OMG! Getting Teens Back to the Screens

U.S. exhibitors mull youth-friendly programs where the young'uns can text in peace.

In the not-so-distant past, Hollywood counted on teenagers to drive its big blockbusters. Now, that demo is noticeably AWOL from the multiplex. Many assumed that would change with Thor, the summer's first superhero pic and a natural draw for teen fanboys. It didn't. More than 70 percent of Thor's opening-weekend audience was older than 25, inhibiting the movie's ability to reach the heights of fellow Marvel property Iron Man, which opened to $98.6 million in 2008. Thor grossed $65.7 million. Some studio execs blame rising prices, fueled by 3D. The average U.S. ticket price for a 2D movie hit an all-time high of $8 at the end of 2010 -- add $2 to $3 for a 3D pic (and in Los Angeles and New York, it can total $14 or more). Others wonder if a ban on texting is a contributing factor.

One possible solution: teen-friendly screening and pricing programs, where kids might pay less and could even text in peace without bothering irritable adults (much like mom-and-baby screenings). Insiders say AMC Entertainment CEO-president Gerry Lopez is mulling some form of such a program, and he might look to the U.K.'s Vue Entertainment for ideas. After a short trial in six theaters, Tim Richards, CEO of the theater chain, began offering a 20 percent discount to teens at all 70 Vue cinemas in 2009. "They may not be the largest customer base," says Richards, "but they are the future of our industry."

Next, Vue looked at research about teens seeing movies more than once and launched Vue TeenScreen, showing second-run movies at the equivalent of about $3 to $5 per ticket. Current offerings include Battle: Los Angeles.

Combined, Vue's teen programs have resulted in a huge boost in attendance. During the past few months, several other U.K. exhibitors and one or two European cinemas have adopted some of the same practices. Is the U.S. next?