Founder Interview: Sonya Stephen of Choovie

In this digital era, it is exciting to watch industries evolve over time as they attempt to reflect our own changing tastes and preferences. This kind of evolution brings immense value to consumers and in a variety of ways. Choovie is a platform that is meeting the changing needs of consumers while bringing more people to the cinema in the process. We sat down with one of Choovie's founders, Sonya Stephen, to find out how one night at the movies turned into a business model that is revolutionising the industry and what we can expect in the future.

What is your background?

I’m a stockbroker by trade and worked in the UK and Australia for 10 years. After that time I felt I had worked on the ‘dark side’ long enough and moved to a global role at Computershare, in the US and in Australia, in product development. After that, I made a big move and was lucky enough to be the CEO of the Cathy Freeman Foundation for 6 wonderful years supporting Indigenous education. Put all this together and the experience I have gained from each of my roles lead me to Choovie.

What is the story of your business? What gave you the idea?

Choovie was born in 2014 on a Wednesday night, when [Co-Founder] Shane and I went to our local cinema to see a movie at 6.30 pm. We soon noticed there were only five other people staring at the same screen as us. We turned to each other and said, ‘how does this business make money?’. So, we decided to do a 'reccy' and ran to the other 13 screens to see how many people were watching a movie. We counted another 28, so 33 in total. We were then thrown out by a suspicious bouncer!

About 10 minutes later, Shane drew a revenue optimisation graph on a beer coaster and started muttering about high fixed-cost businesses - where the product is perishable. He wondered, if people aren’t buying what cinemas are selling, why don't they drop the price? That way they could sell more tickets. Sell more popcorn. Make more money. It seemed to be simple economics.

Over the following months, we discovered that the average cinema sells less than 17% of it's tickets but 71% of Australians still love going to the movies each year. We also saw ticket prices soaring, attendance falling, particularly among Millennials, and an industry that is failing to take advantage of mobile and digital technology.

We recognised an opportunity for a genuine win-win-win. An opportunity for movie fans to enjoy more movies, for cinemas make higher profits, and for us to build a business and revolutionise an industry. So, we created the world’s first customer-facing platform that prices cinema tickets according to demand. With Choovie, the lower the demand, the lower the price. In an industry where average occupancy is low, customers have plenty of chances to find a cheaper option. Airlines and hotels have been doing this for years, and their occupancy and revenues have exploded.

Where did the name 'Choovie' come from?

Honestly, the kitchen bench. Shane and I were still in the stages of researching the industry and investigating whether dynamic pricing or variance pricing would bring more people back to the cinema. We kept calling our idea ‘the movie thing’ and one night we decided to choose a name we could use as a placeholder until some guru advertising person came up with the right name. We are huge believers that the only way to see a movie is on the big screen so we wanted people to CHOOse a MoVIE. Simple as that. Over the next two years we kept telling people that the name could be changed at any time but everyone we met said they loved it so it stuck.

What can you tell us about the team behind Choovie?

They are phenomenal. Choovie has assembled a team of committed and talented cinephiles who just happen to be top class professionals in data, technology, marketing, and management. Our leadership team is made up of Dr. Vejune Zemaityte who is a soon to be PhD in Cinematic Studies and one of the few people in the world with expertise in cinema related data. Then there's Janhavi Gohill our development manager who has experience in designing and delivering large commercial software solutions. And finally, Will Barber, our Marketing guru who specialises in digital marketing and customer acquisition. 

Who is your target market?

The market is Australia is vast, with 70% of Australians going to the cinema each year. This is good news because Choovie is not “selling” a new service. It is improving a service that most people already use and love, by delivering it at a lower price and in an easier way.

However, we want to target those between 18 and 35 – the ‘elusive’ Millennials. To date, this age group makes up 55% of all Chooviegoers. Across the world, Millennials account for approximately one third of all cinema attendance and an even larger portion of revenues - since they generally pay the maximum price for a ticket. However, Millennial attendance over the past few years has steadily declined and cinema operators have found them difficult to engage with through traditional channels. Choovie provides cinemas with a proven way to engage and monetise this critical demographic.

How do you expect Choovie to be profitable?

Choovie’s base business model is simple, we sell each ticket with a margin or fee over and above the cost of the seat. However, this is just the beginning. There are a few additions to the business model that are either in testing or in development. We want to work with cinemas who do not have a website or have a website but no online sales capability. Then we can create their on-line presence utilising Choovie’s technology and data and take a margin from the cinema’s online sales. Another way we can bring in profits is by supporting movie distributors with our targeted movie promotions and feedback requirements through our unique customer understanding and communications capability. There is an opportunity to increase profits through our real-time candy bar promotions using Choovie's geo-fencing and communications capability, which is supported by the product suppliers.

What's been the biggest surprise since starting your own start up?

Just how hard it is and how strange it is that people think we came up with an idea that has ‘surely been done already by someone in the US'. The biggest one, though, is how difficult it has been asking people to consider thinking outside the box. It's hard in an industry that has been doing something one way for a hundred years to consider an alternative, even when we can show them the proof at the end of the day – the data – that there is more money in the till.

Why should people invest in Choovie?

Because they love movies, new technology, or they want to get in on the ground floor of a cinema revolution. Or all of the above!

Why have you chosen equity crowdfunding to raise capital?  

We really wanted to give our customers the opportunity to become part of the Choovie family and crowdfunding gives us the chance to do this. It also works the other way – we get access to new shareholders who can become Choovie customers. The synergies are perfect for us. You can’t get a more loyal customer than one who is also a shareholder!

What's next for Choovie?

We are busy rolling out across Australia as we speak. As we do this, we are going to experiment with a few new revenue streams and some great new technology. Next year we'll begin our overseas roll-out, starting with the UK, Ireland, and New Zealand.

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