Coming Soon to a Theatre Near You

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Wed, 05/12/2010 - 20:00 -- Nick Dager

By Melissa Keeping As we filed in with our glasses of wine and found programs on our seats the atmosphere in the cinema was buzzing with anticipation. On the screen in front of us you could see a similarly excited crowd filing into London’s National Theatre and an empty stage in front of them the set for Alan Bennett’s The Habit of Art. We were about to see the work of one of the greatest living playwrights’ live featuring some of the UK’s finest actors from the comfort of our reclining seats in Clapham South London. Anyone who scoffs at the prospect of a live show beamed into a local cinema think again.  The applause was genuine the laughter sincere. Even the occasional satellite glitch causing sound dropouts caused audible frustration such was the engagement of the audience.  This packed cinema on a Wednesday night is just a glimpse into the limitless world of alternative content and as Rosemary Desiati Sales & Marketing Director at Deluxe Laboratories Italy reminded me recently ‘It’s the future of cinema.’ The alternative content revolution has been making steady progress in line with the gradual deployment of digital screens worldwide but is only now beginning to receive the attention it rightly deserves.  The term ‘Alternative content’ was being discussed vaguely in the early 2000’s; Christie for example predicted the varied use of digital projectors and its benefits to industries other than the major studios even then but the actual idea for live and recorded content such as music events and opera had already been germinating widely for some time.  Christine Costello Managing Director of More2Screen one of the premier alternative content distributors in the marketplace explained that the approach in the US has been more live and music focused while in Europe the bias has tended toward opera ballet and the arts. But this is unlikely to remain this way for a variety of market-driven reasons. Fast forward to November 2009 and in a study conducted by Screen Digest the alternative content market is estimated globally to be worth $104.6 million. By 2014 it is projected to be worth $526.5 million. The global aspect is key. Whereas the inward-looking major studios took decades to exploit the international market (and only in the 90s did international box office revenue finally surpass the ‘domestic’ market) globalization accelerated by advancing technology from VoD to Twitter from 2K projectors to satellite broadcast has opened up a vast market just waiting to be tapped.  Communication is better and faster than ever the world is a lot smaller and the savvy alternative content providers and distributors have leapt at a golden opportunity. Although certain major studios are gradually tailoring their business to accommodate alternative content – Sony’s Hot Ticket for example – much of the business is still very much US-focused concentrating predominantly on live music acts like Miley Cyrus and Celine Dion. International opera theatre and ballet meanwhile flourishes in cinemas from Australia to South Africa Japan to Israel. New markets are opening up all the time and while the major studios are certainly aware with the exception of Sony and Disney in the US so far little has been done to capitalize on this market. Opera is probably the best example of alternative content’s success. The Met has been aggressively moving into new territories with huge success closely followed by the Royal Opera House La Scala Teatro Liceu Barcelona etc. The big pull is live shows but the satellite link up is still a burgeoning concept for many exhibitors still bruised from costly projector upgrades so we are a few years away from blanket coverage.  The Royal Opera House has overcome this obstacle by offering a combination of recorded and live opera and the two complement each other perfectly.  Eventually 3D will be part of the package but this may be some time away yet. From an exhibition viewpoint the Odeon cinema chain in the UK is offering weekday matinee screenings of recorded opera and branding it Odeon Senior Screen.  By offering free tea and coffee to a regular audience they are effectively killing three birds with one stone: filling an otherwise empty cinema at very little cost maximising a PR opportunity by giving something back to the local community and marketing the product by trailering live opera to the audience in situ.  Opera fans are willing to spend more than the usual ticket price to see both live and recorded content so Odeon and the numerous other cinema chains worldwide are finding the initiative pleasing on many levels. Rather than threaten the monopoly of the majors alternative content is peacefully co-existing alongside them. For now.  More2Screen’s Christine Costello agrees principally as the nature of alternative content tends to appeal to off-peak times in the cinema so there is little for the majors to worry about.  The danger she says is when we reach a critical mass of good quality alternative content available but we are a few years away from that at the moment.    The studios shouldn’t get too comfy; as alternative content’s umbrella extends to cover celebrity Q&A frequent live music (in 3D) political debate and even religious services demand for high profile alternative content sporting events such as the as the FIFA World Cup the 6 Nations Rugby and the Olympics may cause studio execs concern from time to time as schedules inevitably conflict.  One-off events are already a headache for exhibition to schedule so Costello suggested creating a channel of sorts to stream this content into cinemas as and when it is available. However all content requires marketing and that’s where the majors have a huge advantage. A well-respected studio executive in the US told me recently “It is very exciting to see some theatres try this  [alternative content] out and succeed in ways we would not have imagined. I think they have all found out that it still requires advertising and marketing in some form or fashion. You are competing for people’s entertainment time so you have to get the word out. If you can create that demand like opera did then I think it opens a whole new avenue for entertainment.”   Food for thought but what of the effect on the major studio output?  “Great movies sell tickets and there is still a good demand for great movies ” our insider went on. “Perhaps it could push some of the weaker performing films off of the screen and move them to Home Video sooner but that is happening now even without alternative content at the multiplex. What it can do is enhance the business I think. If theatre owners can gain some profits by taking advantage of great content to supplement their core business then it could be a very positive outcome. It may not be a good fit for everyone but it is certainly worth experimenting with.” If a happy by-product of healthy competition between the alternative content market and traditional Hollywood fare means the bar has been raised at the cinema let’s celebrate.  But let’s not be too simplistic – this is Hollywood after all and money talks louder there than anywhere else.  The alternative content market has a lot of catching up to do yet. With a total of up to 10 000 screens to be upgraded in the near future this seismic shift in exhibition can’t be underestimated and the emerging perception of cinema-as-cultural centre can only be a good thing for the exhibitor the audience the content provider and the distributor. Maybe even the majors eventually. Ultimately it’s a win-win situation and a very welcome revolution indeed.