Interview: How Vue Cinemas deals with blockbuster demand

The most recent Star Wars film, The Force Awakens, set a number of records when it launched at the end of 2015, including becoming the fastest film to gross $1 billion as well as achieving top spot in Disney's rankings for biggest international openings.

It was a major hit in the UK and Ireland (UK&I), too, rated as the highest grossing film of all time and securing the biggest ever advance ticket sales in the UK&I of more than one million. One of the largest cinema operators in the UK, Vue, reported that 60,000 people booked their tickets for the midnight showing on the opening day alone.

Breaking it down into more detail, 10,000 tickets were sold online at Vue in the first 90 minutes of them being made available, and this increased to 45,000 over the course of the first 24 hours.

With a growing number of filmgoers now confident about the process of booking tickets online, the question about how a cinema's technology infrastructure can cope with such unprecedented demand is a pertinent one.

Roland Jones, executive director for technical services at Vue Cinemas and the chief tech decision maker within the company's UK-based business, told Essential Retail that a greater number of tools are emerging to cater for ever-growing online ticket demand, but the unpredictable nature of the film industry makes it a challenging environment in which to operate.

"The recent experience we had [in the build-up to the Star Wars film last December] saw our highest ever online peak of traffic exceeded by around 30% – that's a big add-on of traffic," he explained.

"The next time it happens it could be a 200% increase in traffic – the world is becoming more digital, people are getting used to buying tickets online."

Jones added: "Demand still outstrips supply. When people want to see Star Wars or a blockbuster of that ilk in the UK, as a country we will run out of capacity to show that movie because it is so popular. You can't tell when those events are going to come."

Highlighting some of the in-cinema and online traffic levels Vue has to deal when blockbusters hit the big screen, Jones revealed that the company has sold close to 100,000 tickets on one single day for films such as James Bond movie Spectre and The Force Awakens. Until recently, the recorded peak was approximately 60,000 and Jones suggests that it wasn't too many years ago that the highest traffic was only half of that.

"From a physical point of view, we could be serving 150,000-200,000 in our cinemas one week and the next week it can be 1.2 million. That's a five-fold increase in footfall attendance, and from a website point of view you can have over 100% changes in traffic."

Jones expects the constant pushing of the upper boundary for 24-hour sales periods to continue. It is just a case of closely monitoring the web, application and database servers, as well as firewalls and network hubs, to deal with surges as and when they happen.

"We don't know how big films are going to be because we're constantly pushing back and breaking new records with film attendance and online sales," he remarked.

"What was OK last week might not be OK next week because we can't predict demand."

The major tech investment that forms part of Vue's current strategy in the UK is focused on providing a flexible IT infrastructure.

Working with tools from managed hosting provider, Rackspace, Vue says it can quickly spin up additional servers to meet growth in online demand, while ensuring that only the required cloud capacity is being used to avoid unnecessary costs. It is this system that has been in place for the past year, with Vue opting in 2015 to move its data centres into the dedicated Rackspace facilities.

"There is a very long history of movies that were meant to be blockbusters but weren't and movies that surprisingly came out of nowhere and sold millions of millions of tickets," said Jones.

"Our move to a virtual environment and a managed cloud has really allowed us to respond very quickly to demand in a matter of minutes or hours, rather than weeks – which is frankly just too slow."

Vue was publically named and shamed by consumer group, Which?, when in 2012 a number of customers were charged twice for tickets to the James Bond film, Skyfall. It emerged that the cinema group's website had buckled under pressure of record levels of customer demand, and it is clear that this situation marked a watershed moment for the organisation's tech team.

"Skyfall was a pretty painful experience for us," acknowledged Jones.

"The day before Skyfall no-one thought it was going to be a big movie. Quantum of Solace, the last James Bond movie, was alright but then Skyfall came out and people were saying this is the best Bond movie there has ever been – and that's when the Tsunami started."

He added: "Demand was surging and you can't build equipment fast enough to absorb that demand, which was much higher than the capacity we had at that time. We are going to face that each year or every two years, and hopefully the technology now is going to help us have a less painful time of it."

As Jones has alluded to and as has been proved over the years, the future success of films is unpredictable – Kevin Costner's much-touted 1995 picture Waterworld is an often used example of a movie that did not live up to its pre-release hype. There is, however, always a watch-list of those films that have the potential to smash box office records.

Following 2015's significant return to form for the cinema industry, which saw UK cinemas take over £1.2 billion in ticket sales over the 12-month period, what might be on the horizon for 2016?

"We're in an interesting position this year where Star Wars came out and, if you rewound the clock, no-one knew if it was going to be a blockbuster or not," Jones noted.

"It probably was going to be but actually it is the biggest selling movie there has been. OK, that's quite big, but now this year we're faced with Star Wars: Rogue One coming out just before Christmas. It's the Star Wars universe but it's not Star Wars, so how big is that going to be and how are we going to tailor our technology to meet the demand?

Jones said that a phrase often used in his business is "you can't build a cathedral just for Christmas" because it is not deemed efficient to have "empty capacity" during periods of slower sales and traffic.

"Again, the ability to scale up and down our resources is important because for 40% of the year we might not need anything like that capacity [required for blockbusters]. But when [a major event] comes online it's suddenly all hands to the pump and we need a greater deal of capacity."

Other tech investments for Vue in the year ahead are centred on getting closer to the consumer and allowing the business to understand its customers' preferences so it can tailor its offering accordingly. Jones is keeping his cards close to his chest regarding which suppliers the company is working alongside for these particular projects.

"We work in a very data rich industry where everyone knows within 24 hours how much gross box office a film has made worldwide but we can't necessarily tell you is who went to see it and why they went," he said.

"We have some investment for this year that will hopefully bring us a lot closer to our customer."

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