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October 15 - 17, 2019 | Chicago

Designing the Future of Moviegoing


By: Matt Herlihy
08/06/2019

Over the past decade, as home entertainment technology advanced and streaming video exploded, movie theaters needed a strategy to survive. Their gambit: go big, so audiences wouldn’t stay home. Screens grew to IMAX proportions, speakers were tuned to bone-rattling volume, and 3D glasses were resurrected.

Soon this maximalist approach went too far, giving moviegoers more of what we didn’t want. Once a commercial-free haven, the experience became larded with tacky pre-show ads and interminable trailers. The popcorn and soda portions grew morbidly obese. While theaters were selling concessions, audiences were forced to make them.

But one startup cinema brand saw what its rivals had overlooked. Even when you don’t control the product — the film itself — you can design a better experience around it. Following extensive research about what movie lovers truly want from a theater, ArcLight Cinemas was born. Their success offers an important lesson for any industry: even in the face of existential threat, thoughtful service design can save the day.


Unlike its supersized competitors, ArcLight demonstrates that less is more. They may offer fewer screens than the roadside multiplex, but their film selection is curated for quality. Their audiovisual experience is as high-end as their maximalist peers, but movies are displayed in a black box environment, removing distraction and hewing closer to the filmmaker’s intention.

While the ArcLight experience tightens some elements, it also makes delightful additions. For instance, each feature is introduced by a staff member. Such a prelude may seem minor, but the best presenters bring real gusto to the occasion. (Lance at the Chicago location is particularly impressive when pronouncing the names of stars. His Lupita Nyong’o is a thing of beauty.)

In another subtle move, ArcLight uses classic film scores as background music throughout the building. They’ve even invested in top-shelf speakers for the restrooms, lending a touch of class to a typically spartan environment. And considering the extensive cocktail menu at the theater bar, this small detail plays a sizable role in the experience.

Beyond the lavatory, the physical environment has been designed with the tastes of cinephiles in mind. Our location features a multi-story wall of movie posters that offers a glimpse into our entertainment future while doubling as a dramatic art installation. Expressive touches are even tucked into hallway corners, including rotating exhibits of original paintings celebrating the arts.

Once the lights are lowered — and your host has committed to staying a few minutes to ensure proper sound levels and aspect ratio — the on-screen content is a model of restraint and precision. Exactly three trailers are shown, giving customers clear expectations while avoiding pre-show bloat. Advertisements are conspicuously, mercifully absent.

ArcLight was a pioneer of reserved seating, an amenity that larger chains have started to borrow. The seats themselves are spacious and comfortable, but not the excessive recliner-style furniture that have rolled into cineplexes. (We’re here to partake in cinema, after all, not dental work.)

And in a boon to punctuality buffs everywhere — your author first among them — ArcLight forbids latecomers to be seated. This policy may seem draconian to the temporally challenged. But for those of us who take our filmgoing seriously, it’s one more bit of friction blissfully removed.

Above all, ArcLight has designed a brand experience that honors its product rather than being merely a delivery mechanism for its consumption. Their service takes the movies as seriously as its core customer does. It gives us more of what we love and less of what we don’t. And sometimes the same product wrapped in a better package can make all the difference.


Yes, this evolved moviegoing concept comes with a premium price. But it delivers commensurate value in return, respecting your time and attention. Even if the film itself doesn’t always meet your expectations, the theater goes the extra mile to do so.

Be warned: once you’ve grown accustomed to ArcLight, it’s difficult returning to a big chain. The pre-show advertising becomes seizure-inducing, its animated talking candies appearing ever more grotesque. A string of six to seven trailers tempts the viewer to walk out before the feature has begun.

Sadly, ArcLight’s reach remains limited to urban centers. For those who lack easy access, however, it’s time to fight back against the subpar multiplex experience. That likely means voting with your dollars, whether supporting locally owned movie houses or choosing Netflix instead. After all, the couch is always reserved seating — and even ArcLight doesn’t offer a pause button.

But even while entertainment continues improving, the theater experience may be more essential than ever to our social well-being. Turbulent times demand distraction. The more we’re polarized, the more we need a communal experience to unite us. At its best, cinema can take us out of our comfort zone, show us how others live, and remind us of higher truths.

Truly delivering on that promise requires a thoughtful experience like the one ArcLight has designed. When brands amplify what their customers want and remove what they don’t, they are rewarded — with loyalty, goodwill, and ultimately, money. If a better experience can be made available to more people soon, the cinema industry may turn an existential threat into a Hollywood ending.

In the meantime, we lucky urbanites will order up a Rob Roy in a tall glass, micturate to the dramatic strains of John Williams, and eagerly await Lance’s take on Chiwetel Ejiofor.


Interested to learn more? Hear Matt speak at Service Design Week 2019 or check out the more blogs here! 





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