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Event Cinema draws in the masses
15 JUNE 2013
Thousands of British people will go to the cinema on Tuesday not to see the latest Hollywood blockbuster but to watch Pompeii Live at the British Museum, a guided tour of artefacts from a Roman town buried under volcanic ash in 79AD.
The live broadcast from an exhibition in London to more than 20,000 people in 280 cinemas across the UK is not only the first cultural event of its kind. It is also an example of one of the hottest trends in the cinema sector: the rise of so-called alternative content, or ‘event cinema’.
Many of the world’s cinema chains – including Cineworld, Vue, and Odeon & UCI – have started to screen everything from live opera and ballet to rock concerts and sport.
Now that almost all cinemas have replaced their traditional tools of 35mm film and mechanical projectors with digital technology, the possibilities for their content has become endless.
While only about $400m of the $34bn in global box office revenues last year came from alternative content, cinema groups are rushing to exploit the nascent area, not least because their traditional business of showing films and selling popcorn is coming under pressure.
"It’s the only growth area in cinema" in mature markets such as the UK and the US, says Melissa Keeping, chairman of the Event Cinema Association, an industry body founded last September. "Rather than a nice little add-on to dabble in, people are starting to see this as a really viable revenue stream."
If any one group has shown the potential for alternative content to bring culture to the masses and make a lot of money in the process, it is the Metropolitan Opera. The Met pioneered live screening of opera in cinemas in 2006 with the transmission by satellite of Mozart’s The Magic Flute.
Demand has grown so much since then that the New York-based opera house now broadcasts its shows to more than 1,000 screens in more than 40 countries around the world, making in excess of $60m a year.
In the UK, the Royal Opera House and the National Theatre are also embracing the opportunities of cinema, most recently with a global live broadcast of The Audience starring Helen Mirren.
And this month, in the first global live 3D theatre event, the Mariinsky Theatre in St Petersburg, Russia, broadcast the ballet Swan Lake using the same 3D technology used to film Avatar and the Life of Pi.
"Alternative content is bringing people back to the cinema who haven’t been in years," says David Hancock, head of cinema at IHS Screen Digest, a research company.
Opera, ballet and theatre have proved particularly successful, meeting a previously untapped demand for high culture from people who could not afford or travel to see performances in the flesh.
Sport, by contrast, has done less well, given that it is so prevalent in people’s living rooms and in pubs across the country. Cinema operators are also reluctant to have boozy football fans in their auditoriums.
Mr Hancock estimates that gross revenues from alternative content will grow by a quarter to $500m this year. Within the next decade, he predicts, it could reach a five per cent share of box office in some countries, which would take the global market for alternative content well beyond $1bn.
With an average ticket price of £15-£20, alternative content costs about three times the price of a admittance to a standard film in the UK.
But for cinemas, the big attraction of alternative content is not ticket prices. What is most appealing is that live or unusual shows attract a new pool of customers and – crucially – the events can be scheduled at off-peak times.
In the case of Pompeii Live, cinemas will show two broadcasts: the first on Tuesday evening and the second, designed for school children, at 11am on Wednesday morning.
Given that special events are by definition limited in supply, cinema executives say alternative content will never provide more than a small proportion of the industry’s total revenues. But they are nonetheless embracing the medium as another way to get people off their sofas and into cinemas.
Stephen Wiener, chief executive of Cineworld, says he is drawing up plans for new, small auditoriums of about 50-75 seats to create an intimate and lively atmosphere for people watching alternative content.
Tim Richards, chief executive of Vue, is also experimenting with new formats such as turning cinemas into giant platforms for video gaming. "If you ever want to see kids have their minds blown", he says, allow them to play the football game Fifa in an auditorium with a 70ft screen.