EVENT CINEMA ASSOCIATION .ORG
Meeting of the Tribes: Event cinema bookers look for new shared experiences
20 MARCH 2015
BY REBECCA PAHLE: "In this digital age, the cinema has the edge," says Event Cinema Association managing director Melissa Cogavin. The ability to interact with others, to feed off one another’s energy and have a communal experience is "the singular thing that sets the cinema apart from any other platform where you absorb content. Apart from a live show, there’s nothing else that can compete with that… And that’s what cinemas should bear in mind. That’s what they can offer. More than the great sound system, more than the great screen and the digital experience. It’s the human side. It’s the shared experience that you can’t replicate anywhere else."
And that "shared experience" doesn’t just have value when it comes to first-run movies. The U.K.-based ECA is a nonprofit organization devoted to supporting and promoting event cinema, aka alternative programming, which is becoming an ever-more-lucrative prospect for theatres, not just in the U.K. but around the world. In the U.S., the big man on campus is Fathom Events, which brings a wide variety of unique screening opportunities to more than 775 theatres across North America. Their best-known offering is The Met: Live in HD, which brings one of New York’s most prestigious cultural institutions, the Metropolitan Opera, to those outside the Big Apple. But Fathom has begun branching out into new arenas. And they’re not the only one. A bold sense of experimentation has made alternative programming one of the most unique, exciting frontiers of the theatrical exhibition market.
"We’re always looking for new content that appeals to our guests. It’s a search that literally never ends," says Mike Langdon, director of communications at Canada’s Cineplex Entertainment. Their Front Row Centre Events has done particularly well with the old cultural standbys, cultivating a loyal following for their opera screenings and bringing in strong numbers around Christmas for The Nutcracker by the world-famous Bolshoi Ballet.
But sometimes you’re not in the mood for ballet. Sometimes you’re in the mood to watch people beat each other up. Professionally. On a big screen. "We’ve screened WWE [World Wrestling Entertainment] events in Cineplex theatres since 1999," says Langdon. "They have a strong, loyal following. Wrestlemania, in particular, continues to be one of the biggest events of the year for us. This year, we plan to show six WWE events."
Fathom has had similar success with sporting events. In January they screened the National Hockey League Winter Classic on three screens in Los Angeles—all sold out. And "we’re drafting a whole new audience to boxing that they wouldn’t normally get, because these are fathers who want to bring their sons to see it on the big screen, or these are one-off people that don’t necessarily want to buy Pay-Per-View all by themselves," says Fathom Events VP of programming Kymberli Frueh-Owens. "And that helps the entire sport. We’re drawing new audiences in who have that curiosity factor of experiencing it in the theatre."
What it boils down to, explains Fathom CEO John Rubey, is that attending an alternative programming event, whatever it is—the opera, a boxing match, a classic film—is "an emotional experience. What we’re seeing is that the theatres themselves are almost becoming digital community centers, where for live events and special content people can share each other’s energy and each other’s emotional connection with the content."
And then there are the geeks. They’re a perfect fit for what Frueh-Owens calls this "meeting of the tribes." Few other groups are quite so unabashedly enthusiastic about what they love…or so willing to spend money on it. FJI wrote about the success Fathom had in screening "The Day of the Doctor," a special 50th-anniversary episode of the British TV series "Doctor Who," in our May 2014 issue. Fans of the show "definitely like that meet-up experience," Frueh-Owens explains. "They like to experience ‘Doctor Who’ at home on television, but they also like to get together and share the experience and see what else is special in the cinema environment… That’s what really makes our events so unique and different from other viewing platforms. Because we’re one of the last places where you can truly experience that as a community. Same thing with RiffTrax."
RiffTrax, for the uninitiated, was born out of the comic maw of "Mystery Science Theater 3000," a cult-favorite TV show where B-movies were mocked in real time. It went off the air in 1999, but afterwards several of the creative minds behind it kept the snark going, releasing audio tracks that fans could pair with DVDs. "We got to know the Fathom people around eight years ago as they were looking for new and exciting content to bring to theatre audiences on weeknights," says RiffTrax CEO David G. Martin. "We loved the concept of bringing the RiffTrax brand of comedy onto the big screen and began to explore a formula that would work. We know movie riffing is always more fun with a group. Back then our fans would always tell us how much fun their home RiffTrax parties were. We also had done a couple of single-venue live shows at [San Diego] Comic-Con and at the SF Sketchfest and the audiences were pretty much laughing nonstop for two hours. We knew we had something that could work."
From initially doing one or two RiffTrax Live screenings a year, Fathom Events now hosts four or five, a result of the ability of alternative programming to "scale based on demand and change our output based on the fan experience and what we’re hearing from fans," says Frueh-Owens. With traditional programming, there’s not a lot of wiggle room—you take what the studios give you, or you don’t. Event programming doesn’t just allow but requires theatres to tap into what its audience wants. "There are anecdotal stories of Grateful Dead concerts, people queued up in the snow in the Midwest around the block for several hours to get tickets to see The Grateful Dead in cinemas," says Cogavin. "That’s just showing the level of commitment of fans, and that’s not something that every band has. [You have to] assess the commercial viability, the strength of the fervor of the fan base."
Once you know you have a strong fan base, Fathom Events CEO John Rubey admits that it can be a challenge to reach out to them: "I would say probably the biggest thing that causes us not to sell tickets is lack of promotional time and resources, as opposed to the content itself." Major studios can afford to plaster cities with posters and run TV ads for their upcoming releases, but the companies organizing event cinema don’t tend to have a "particularly large budget, marketing-wise. They’re very small projects," says Isabelle Fauchet, ECA board member and director of Live Digital Cinema Ltd., an event cinema management and distribution agency.
It’s important to either have an established series—like The Met: Live in HD—or, alternatively, to search out events where you know your target audience is heavily engaged in social media. In the latter case, Fauchet laughs, "we’ve had a lot of fan clubs coming to us. They knew that this was coming out before we knew it!" And Martin says he’s "fortunate to have an amazing RiffTrax fan base that is very engaged on social media, e-mail and Kickstarter, who not only come to see our shows themselves, but enjoy punishing their friends by bringing them to see bad movies, knowing that Mike [Nelson], Kevin [Murphy] and Bill [Corbett] will be by their side cracking jokes the whole way."
In spite of advertising challenges, event cinema still proves a viable resource for theatres. "In particular, we find that the mid-week experience is a much more robust draw, if you will, than a lot of Hollywood releases, when you’re looking at particularly Monday through Thursday nights," explains Rubey. With event cinema, you can swap out that Tuesday night screening of a movie that didn’t even do all that well on Saturday with a classic like The Sound of Music, celebrating its 50th anniversary this year and getting two screenings in mid-April courtesy of Fathom and their "Turner Classic Movies Presents" series. "A lot of fans who have come out to see [those films] have never seen them on a cinema screen," Rubey continues. "They’d seen them on television. They’ve been digitally restored, and they’re coming out as Blu-rays and things like that. The quality of the digital print [we can screen] is extraordinary."
Langdon concurs: "There is an undeniable demand to see the greatest Hollywood classics back on the big screen. In our view, there’s simply no better way to enjoy these all-time greats than on a big screen, with incredible theatre sound, and in the company of other fans of the movie. Studios are preserving more of their catalogue in digital format, which really opens the door to a wealth of new content we couldn’t show previously. Often, we’re bringing this content to the big screen for the first time in digital format."
Opera, ballet, theatre, sports, TV, comedy events, classic films: Despite being a relatively new phenomenon, the world of event cinema has already opened up nicely. The challenge, says Fauchet, is in keeping that expansion going. "We need more high-quality, high-end stuff available, a wider variety," she contends. "We need other ideas... It could be anything, as long as it fits into what the audience wants. It could be offshoots of feature films, for instance. It’s not just about re-releasing films with a little bit of added content. It can be about visiting the studios or getting exclusive access to certain things. Anything where you’ve got big fans, which all the big franchises could do. And unfortunately, we’re not feeling that the big studios are doing anything towards that, because they’re still seeing it as quite marginal."
Fathom has made some inroads there, screening red carpet premieres of major studio films. The way things are going now, with event cinema increasingly picking up money that more traditional modes of exhibition leave on the table, studios should wise up and come a’knockin’ even more in the future. They’ll find the world of event cinema ready for innovation, like they have been from the start. "We want to continue experimenting, so that we do offer something for everyone," says Frueh-Owens. "If we hadn’t tried the Met almost ten years ago, imagine the success that we would have missed."
See article at Film Journal International.