Great Bear Rainforest went live towards the end of October 2018 as a lead up to our 2019 pass sales going on sale Nov. 1, 2018. We had started working on this one year in advance of the opening of the film. It was a very strategic and thought-out plan. Early advertising and a sneak peek behind-the-scenes event in November, months before the opening, also helped boost social media engagement. We sold 20,000 passes in short order and opened with 13 consecutive sold out shows!
DC: How did you typically allocate your $245,000 marketing budget?
PW: We found that print media was valuable in our community. We used the newspaper for local audiences, and gift-giving guides and magazines during the holiday season to promote the pass. During the year, the newspaper ads were usually focused on our films and film launches, but in the fall we would focus on the Annual Pass that was positioned as a holiday gift idea for the coming year.
Victoria is a prime tourist destination in the spring and summer, so tourist publications including maps, rack cards, and on-board magazines on the various in-bound ferries were important.
Here’s a rough breakdown of our budget allocation:
- 30% Print advertising (newspaper, tourism pubs, etc.)
- 14% Outdoor signage including lamppost and building banners
- 14% Digital, radio, and TV
- 13% PR agency fees
- 9% Printed materials, including 1,200 posters and 50,000 rack cards
- 8% Creative design fees
- 7% Poster and brochure distribution
- 5% Miscellaneous
We did not have any co-op dollars in 2019, but when we had them, we enhanced what we were already doing with items that we could not usually afford, like billboards and transit.
Ian McAllister, filmmaker
DC: What value did Paul Wild and his theater bring to your Great Bear Rainforest film?
Ian McAllister: First of all, you need to understand that making an IMAX film about this environment was a 20-year dream for me. But I had no idea of what I was getting into! And I can honestly say that without his strong support I am not sure that the film would have gotten made. For instance, when we were starting the project, the industry was transitioning from film to digital capture. Three years before there was a film, Paul helped us with late-night theater time to evaluate test images from several cameras. He also gave us insights of what works on the giant screen. It was a steep learning curve, from the technical end to understanding the industry. And I learned that the GS theater network is amazing in terms of the sense of camaraderie within the community.
And once the film was completed, the marketing and opening in Victoria were extraordinary. You could not drive into Victoria and not be aware of the film: it was everywhere and the results were incredible, with sold-out shows and great local media coverage. Because of Paul’s early support people in Singapore, Beijing, and all over the world now know about the great bears and their environment.
I am not sure that all theaters understand the importance of these films at their locations. We have had Canadian ministers from different parties attend GBR to learn about this region, and I was so excited to have over 50 representatives from remote First Nation communities proudly attend the opening, many in full regalia. I was fortunate to have had Paul as my guide on this journey and it made for an incredible 2019.
Canadian First Nation representatives celebrate the opening of Great Bear Rainforest at IMAX Victoria
Wild on the Pass Program
DC: Your Annual Pass program has been wildly successful and copied by some other theaters in museum settings. Can you share some of your “secret sauce” of the pass program success?
PW: First of all, the pass program was a result of our market research. It was a solution arrived at by PR consultant Marie Zirk and me to solve the local price barrier to visiting the theater. We learned that people enjoyed the theater experience and that they would come more often if it were not as expensive. The first passes went on sale in 2004 for the program that started in 2005.
Marie and I initially set a goal of 5,000 passes for the first year. We then reconsidered and lowered it to 2,500 thinking that we had been too aggressive. We actually ended up with 6,900 the first year! We then reached 20,000 in individual pass sales in 2010 and averaged that number in the years that followed through to 2019. Pass holders were able to see an unlimited number of documentary films and got a deep discount on Hollywood feature films for the year.
Unlike most museum membership programs, our pass program started on January 1 and ran for the calendar year. The passes went on sale Nov. 1 and were positioned as holiday gifts as well. We usually made about 75–80% of our anticipated sales before Christmas. We had a countdown to the opening of the pass season and also set a limit on the number of passes that would be sold. If you did not buy in time you were out of luck. The exclusivity we created was one of the sales strategies.
It is good to keep in mind that the theater was originally intended as a destination theater, like the Grand Canyon and Niagara theaters also operated by DCI. But a few years after opening, a host of issues like the cost of gas and tightening border controls (from the U.S.) started to negatively impact Victoria tourism traffic. As such, we needed to diversify our audience base and build a local audience—a loyal local audience—in addition to our tourist base.
I think that a lot of our “secret sauce” had to do with how we cultivated the relationship with our pass holders. Lea Silver’s primary job responsibility was to provide concierge service to our members. We wanted the pass holders to think of the theater as “their” theater. They could bring guests at a 20% discount. We would do a minimum of three title film surveys with them. We responded to emails and phone calls daily.
Also, when we opened an “A” film, we would host film talent or filmmakers and would really put them to work! In addition to media appearances, we would host four screenings over two nights that were exclusively for pass holders. As a value-added offering for our pass holders, these were wildly successful.
DC: Can you explain how pass holders used the benefits of the program? It seems like a very generous program, given unlimited documentary film visitation.
PW: It was positioned as “a come as often as you want” program. In fact, one year our marketing pointed out that members could (theoretically) see 3,998 shows in a year! But the reality was an average visitation of 7.28 documentary films per year. And this number worked out well for us on the financial end. Remember that there was a net of more than $1 million in 2019. There were a few people who would come every week and see the same movie over and over and then there are the people who may have been given a pass as a gift and never come. Those are the people that we were actually most concerned about.
In fact, if someone had not used their pass by the end of April we would market to them differently by sending them a special offer, like a free popcorn coupon. If they had not been to the theater, they could not be engaged, they could not be excited about the experience. Once they experienced the theater, they could sell it forward for us. They would potentially be the next buyers of passes for themselves and for gifts.
Our concern was to build and maintain a solid, engaged local audience base. They were our ambassadors and they brought guests with them to use the companion ticket discount. They would also buy the Hollywood film tickets at a discounted price. It all fed to the bottom line.
Paul Wild and Marie Zirk with their 2018 GSCA Achievement Award for Best Film Launch by a Theater for America's Musical Journey
Wild on Management Organization
DC: After the museum acquired the theater, you ran the theater for eight months in a museum setting. How did this compare with your experience at DCI?
PW: There were two main differences. At DCI I worked directly with Bob Perkins, our CEO. In the museum setting I did not work directly for the CEO, but as a department head. At the museum my position was lower on the organizational chart, without a seat or a strong voice at the leadership table. Secondly, and related to the first, was in working for Bob my total focus was on making the theater a success for DCI and our partner, the museum. In addition to the financial goals we wanted the theater to complement the mission of the museum while being an added attraction in the community. Essentially, the theater was a seamless and appealing extension of the institution.
While at the museum my role was expanded to Head of Visitor Experience and Theater Operation, so my focus would not be exclusively on the theater. In speaking with others in the GS field I understand that this is the case for many theater directors or managers even pre-COVID, thus diluting their focus on the theater operation.
Additionally, marketing for the theater was subsumed into the marketing for the total organization. The theater would now have to compete not only for marketing dollars but also for the energy of a marketing staff that was focused on the entire organization.
Circling back to the first difference I noted, since I would not be present at the leadership table, I could not make the case for support directly. With Bob I could, and he understood the concept of spending funds in order to increase the net bottom line. I was also afforded the autonomy to work with my local theater team to program and operate the theater as deemed appropriate. More in depth decision-making was always done in consultation with Bob and DCI’s financial head office. The theater brought in nearly 50% of the attendees to the facility and that is significant. Due to the recent organizational changes at the museum it is possible that not all of the key staff are aware of that contribution or significance of the theater’s attendance to the institution’s attendance overall.
In August 2020 the museum (owned by the province of B.C.) purchased the theater from DCI to better position the museum for its planned modernization project. Subsequently, as a result of reorganization, Paul’s position was eliminated. Lea Silver left shortly before this happened and Marie Zirk’s arrangement with the theater was not renewed. The theater reopened on September 3, 2021, with a reduced show schedule.
Paul Wild was a GSCA board member from 2014 to 2019. IMAX Victoria hosted the successful 2019 GSCA Conference. Paul remains a member of the GSCA and the GSCA’s Event Planning Committee and is available for consulting services. He can reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Diane Carlson is principal of Giant Screen Cinema Consulting. Before founding the firm in 2017, she managed the IMAX theaters at the Pacific Science Center in Seattle, WA, for over 35 years. She can be reached at email@example.com.