A Movie Ticketing Start-Up Hopes to Fill Empty Seats


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People waiting to buy movie tickets at AMC Empire 25 in New York. A new app, Atom Tickets, aims to make it easy for groups to plan film outings.

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George Etheredge for The New York Times

SANTA MONICA, Calif. — As anyone who has been to a movie theater knows, a lot of seats are usually empty. Add up those empties over the course of a year, according to Atom Tickets, a start-up based here, and more than 5 billion seats go unsold annually at North American multiplexes.

How can theaters fill just 1 percent of that inventory, resulting in hundreds of millions (if not billions) of dollars in added box office and concessions revenue?

Atom, a movie ticketing app and website, has made solving that puzzle its mission — and, as it seeks to increase its user base over the busy holiday film season, it has secured backing from three Hollywood heavyweights: J. J. Abrams, Tyler Perry and Steven Spielberg. The men have agreed to join Atom’s advisory board. Mr. Abrams and Mr. Perry are also stakeholders; Atom would not say whether Mr. Spielberg had become an investor.

Atom, incubated by Lions Gate Entertainment, where the vice chairman Michael Burns has been a crucial supporter, makes it easy for groups of people — particularly those glued to their smartphones — to plan film outings. “Our hopes are that Atom Tickets triggers a social moviegoing revolution,” Mr. Spielberg said in a statement. “This is a big win for anyone who loves going to the movies with his or her friends.”

Mr. Perry, speaking by phone on Saturday, added, “I’m excited about this because I think it allows my audience to have a better moviegoing experience — easier, more social.”

Mr. Abrams compared Atom to other breakthrough technology companies. “It’s like before there was Uber,” he said by phone on Friday. “You didn’t know how badly you needed it. When I started using the Atom app, I wished I had it earlier. I couldn’t believe this didn’t already exist. But there is nothing else like it.”

Even with its new pitchmen, Atom faces an entrenched competitor in Fandango, which NBCUniversal owns. Fandango, known for its playful marketing campaigns, has been the longtime leader in online movie ticketing and continues to grow, in part by embedding its ticket-selling technology into Facebook and Snapchat feeds. Fandango, which services about 28,000 domestic movie screens, is also focused on international growth.

But Atom, only a few months old, has already proved to be a serious competitor. It services about 15,000 screens in North America, with thousands more coming online in the months ahead. “By this time next year, we will have mopped up most of the rest,” said Ameesh Paleja, Atom’s chief executive. (There are about 43,000 domestic movie screens in total.)

Part of Atom’s appeal involves its polished app, which allows users to quickly spin through a wheel of movie posters representing current and coming releases. Using “predictive analytics” — jargon for a Netflix-style recommendation system — Atom suggests movie tickets based on previous orders and information gleaned from linked social network accounts. (If you follow Casey Affleck on Facebook, for instance, Atom may suggest tickets to his latest film, “Manchester by the Sea.”)

“The market needed shaking up,” said Matthew Bakal, Atom’s chairman, noting that even Universal Pictures, a corporate cousin to Fandango, recently contacted Atom to discuss a potential promotional partnership.

Atom, which has $60 million in funding from Lions Gate, 20th Century Fox and Disney, also learns which theaters users tend to frequent and with whom, allowing people to easily extend digital invitations to friends and family members for future group outings. Because Atom facilitates payment splitting among multiple people, “one poor goat isn’t stuck buying tickets for everyone,” as Mr. Paleja put it.

The start-up has also made group discounts, particularly for less popular showtimes, part of its mission, along with concession stand pre-orders. Merchandise is another component. Starting last week, anyone using Atom to buy tickets to “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story,” set for release by Disney on Dec. 16, could also buy exclusive products tied to the film, including sweatshirts and T-shirts. Down the road, Atom plans to sell toys, music and games related to various films.

Free to download, Atom collects a surcharge on ticket sales. Studios can also hire it to promote certain films.

Hollywood could use the help. As entertainment options have proliferated, theater admissions in North America, despite a growing population, have been roughly flat. Last year, 1.32 billion tickets were sold in the United States and Canada, a bit up from the year before, but down from the 10-year high of 1.42 billion in 2009, according to the Motion Picture Association of America.

Atom had hoped that its app would result in a 2 to 5 percent increase in ticket sales and concession orders for its theater partners. Early results indicate that some theaters have instead seen “double-digit percentage growth,” Mr. Bakal said. More than 80 percent of Atom users are 18 to 39.

Mr. Paleja, who previously worked at Amazon, where he helped introduce Prime Instant Video, said he hopes that the megaphones offered by Mr. Spielberg, Mr. Abrams and Mr. Perry will result in more growth.

“We’re the new guys on the block,” he said, “and they give us legitimacy.”

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