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Small Screen to Big Screen: Event cinema explores TV at the movies
20 MARCH 2015
BY JONATHAN ROSS: Like scientists tinkering in a lab with a petri dish, growing and testing exotic cultures to produce something new, exhibitors around the world are experimenting with a wide range of non-feature film content like sports, music and the arts on their screens to create fresh experiences for their audiences and bring more consistent revenue flows to their shareholders.
Alternative programming or event cinema, as it has most recently been dubbed, is starting to catch the attention of some major players across the entertainment, media and social-media industries. Concurrently, exhibition is now realizing its potential to widen the appeal and pull in ever-larger numbers to their multiplexes beyond the genteel Sunday afternoons of opera at The Met.
John Rubey, CEO of North American distributor Fathom Events, declares, "The event cinema industry is booming. While box-office business was down overall in 2014, Fathom experienced record growth. Several times over the past few years, our events have been number one at the box office against major feature films. Since these are happening mainly on weekday nights, it shows how valuable we can be to cinemas, which often have trouble filling auditoriums during these off-peak times."
The screening of popular television series in movie theatres is one of these latest experiments, and the early signs are that it could be one of the most critically and financially successful trends yet for the event cinema sector, which has been projected to hit over $1 billion worldwide by 2017, according to IHS Screen Digest.
Exhibition history is populated with various attempts at bringing television into movie theatres for spectacle, says Emmy-winning technology consultant Mark Schubin, who has been working on live projected events since 1967. "In its early days, it wasn't clear whether television was to be viewed in a home or in a theatre. There were 19th-century proposals for television projection. The famous Bell Labs television demo of 1927 featuring President Hoover had a theatrical screening. Demonstrations in 1930 by Baird, GE, RCA and Western Television used theatrical screens. In that year, people went to the cinema just to see "Television"; by 1932, they needed better content: the Derby or a live film star. In 1936, the Berlin Olympic Games were shown live in theatres. By 1938, there was live color projection. By 1941, people went to watch live prizefights, probably the longest-running alternative content before the HD era."
Such lessons of the past have not been necessarily lost on television executives, who see this event cinema phenomenon as an opportunity to "reverse-engineer" or co-opt the theatrical window to their content’s benefit. More modern trials of exhibiting content originally produced for television in theatres seem to indicate a sort of backwards integration of the entertainment value chain, where all parties including exhibitors, distributors, producers and consumers can benefit significantly.
In November 2013, "Doctor Who" fanatics flocked to cinemas around the world to watch "Day of the Doctor," a special feature-length episode to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the long-running BBC TV series. The show was simulcast on the very same day—and in some instances at the very same hour—on television in over 98 countries, which also happened to be a Guinness World Record for the largest simultaneous transmission of a drama program. "Day of the Doctor" scored big at the box office, generating over $10 million globally in a single weekend and proving that the right content in the right venue can turn "small-screen" content into a major event for audiences and fans at the cinema.
Julia Nocciolono, commercial manager for BBC Worldwide, says, "Taking the episode to cinemas was just one element of a multi-platform release strategy that aimed to maximize marketing and PR around the anniversary celebrations throughout the year and deliver a ‘global’ event around this incredible milestone for the brand."
Fathom’s Rubey echoes these sentiments: "Just one of the many benefits for any of our TV partners that we can provide is the significant amount of exposure and awareness for launching a new season or series. Research shows that fans who saw ‘Doctor Who’ in cinemas were more likely to then watch the same episode on TV."
Fueled by social media and a rabid fan base, these Whovians, as they call themselves, left their couches in droves, proving their eagerness to unite in theatres and share a live communal experience with their fellow Whovians. "‘Doctor Who’ fans demonstrated a strong desire to get together with other fans to share their passion for the brand," Nocciolono continues, "Our initial estimated footprint expanded considerably, growing from about five countries to 25 and over 1,550 cinemas, with some markets joining due to fan petitions on Twitter to get cinemas near them to take the episode. We also had over one million unique users over a six-week period to our ‘Find a cinema near you’ map."
Equally as important, the screenings allowed them to experience the legendary series’ opener with the superior audio and visual experience in both 2D and 3D that only the cinema environment could provide.
"These events serve as a gathering spot for fervent fans of these television programs," says Jim Amos, former VP of distribution at Fathom Events. "Despite the ability to see these shows at home for free, the allure is for devotees of the franchise to all assemble in one place, many in costume, and watch with other fans in a community atmosphere. And they get to watch their favorite show on the big screen as they've never experienced it before."
More recently in late January of this year, large-format giant Imax Entertainment took a bold step by partnering with cable television giant HBO to distribute two episodes and a trailer for the upcoming season of the wildly popular, medieval fantasy epic series "Game of Thrones" to over 205 IMAX screens exclusively in the U.S.
Greg Foster, CEO of Imax Entertainment, says Imax saw an opportunity to take what many already considered to be the lush cinematic quality of "Game of Thrones" and apply its proprietary Digital Media Remastering (DMR) technology to create a wholly unique IMAX experience for its exhibition partners and fans of the show. Both "Thrones" episodes had previously aired on HBO and HBO GO, the cabler’s SVOD service, yet the event grossed almost $1.9 million over a limited seven-day run with just one show each day.
What really piqued Foster’s imagination and led him to believe he and Imax were onto something big was the massive online buzz and advance ticket sales that occurred in the run-up to the opening weekend on Jan. 30.
"IMAX pre-sales were huge for ‘Game of Thrones,’ given the significant social-media push. We didn’t do traditional advertising, no TV spots or even trailers, but word spread very quickly," Foster notes, adding that "typically, the rough rule of thumb for pre-sales on an IMAX release is anywhere from 20 to 35 percent of its opening gross. With ‘Game of Thrones,’ pre-sales were off the chart, accounting for two-thirds or 66 percent of the opening three days. That is, $1 million of the $1.5 million earned in the first 72 hours came from advance ticketing and that was astounding to us."
Foster also identifies what many in the event cinema industry see as one of the greatest benefits to exhibitors of screening alternative programming in movie theatres: the potential of this content to help smooth out the revenue effects of an uncontrollable and often inconsistent release schedule driven primarily by studio films.
Says Foster, "Imax is in the content business, but Hollywood blockbusters and tentpoles that call out for the true IMAX experience only work for about 45 weeks of the year. Our responsibility is to put out compelling content for our exhibition partners and our moviegoers 52 weeks out of the year in over 62 countries, so alternative programming is an area we are aggressively experimenting with, as we did on ‘Game of Thrones.’"
While "Thrones" only hit IMAX screens in the U.S. due to HBO’s complex international theatrical and television deals, Foster indicates that Imax has an eye towards bringing future events to their audiences and exhibitors worldwide.
The challenge now is whether exhibitors, IP/content owners and distributors can continue to work together to identify similar television content that rises to such quality of excellence and to make it fresh and appealing enough for ticket buyers to keep returning to theatres over these slower release periods during the year.
Bud Mayo, president of alternative programming and distribution at Carmike Cinemas, the fourth-largest movie chain in the U.S., answers this with an unequivocal and emphatic "Yes!"
Mayo believes that there is plenty of content out there for cinemas, but "it’s got to be programmatic or series-based, highly popular, and have a pre-existing fan base to draw the crowds. Moreover, it requires work, work and more work by exhibition, from the very top levels of management to the local theatre usher, for alternative programming and event cinema to become a sustainable business."
Across its 285 locations and some 3,000 screens, Carmike, its leadership and its theatre staff have dedicated themselves to making alternative programming an integral part of their business and the financial results show it, says Mayo. "It’s a new way of thinking for any organization. We want everyone to give our alternative programming as much care and attention as our tentpole movies. It requires constant outreach to the local community to build the relationships and reputation of each of our locations. And we challenge and reward our employees for that focus and attention on our alternative programming. Don’t be surprised if you see our concessions or usher staff dressed as Elizabethan courtiers the next time you enter one of our theatres."
Mayo says that Carmike’s redirecting of both existing and new resources towards this programming has already started to pay off. Some Carmike multiplexes are seeing event cinema generate up to 20 to 30% or more of total box office and concessions revenue spike by 30 to 40% for these events, according to Mayo. Interestingly, Mayo says that his most important metric for success of an event is not just its absolute box-office gross amount but how much the event grossed over what it replaced on that specific screen in that multiplex.
"We have seen some of our events, especially the TV-based events like ‘Doctor Who,’ generate a multiple of seven to 15 times of what we took off-screen in that theatre. No one can argue with that rationale and that’s how we should be measuring the incremental value of alternative programming to our business."
Evan Saxon, founder of event cinema distributor ESP, also sees nothing but upside in creating dedicated cinema events around television fare. "The premiering of TV in theatres on the big screen is truly a win-win for all parties. Event cinema at its finest!" he enthuses. "The theatre wins by having an amazing fan event that brings in many fans that might not go to the theatre. Now these folks can see how great content is on the big screen. The TV folks win, as there’s no better way to create excitement than by having a theatrical event with all the online exposure and press generated. The producers, directors, actors and crew win, as it’s a chance to have their show seen with the absolute best viewing technology and the most immersive setting possible."
Indeed, whether it’s a season premiere or finale or even repeat episodes of a cult classic or favorite series, TV in movie theatres has proven and should continue to be one of the most promising experiments in movie theatres today, with the ability to transcend geographic, language and cultural boundaries.
Imax’s Foster seemingly sums up this scientifically inspired view towards event cinema when he states, "We will experiment or try anything as long as it honors our core business and our exhibition partners, and that is our threshold. There are exciting new avenues of programming and content and we will definitely be experimenting more in the future."
Jonathan Ross is managing director of ROQ Group, a boutique consultancy based in Los Angeles which specializes in U.S. and international content acquisition, licensing and distribution and event cinema.
See article at Film Journal International.