How to start a cinema

04 Understanding audiences

The key to making a cinema successful is having a strong feel for the range of audiences that it might attract: who are they, what do they want to see and how do you communicate with them?

Different films, different people

Each year a small number of new release films, 6-10 titles, become ‘events’.  These films such as the new James Bond, the latest Disney family feature and other big action titles such as the Marvel films or ‘sagas’ such as Twilight and The Hunger Games, are the bedrock of commercial cinema.

These are mass appeal films created at huge cost and supported by massive marketing effort. They provide a disproportionately large amount of a cinema’s annual income and they generally appeal strongly to the youth audience (16-24 year olds). ‘Event’ films are shown widely at multiplex cinemas but often perform poorly in local independent cinemas when shown a few weeks after the initial high profile release although some people will be prepared to wait if they have seen the film trailered at a favourite cinema.

In contrast a large number of high quality, independent and foreign language films are released annually but invariably they earn much less at the box office. These films appeal more to 30+ year olds and can prove to be very popular with particular audiences in individual cinemas.

In recent years the 45+ age group has become one of the largest growth markets in UK cinemas with films such as The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel with more mature characters and strong storylines aimed at a multi-generational market. Young people, although still the multiplexes mainstay audience, are increasingly consuming film online through downloading or streaming services.

Films based on literary works or specific aspects of social history or parts of the country are often well received by local audiences who prefer cinemas with comfort, character and the opportunity to have a coffee or a bar drink.

Young children enjoy cinema going. Sometimes they attend with a group of friends. Often they are accompanied by parents or relatives. Films for the younger age groups are important for local cinemas and may attract sell-out audiences for morning or matinée performances, especially at weekends and during school holidays.  Many cinemas now have a regular slot for this audience and operate it like a ‘club’ to encourage repeated visits.

Local cinemas have to be capable of adapting to whatever is currently in the news and available to them. This requires skill and showmanship on the part of the cinema manager and staff in addition to a well designed building.

Segmentation analysis

The cinema industry categorises audiences in many different ways but often relies on an age-related scheme which closely follows the film certification categories (U, PG, 12A, 15, 18):

  • Children (5-11 years old)
  • Family groups
  • Teenagers / young couples / students
  • Adults

Research by the All Industry Marketing (AIM) Committee for the UK cinema industry has proposed two new audience segmentation schemes. The ‘lifestage’ categorization draws attention to the elements of the cinema-going experience that each group seeks – popcorn, comedy and thrills for the teenage audience contrasting with a bar drink and a quality film for 40+ year old adults.

The categorisation by ‘attitudes’ seeks to identify the small but highly important group of enthusiastic cinemagoers. Apart from being regular attenders these individuals are often the opinion leaders who influence other less committed people to attend.

Life-stage categories

  • Teens (<16 yrs)
  • Teens / singles / couples (<25 yrs)
  • Those with young families
  • Those with older families

Attitude categories

  • Cinema enthusiasts / regulars
  • “If nothing else to do…” (socialites)
  • Reluctant
  • Non-attenders

The motivation to attend a cinema, and the opportunities for doing so, varies considerably from group to group. Teenagers living in a rural community may want to see a film each week but might have to travel 10 miles or more to get to the nearest multiplex cinema. Without a car this may be impossible. Families may want to attend regularly but the total cost (travel, tickets, confectionery) is sometimes felt to be too great. Older audiences may enjoy cinema-going but feel that the area around their local cinema is unsafe during the evening.

Within the broad leisure sector, operators are increasingly focusing on the social aspects of leisure and on four influences affecting the choice of activity:

  • Group composition – who do we attend cinema with: family, friends, or alone?
  • Mental and physical energy – a small proportion of attenders are highly motivated to attend cinema and encourage friends to join them. Others are tired after work or have family commitments.
  • Location – will it be possible to have a complete evening out in one location?
  • Deals and events – Given the relatively high cost of regular cinema attendance deals such as family tickets and subscription schemes can be attractive.

For local cinemas a ‘Friends’ scheme may offer useful benefits for both the cinema (loyalty) and the customer (discounts and special events).

Establishing a catchment area

Planning a cinema development, like any other leisure or retail development, involves estimation of the catchment area that the new cinema will serve and from which it can expect to draw audiences. The most common way of defining a cinema’s catchment is a drive-time boundary (based on the fact that the majority of people use cars to get to the cinema). The boundary takes into account the type and quality of road links as well as distance. If public transport is particularly important then a ‘travel time’ boundary is more appropriate.

The most appropriate catchment for any individual cinema will depend on:

  • The scale of the cinema planned (10-screen multiplex or 2-screen independent?)
  • The scale and number of competitor cinemas (competitor catchments may impinge on the planned cinema’s catchment – which cinema will prove more attractive to residents in the middle?)
  • The quality and range of other leisure facilities near the planned cinema (visits to cinemas are usually accompanied by other leisure activities, such as shopping, eating and drinking)
  • The extent of car ownership within the proposed catchment and the attitude to travel for leisure purposes (rural residents are often more inclined to travel long distances for their leisure)
  • The quality and frequency of public transport (late evening services being particularly important)
  • The age and life-stage profile of the target audience (children, youth audience or older adults?)
  • The surrounding geography (is the town remote from other significant population centres or are there lots of small communities within the catchment boundary?)

Typically, several catchments are examined at the planning stage for a new cinema – for example a 10 or 15-minute inner catchment where the majority of the regular cinemagoers live, and a 20 or 30-minute outer catchment where infrequent cinemagoers live. In order to obtain a good understanding of the potential audience for a new cinema it is usually worth looking at these catchments independently. Other relevant catchment boundaries can be derived from travel to work data and from retail catchment information.

Demographic and lifestyle data

A wide range of population, economic and lifestyle data is available from local authorities, from National Statistics, and from commercial companies such as CACI Ltd and Experian. Much of this data can be analysed at ward or postcode sector level that allows a detailed picture of the population’s characteristics to be established. Google searches can also lead to very useful, and invariably free, data.

A popular scheme such as CACI’s ACORN geo-demographic system classifies neighbourhoods into six categories, subdivided into 17 groups and 54 types. Each category has established consumer, lifestyle and economic behaviour patterns and these can be used to investigate the potential strength of cinema going in any defined catchment. Cinema going is generally more popular with prosperous and educated audiences, ACORN categories B and C being particularly important. However the audience characteristics for individual films vary widely and demographic analysis should be treated with caution.

The demographic characteristics for specialist cinema audiences differ in important respects from commercial cinemas audiences. There are a noticeably higher proportion of people in education or with higher educational qualifications. Older audiences tend to predominate but teenage audiences (14-20 years) rarely attend.

In addition to assessing potential audience through demographic data, market researchers have increasingly used psychographic research as a tool for understanding audiences. Where demographic data looks at purely social classifications, psychographics looks at broadly psychological factors that impel audiences to respond to certain kinds of offer – key factors such as values, attitudes, personality, interests, lifestyle.

The diversity represented by specialised cinema in particular, has been seen increasingly as a lifestyle choice for a range of audiences with shared values and attitudes, rather than simply a cultural choice for a particular social class.

Market research companies such as Mintel and the Kantar Media, Custom produce regular reports on audience characteristics and cinema-going behaviour. (See Appendix 4 for a list of market research resources). If public funding is sought for a new cinema project – refurbishment, conversion or new build – it is likely that a competent analysis of the relevant catchment population will be required. Arts Council England makes demographic and lifestyle information available to Arts Lottery supported projects, or contact the Creative Scotland, the Arts Council of Wales, and the Arts Council of Northern Ireland as appropriate.

Field research

Apart from conducting desk research (i.e. gathering data from existing published sources) as outlined above in the section Demographic and lifestyle data, you may be required to conduct research specific to your audience or potential audience. For example, you might wish to test out your ideas by asking local residents what they think (consultation) or to test your assumptions about cinema going habits of your actual audience.

There are a number of ways of doing this – focus groups or questionnaires administered online, by post, telephone or in person. Social media platforms, such as Twitter and Facebook are increasingly being used to conduct market research. A detailed discussion of research methodologies, quantitative analysis and questionnaire design is beyond the scope of this guide. For anything large scale, it is probably best to appoint a professional market research company. Field research can be a minefield in terms of establishing meaningful data. However, for small-scale projects (consultation, focus groups etc.) the ‘DIY’ approach may be adequate.

Audience development

Of course, you may confound received wisdom and expectation by attracting pensioners to Star Wars and teenagers to an archive presentation on land army girls. Indeed, from time to time films are released that buck the trend and have genuinely wide appeal.

There is absolutely no reason why any audience segment should not enjoy any film. The fact that a certain type of audience tends not to attend foreign language films for example and conform to type could be seen as an immense marketing challenge.  Filmmakers and marketers are becoming increasingly savvy at blurring traditional boundaries and appealing to broader audiences through both film content and marketing.  However, you will still have to work very hard at getting people to change their viewing habits and overcome their prejudices about certain kinds of film. In order to broaden audiences, you will need to invest in audience development activity. There is a range of tools and techniques but it can be costly and the effect difficult to measure. For example, young people notoriously avoid subtitled movies. You could lure them in to a Japanese film with a free bottle of Japanese beer. But will they come back next time when there is no beer on offer?

The concept of Audience Development has become more broadly defined during the past decade, and encompasses aspects of marketing and education. The main considerations for audience development can be summed up as follows:

Audience retention

Keeping existing audiences

Added value

Enhancing the experience of audiences; providing audiences with opportunities to develop knowledge and better understanding of film


Making existing audiences attend more often

New audiences

Bringing to the programme/venue people who haven’t attended before

Cultural diversity

Increased take-up from minority ethnic and social groups;

Expanding audience knowledge and taste through programming of a broader range of cultural forms and traditions

Social inclusion

Increasing audiences from deprived areas and communities

Rural inclusion

Increasing audiences from isolated rural areas

Geographic reach

Achieve awareness of programme/venue across a particular geographic area

Summary of key points from Chapter 4

  • Different types of film appeal to different types of audience
  • You need to identify an appropriate catchment area for your cinema and then find out everything you can about who lives there
  • There are lots of published data available about UK populations, their lifestyle and demographics
  • Research suggests that lifestage and attitude may provide a more useful way of categorising audiences than simply using age bands
  • If you need to conduct field research, employ a professional or keep it very simple
  • If you want to change an audience’s viewing habits you will need to employ audience development strategies – this can be an expensive marketing tool and the results are often hard to quantify

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