Attention Spam

Our attention spans are shrinking and the competition for them is fierce. Streaming giants, 24/7 news feeds and eight-second sound bites all vie for the time traditional cinema once had.

Our attention spans are shrinking and the competition for them is fierce. Streaming giants, 24/7 news feeds and eight-second sound bites all vie for the time traditional cinema once had.

Where did our devotion to movies go?

Today’s audience is always-on and accustomed—if not wired—to absorb scrolling news feeds of eight-second soundbites and Buzzfeed articles.

We engage with Tik Tok, Instagram and YouTube on a loop. Monthly subscriptions to streaming services like Netflix, Amazon Prime and Crave are available at the same price as a single movie ticket.

In 1930, 65 percent of the U.S. population went to the movies on a weekly basis. Today, only 11 percent of the U.S. and Canadian populations go to the movies at least once a month.

Our attention span is eight seconds long—and competition for those short moments is fierce. As a result, producers, content and delivery platforms are evolving. To stay top of market and top of mind, any brand can learn from one particular entertainment behemoth: Disney.

On November 12, 2019, Disney will launch its own streaming service. Aside from the classics we know and love, Disney+ will showcase “never-before-seen original feature films, series, short-form content and documentaries.”

The launch of its own streaming service is the company’s latest strategy to remain a relevant and constant feature in homes and theatres around the world. Disney is responsible for over 25 percent of 2018’s domestic box office, but just like any other production company, its theatrical success depends on a changing audience.

An audience that no longer has the same devotion to the theatre experience as generations before.

We’re still watching movies, but not in theatres. Instead, we sit in the comfort of our own homes with our smartphone in hand. This ability to control the movie experience via renting and streaming—or pirating—makes Hollywood shudder. As Jordan Horowitz, the producer of 2016’s multiple Oscar-winning film, La La Land, said: “I don’t feel particularly optimistic about the traditional theatrical experience…”

Welcome to the new reality where power belongs to the viewer. So how can marketers benefit from this knowledge?

Know the competition

We spend an average of two hours a day on social media. We pick up our phones every 12 minutes. This means we get the itch to grab our phone about 10 times during a two-hour movie.

Many of us don’t resist the urge, as according to a 2018 report from Nielsen, 43 percent of adults in the U.S. frequently use a digital device while watching TV.

How can production companies and theatres compete with attention spam? Watch Disney.

Play to your strengths

Disney is leading the pack when it comes to giving audiences what they want on the big screen: buying up franchises and brands like Lucasfilm, the Marvel Cinematic Universe and 20th Century Fox; releasing familiar content in live action form (2019’s Dumbo and The Lion King, for example); and continuing to rely on high performing franchises to bring audiences to theatres.

The top three earners of 2018 were Black Panther, Avengers: Infinity War and The Incredibles 2. The rest of the top 10 earners included: Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom; Aquaman; Deadpool 2; Dr. Seuss’ The Grinch; Mission: Impossible – Fallout; Ant-man and the Wasp; and, Bohemian Rhapsody.

Broken down, this list is made up of:

  • Eight sequels
  • Five franchises
  • Six superhero movies
  • One reboot of a beloved children’s book—for the third time
  • One biopic

How many of these does Disney own? Four out of the 10. Two more are owned by Fox, pre-merger.

Clearly, production companies are playing it safe, but it’s hard to blame them. Fan favourites perform reliably at the box office, thus making them potential saviours of the industry and successful combatants of attention spam.

Recognize opportunity

Most production companies are choosing to compete with attention spam, but Cineplex, Canada’s largest theatre company, is doing its best to adopt the spirit of an always-on audience.

In 2011, Cineplex tested TimePlay, a “first-of-its-kind interactive gaming experience” in select theatres. The free app allows audiences to use their smart phones to answer movie related trivia on the big screen. The pilot was successful, and TimePlay has been available in Cineplex theatres across Canada ever since. Players are ranked at provincial and national levels as well as by theatre. The perks of playing: Scene points (Cineplex and Scotiabank’s rewards program) and additional contest entries.  

Encouraging audiences to pull out their phones for a controlled amount of time is only one of the ways Cineplex has adapted movie-watching.

The chain also offers VIP in 21 of its theatres—larger, comfier seats with the ability to have food and drinks served right to you. Dinner and a show, without the need to make two stops. VIP takes a shared experience and makes it exclusive.

Keep innovating

Cinematic blockbusters, VIP and TimePlay have been around for years and still admissions decline. It will take something truly innovative, more than just reliable franchises, to revive the desire for the shared experience of the theatre. Perhaps we’ve already had a glimpse with Netflix’s release of the Emmy-winning Bandersnatch, a choose-your-own-adventure television movie. Bandersnatch’s interactive structure demands that a normally passive audience make active choices. The result? A 90-150-minute story in which viewers use remotes or screen cursors to make choices, resulting in one of five major endings.

Annabel Jones, executive producer of Bandersnatch, said in a May 2019 interview with the Hollywood Reporter, “When you take on something of this enormity…you don’t know how people are going to respond. We didn’t have control; people were left to make the choices they wanted. So we were deliriously excited that people were responding to it like it was a film.”

Netflix didn’t release viewer numbers, but for Carla Engelbrecht, director of product innovation, the more interesting numbers were how many people were actively engaging. “We saw in the data that 94 percent of viewers were actively making those choices. We’re talking about decades of training that when you watch TV, you put on what you want, drop that remote and snuggle into the couch. And instead of snuggling back, people were actually leaning in to make these choices.”

Is there potential for something like Bandersnatch in the theatre? To still have a collective experience with a room full of strangers but with our phones and multi-tasking brains actively engaged?

Maybe the triumph of Bandersnatch is not that it successfully fought back against attention spam, but that it harnessed our need to control our experience rather than obediently absorb it.

Even a company like Disney, despite its strategic and strong playbook, can learn from Netflix’s innovative approach to regaining the attention of an audience that has a million other options for entertainment. 

The ‘30s are done, and with them, the traditional experience of the theatre and an age of passive engagement. Attention spam may be keeping us from the theatre, but it doesn’t need to keep us from movies.