Not very long ago, a ticket to the neighborhood cinema in Beijing used to be about 70 yuan ($11) or more. Recently when I checked, it dropped to 26 yuan, same as that of a hamburger.
I bought the ticket using the cinema chain's app. I even registered on it and became a member. On third-party ticketing websites and apps, however, tickets for the same screening were selling for about 100 yuan each.
Of late, China's cinema chains, including Wanda, Bona and Lumiere Pavilions, have all launched apps, websites and WeChat accounts for tickets and membership. They offer more affordable tickets, more convenience and more benefits.
Megabox Cinema's app has more than 80,000 users. Zhao Xiuying, general manager of Megabox, was quoted by Jiemian, a local media platform, that the plan is to continue to expand user base, and create more added value for members.
Cinemas' e-moves are a response to the popularity of third-party ticketing firms. In the past few years, Maoyan and Taopiaopiao, the ticketing websites of Taobao and Baidu Nuomi respectively, have grown rapidly in terms of number of users, by offering cheap tickets.
In 2013, online ticketing channels accounted for only 8 percent of the total box office receipts. One year later, however, their share zoomed up to more than 80 percent. In 2015, they spent an estimated 3 billion yuan to 5 billion yuan to bankroll cheap movie tickets online.
Initially, film exhibitors benefitted from third-party ticketing apps that drove moviegoers to cinemas and turbocharged a floundering box office market.
Even that honeymoon phase, relations between online ticketing channel operators and cinemas were not always win-win.
Third-party apps would not share their big data on users with cinemas. This meant that cinema chains had no way to draw insights into viewer preferences.
As it transpired, third-party apps went on to eat into cinemas' existing memberships and distorted film distribution patterns.
Now, armed with their own digital assets and direct e-access to film-goers, cinema operators have much more room to engage with their loyal customers and design programs like discounts, group coupons, co-branding, so on.
They are also seeking to redefine their relations with not only third-party ticketing apps but movie studios and film producers.
But apps also add to costs because they require hardware, software, maintenance, staff, regular updates and technology refreshes. They also entail other efforts like analyses of big data.
Smaller cinemas find this burdensome. But, in the digital age, not having online channels for customer engagement could prove fatal.
Some like Taihe Entertainment Group have been exploiting the potential in online channels to boost their business.
Taihe has developed a professional cinema service platform for more than 2,800 cinemas, the biggest of its kind. It boasts more than 80 million members.
Film Cores, which develops apps for cinemas for free, charges a service fee and shares revenue brought by new members.
All this is making film producers, studios and distributors rethink their approach to audience engagement. After all, it is at the cinemas that viewers watch films. So, for now, cinemas seem to have an edge over third-party ticketing websites.