EVENT CINEMA ASSOCIATION .ORG
30 november 2013
Now showing at your local cinema: operas, circuses and television shows...
"WHOVIANS" habitually sit on the sofa — or hide behind it — to watch their favourite time-traveller battle Daleks, Cybermen, Zygons and other monsters. But on November 23rd thousands of them, all around the world, settled into cinema seats to see Doctor Who in 3D. The 50th-anniversary episode of the British television show was screened on 800 big screens in 20 countries at the same time as being broadcast on the BBC’s channels.
The Doctor’s appearance exemplifies the rise of "event cinema", in which film theatres show more than just films. Cinema-goers can be thrilled by live sporting events or lulled by arias from the world’s great opera houses. They have still been able to see Life and Death in Pompeii and Herculaneum, although the exhibition at the British Museum closed in September. Event cinema accounts for only around 1% of global box-office takings, but it is growing quickly. David Hancock of IHS, a research firm, thinks it will bring in $380m this year and maybe $1 billion by 2018.
This new breed of programming is made possible by the spread of digital technology. Cinemas no longer rely on the delivery of 35mm reels, now that pictures can be delivered over satellite or broadband connections. Cinema-owners can make fuller use of their screens, and audiences see delights they would otherwise miss. "We have a presence in 78 Mexican cities," says Alejandro Ramirez, the boss of Cinépolis, which runs plush cinemas in the Americas and India. "In the vast majority of these cities, there is no opera," he notes. So far this year nearly 300,000 people worldwide have gone to see opera and other "alternative programming", such as Cirque du Soleil 3D, a circus performance, at Cinépolis’s theatres.
Cinema-owners want to do more than beam in events. For instance, Tim Richards, the founder of Vue Cinemas, which operates chains in Europe and Taiwan, predicts that theatres will be rented during off-peak hours to video-game players to display contests on the big screen. "We are not trying to displace Hollywood films," he says. "All we are trying to do is make better use of the assets we have."
Finding new uses for screens is a product of economic necessity as well as technological opportunity. Ten years ago Americans and Canadians went to the cinema almost five times a year on average; now it is closer to four. In America and Europe in particular, at-home film offerings, including video-on-demand, are plentiful — and cheaper than a night out.
To make that night out worthwhile, cinemas, like ageing starlets, are trying to doll themselves up. They are installing plusher chairs, many of which recline nearly horizontally. AMC, an American chain, has found that these "VIP" seats decrease theatres’ capacity by two-thirds, but can boost attendances by 90% or more, as well as commanding higher prices.
Cinemas have rarely lived by the price of admission alone — margins on popcorn are around 80% — and many are trying to fatten what they can earn once people are inside the doors. More cinemas are selling booze, notably in countries where a night at the pictures has usually been a dry affair. In 2011 Matthew Viragh, the founder of Nitehawk Cinema, an independent theatre in Brooklyn, campaigned successfully to overturn a New York state law banning the sale of alcohol in cinemas. Moviegoers are much likelier to order a second drink than a second tub of popcorn.
Some offer full meals, served by waiters, so that audiences can eat while they watch. Nitehawk even provides dishes suited to the films on show. One recent evening a viewing of Kill Your Darlings, a new film about Allen Ginsberg, could be accompanied by a Beet Generation salad (yes, beetroot) or an Allen in Wonderland cocktail. Concocting a mouthwatering menu for Whovians may be harder: a Zygon, in the Doctor’s words, is "a big red rubbery thing covered in suckers", with venom sacs in its tongue. Bon appétit.