Young moviegoers will be hard-pressed to remember a time when tickets were bought from a person behind the counter. Many would be horrified to learn that not much more than a decade ago, it was impossible to pre-book or buy a ticket online for collection at the cinema.

The movie theatre has become a place of constant and quick change, led by digital technology. 

Ster-Kinekor and Nu Metro have invested heavily into their technology at a time when the industry is under pressure from TV and streaming services.

Ster-Kinekor introduced hi-tech self-service terminals in 2014.

CEO Wanda Matandela says customers can select, process and pay for their movie and snacks by using the terminal and collect the order at the concessionary counter.

He says customers are becoming more sophisticated and innovation is non-negotiable for cinemas, which are fighting for their share of the wallet in a competitive entertainment space.

"The key is innovation around the cinema experience. The success of platforms such as IMAX goes a long way to illustrating the impact of technology on the overall film experience," Matandela says.

Bronwen Auret, marketing executive of Nu Metro Cinemas, says most of the new developments have been driven by changing consumer needs.

"It’s not only about showcasing films with the latest technology, but to also give moviegoers a fully inclusive experience of superb quality, to see movies as the filmmakers intended — all delivered in an environment which can’t be duplicated via any form of home entertainment-system," says Auret.

Apart from immersive new cinema formats, Auret says New Metro’s theatres have been revamped. They have new sound and screen technology, as well as furnishings and seating.

Nu Metro is the first and only cinema chain in Africa to introduce 4DX to moviegoers. The first 4DX cinema opened at Nu Metro V&A Waterfront in December 2015, with the record-breaking Star Wars: The Force Awakens as the first 4DX movie screened in SA.

"It’s a multisensory experience," says Auret. "Environmental effects — including moving seats, wind, water, scents and lighting — are synchronised with the action on-screen. We showcase the top blockbusters in this format."

It would be easy to assume that technology would have a negative effect on employment levels. But Nu Metro says that has not been the case. Auret points to increased job opportunities through specialist formats such as the VIP bar and food offering.

At certain cinemas in the stable, customers have the option of luxury in-cinema dining, featuring full-recliner leather seating as well as a gourmet menu prepared by an in-house chef.

Auret says it hasn’t made changes to the composition of its staff over the past few years.

While cinemas may be optimistic about the effects of new renovations and business models for attendance, the stats on SA’s movie culture remain underwhelming.

According to the National Film Video Foundation (NFVF), SA’s total box office receipts in the first half of 2017 were R568.1m, down 3% compared to the same period in 2016. However, new-format films raked in impressive numbers.

Altogether, 106 films were released in SA. The NFVF says 23 were in 3D, 4DX and IMAX formats — up from 18 in 2016. Their earnings accounted for 65% of the box office revenues, up from 54% in the year-earlier period.

As viewers begin to get used to the incoming movie formats, a new one is already in use in America. In Barco Escape, multiple screens attempt to deliver a much more immersive experience. For now, Barco Escape is focusing on films with big action sequences, driven by special effects.

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