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Just When You Thought It Was Safe To Go Back To The Theater: A Product Management Lesson In Innovation, Pricing, and Comedy From “Rifftrax Live: Sharknado”

There's a lot of innovative work going on underneath the goofiness. Product people take note!

There’s a lot of innovative work going on underneath the goofiness. Product people take note!

Critics have been predicting the death of the movie theater experience for a long time, and even famed director Christopher Nolan sees a bleak future for movies because he feels movie studios devalue the movie theater experience. Could product management save the movie business? The gang at RiffTrax shows us the way.

RiffTrax are comedic commentaries played in-sync with movies. Written and performed by the stars of TV’s Mystery Science Theater 3000, RiffTrax brings the unique humor of Michael J. Nelson, Kevin Murphy and Bill Corbett to Hollywood’s hit movies, short educational films, and other things… such as SyFy’s made-for-television disaster movie about a waterspout that sucks sharks out of the ocean, then rains them down on the streets of LA.

Last week, my girlfriend and I attended a live RiffTrax event for “Sharknado“, airing simultaneously in over 600 theaters across the United States. Our theater was packed. Tickets in our area were $13.50 apiece.

Normally I would balk at paying that much to see a movie in the theater — after all, the average movie ticket price in the US is around $8.13 — but I did not hesitate about spending a portion of the month’s entertainment budget on this event.

Which got me thinking…

What Makes RiffTrax Live So Special?

I grew up watching MST3K, but it’s not nostalgia that convinced me to ask my far-too-trusting girlfriend to drive with me to a theater a few towns away, to see a movie neither of us was really invested in, costing us precious time and money.

Fathom Events presented Sharknado as part of its “RiffTrax Live” series. Asked about the movie choice for the event, Fathom’s CEO John Rubey notes, “It’s not about production values […] It’s the energy that 200 to 300 people in a cinema produces. That’s what makes it special.”

I think Rubey is right: It’s the experience. There’s something magical about the idea that this is happening live… it’s really funny… and you’re sharing this live, fun experience with a ton of people who are also laughing and having a good time.

Added Value

In addition to the main feature, the RiffTrax crew riffed “A Case Of Spring Fever”, an animated short from 1940 about a frustrated man who curses the invention of springs, is shown a haunting portrait of a world without springs by Coily the Spring Sprite, and then becomes an irrepressible advocate for the role of springs in everyday life. (They riffed this short previously during the MST3K era, but this was an entirely new take on it.)

The event also included previews for Sharknado 2 and the next RiffTrax Live event, Godzilla (1998), plus a pre-show of hilarious word scrambles and movie “trivia” (“James Cameron filmed a large portion of Avatar 2 deep in the ocean, and we hope he leaves it there.”).

During the show, the RiffTrax crew took a few moments to thank several people in the audience who backed their KickStarter campaigns — RiffTrax recently raised over $265,000 to riff “Godzilla” (1998) live on Aug. 14 and “Anaconda” (1997) on Oct. 30 — and pointed everyone in the audience to a hidden section of the RiffTrax site where Sharknado-related digital goodies could be downloaded after the show.

RiffTrax also engages in a full range of social media activities to stimulate and keep the conversation alive — from Twitter to YouTube to Instagram and more. They even have a forum on their official site where fans can vote for the next movie to riff.

Can’t make it to a live event? You can purchase recordings of previous live events on DVD or VOD.

Hilarious, And Innovative

If you look at Rifftrax, there’s actually a lot of innovative work going on underneath the goofiness:

  • Live, value-added events with premium movie ticket pricing
  • KickStarter campaigns to license relatively modern movies (versus the much older films they riffed during the MST3K years)
  • Social activity that engages fans, stimulates sharing, extends the conversation, and gets fans looking forward to what’s next
  • Repurposing the live content, making it available for purchase at a later date

In an era where movie theater attendance is flat at best… when the National Association of Theatre Owners is experimenting with discount tickets… RiffTrax is going in the other direction.

RiffTrax is taking bad movies (and even movies that aren’t so bad) and making them funny… creating emotional experiences around those commentaries… charging premium prices for the experience… using social media to extend the experience… and laughing all the way to the bank.

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BONUS CONTENT

Watch the original (and still hilarious) MST3K riff of “A Case Of Spring Fever”:


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