So as much as we may think that we need to find new strategies and tactics to engage with audiences, a lot of times we are reinventing or rediscovering approaches that were ignored in favor of the newest theories on audience development/marketing. For a few years now I have been talking about the importance of letting people see themselves in the programming, audience, etc.
The theater I am currently running celebrated its centennial in 2020 (so the real party happened in 2022 as Covid restrictions abated.) An historic booklet was put together with an array of news articles, pictures, etc celebrating the theater’s early existence as a movie and vaudeville house.
One section talks about one of the renovations and quotes the manager who has become something of a local icon.
“Surprisingly, attendance dropped after the remodel.
According to Ted Thompson, ‘…we made it so fancy the farm boys and other workers who came in their overalls on Friday and Saturday for the western movies, quit. When it finally dawned on me what was happening, we filled the lobby with baled hay, dressed the usherettes in gingham dresses and me in Levis and everything was o.k again.”
If you hadn’t surmised from the references to usherettes in gingham dresses, this was quite a few years back –in 1941.
While it might have been a bit more difficult to get into town to see movies back then, it still says something that attendance dropped due to installation of a new carpet and art deco design choices given that movie theaters were much more central to entertainment, news and social life at the time.
It seems to be a pretty strong testament to how physical surroundings can make people feel that a place isn’t for them. These are people who had presumably attended movies at the theater before and felt welcome. Westerns were still being shown on Friday and Saturdays to serve them as an audience, just like before. But the environment shifted and felt too refined for their comfort, so they stopped coming.