The most important technology change for theater owners has nothing to do with the quality of picture and sound. Their businesses will be far more affected by social media, based on comments at a lunch panel today at the industry’s CinemaCon convention. With the growing access to information on the Internet, and social networks led by Facebook, about 39% of movie-goers have an opinion about a film four weeks before it’s released — up from about 25% four years ago — according to Vincent Bruzzese, President Worldwide of the Motion Picture Group at Ipsos. “More than a third of moviegoers have decided whether to see a movie before your TV campaign even starts,” he says. Studios are paying attention: “When we look at a film campaign it’s about identifying influencers upfront,” says T.J. Marchetti, SVP of digital marketng for Walt Disney Studios. For example, he notes that Finding Nemo — which will be re-released in 3D this fall — has 12M fans on Facebook. The studio has also generated online buzz by having stars of The Avengers attend about 15 pre-release screenings, and having director Steven Spielberg answer audience questions from about 60 theaters showing War Horse. “It’s hard to do; you can’t do it for everything,” Marchetti says. But when it works it can “empower people and have them be your evangelists.”

Fandango is doing its part– especially with its mobile app. About 24M people have downloaded it; in Q1 it accounted for 25% of Fandango’s ticket sales. “Most of our mobile ticket purchases happen 2-to-4 hours before the event,” says business development VP Kevin Shepela. By contrast, visitors to its Web site buy tickets early: 42% of Fandango’s total transactions take place before the movie even opens, he says. The next step is to popularize bar-codes that can offer users ticket sales as well as information, discounts, and an ability to enter the theater without a paper ticket. Shepela says that Fandango also has built its relationship with Facebook, and is working to persuade people to share more information.  ”A few years ago, ‘liking’ something (on Facebook) led to a fan page,” Shepela says. But now it can lead to “actionable links” that promote sales. Also, “friends can see, if I choose to share the information, that I’m going to a particular movie at 7 PM.”

A relatively new Web site, Tugg.com, also is beginning to harness social networks to promote movie-going. It enables almost anyone to arrange an event — such as a screening of a film not currently in a theater — if a certain number of people commit to showing up. For example, “if 50 people say they’ll see Rocky, it will happen,” says marketing executive Pablo Gonzales.  The site is developing agreements with exhibitors — including AMC. Gonzales says that Tugg could be used to prolong theatrical life of a film, or arrange screenings of art films in a community that doesn’t have an art house theater. People trying to schedule events via Tugg often invite friends via Facebook, and about 20% typically sign up. “We’re talking to people who haven’t stepped into a theater in 10 years, and they’re re-engaging in that experience,” Gonzales says.

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