NCM Fathom & Bigger Picture Screen New Entertainment Options

How many of us remember when moviegoing was a cartoon or short followed by a double bill? Or a must-see feature preceded by a “Coming Attraction” trailer in which the text exploded (“The Most Shocking Film Ever!”) instead of today’s noisy, dizzying action montages?

That was the movie theatre back then, but now…Wow! We’re not in Kansas anymore and, unlike Dorothy, we won’t be returning. With digital cinema on the threshold of a big expansion, thanks in part to the recent deal reached by exhibition’s Digital Cinema Implementation Partners giant (AMC, Regal and Cinemark) and Hollywood’s 20th Century Fox, alternative entertainment in theatres, spurred by the digital rollout, can only go racing forward.

Such optimism is based on many factors. Other studios are expected to follow Fox in helping theatres convert. Audience response and attendance has been tremendous for what we’ll call here “alt-ent,” meaning in-theatre music, arts, sports, religious and entertainment shows, whether targeting adults, teens or kids.

The alt-ent designation sits fine with NCM (National CineMedia) Fathom VP Dan Diamond. “From a theatre perspective, it’s alternative entertainment. For the consumer, our events offer unique entertainment.”

The other big alt-ent player is AccessIT subsidiary The Bigger Picture (TBP). These units are run similarly to film distribution companies. Says Bigger Picture president Jonathan Dern, “Our people work in various departments. Like acquisitions, we have a team that aggregates our content for programs. And there are folks in exhibitor relations and those who do booking.”

Booked into a theatre’s off-peak hours (typically Monday through Thursday evenings and weekend matinees), the alt-ent shows benefit theatres, studios and consumers alike.

For theatres and studios, “the point is that nothing conflicts with first-run films,” Diamond asserts. The Bigger Picture, based in L.A., is also protective. Says Dern, “As we book and market our programs, we don’t want to get in the way of studio films, and the studios are keeping their eye on us.”

Dern and Diamond also underscore how the alt-ent shows actually help both theatres and studios. Notes Dern, “All’s well as long as we’re keeping exhibition healthy and that’s what we’re doing by getting people to theatres who don’t ordinarily go.” Diamond and Dern also agree that the alternative shows raise awareness of what’s going on now in the movie theatres by reintroducing the theatre experience to those who might have slipped away into their home-entertainment cocoons or those who just never bothered stepping out.

With the alt-ent programming, “your local theatre,” says Diamond, “is becoming your local community event center and that’s a good message.” And the alternative programming is “complementary to what the studios do,” Dern declares.

It helps that the programs usually rise to the level of events. Dern explains that TBP does this by “going to the fan bases, the fan clubs and the shared communities online so that these programs get a life of their own.” And events can mix up traditional expectations of what audiences might be. As Dern observes, “The beautiful piece is that the theatres offer very safe environments. For instance, Bon Jovi had a huge family turnout.”

Consumers, of course, are big winners, as alt-ent gives them a whole new entertainment menu to select from.

Diamond calls the multiple benefits a “cross-pollination.” People coming to NCM Fathom events are returning to movie theatres. “And frequent moviegoers are trying events like our Metropolitan Opera offerings. The shows provide a momentum for young and old who are discovering new forms of entertainment.”

Nor do the popular alt-ent offerings like operas, pop concerts or DVD premieres cannibalize sales in their traditional environments. Calling his events “additive for our content partners,” Diamond cites the example of a Prince concert “in our early days when Prince was making a comeback. The concert promoters were hesitant because they feared we’d cannibalize tour sales. But demand was huge. This has to do with the great word of mouth our events create.”

Dern cites a similar experience with The Bigger Picture’s Peter Bogdanovich-directed Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers film Runnin’ Down a Dream, which was strong both as a four-disc boxed set and as a TBP offering in partnership with D&E Entertainment.

For additional revenues, theatres continue to exploit business alternatives like NCM’s CineMeetings or Screenvision’s pre-show ad packages, but it’s the alt-ent programs that are experiencing tremendous growth and creating the optimism.

To date, the programs that are working best are those aimed at kids, like TBP’s pioneering Kidtoons, and the operas—The Metropolitan Opera from NCM Fathom and The San Francisco Opera from The Bigger Picture.

Tickets to the Met operas at New York’s Lincoln Center run into the hundreds of dollars, but Centennial, Colorado-based NCM Fathom delivers them at a fraction of the price in the 20-plus dollar range. And, says Fathom’s Diamond, audiences see the operas larger than life and get exclusive backstage interviews and other extras. And there are subtitles, of course.

NCM Fathom’s big coup is their live delivery Sept. 22 of the Met’s opening night celebration, starring Renee Fleming. Then from October through May, movie patrons can choose from such Met opera classics as Salome or Madama Butterfly delivered live or as encore broadcasts.

While the bulk of NCM Fathom’s operas and its other programs are delivered on the LCD HD projectors used for the NCM Digital Content Network (DCN), TBP’s edge is its DCI-standard, Hollywood-feature digital-cinema quality for its San Francisco Operas and other shows. Distribution comes through its network of digital-cinema-equipped theatre partners with agreements calling for all digital 2K releases with 5.1 surround sound. With the operas, TBP also boasts landmark labor agreements with the major theatre and music labor unions.

The footprints for these shows are large. NCM Fathom’s backbone DCN is the world’s largest distribution system for theatres and allows for both a local and national reach. Thanks to DCN, NCM Fathom can deliver programs across North America in HD with Cinema Surround Sound to more than 14,500 digital movie screens in more than 1,200 theatres nationwide and in the top 49 DMAs.

Diamond also emphasizes NCM Fathom’s live capability and experience. “We’ve been in business since 2002 [the unit was renamed NCM Fathom in 2006] and have very deep relationships with content partners. We’ve presented over 70 programs and we’ve set the standard for live scalability.”

And NCM Fathom reaches beyond NCM DCIP circuits (AMC, Regal, and Cinemark) to include affiliates and independents like National Amusements and Marcus Theatres.

Yes, for now, programs are shown on the LCD HD projectors, “although we have a handful that use 2K and this is where it will all end up,” says Diamond. (Much depends upon NCM’s DCIP consummating additional agreements with the studios.)

Dern calls the 2K projectors that TBP requires “the finest presentation that there is.” Presently, TBP averages about 120 to 150 locations for any one program, but Dern believes there’s a potential for about 1,000 by 2011, depending on the digital rollout.

From highbrow operas to kids’ shows and much in between—live or pre-recorded rock shows and concerts featuring the likes of The Rolling Stones or Bruce Springsteen, stand-up comedy, anime programs, performing arts or religious and teen or tweener films or events for sports, sci-fi and even video gaming fans—alt-ent programming appeals to a broad range of tastes and demographics. And oddities like marching band events continue to be alt-ent favorites.

Both NCM Fathom’s and TBP’s roots are in ad pre-shows. The Bigger Picture launched as Kidtoon Films in September 2004, utilizing the digital networks installed in theatres to deliver ads. Kidtoons is now delivered to hundreds of digitally equipped theatres across the U.S.

Dern says this inaugural Kidtoons brand remains strong. He admits the features or featurettes, often straight-to-DVD premieres, may not deserve traditional theatrical runs, but, sometimes costing three to four million dollars, these productions deserve theatrical exposure. Kidtoons product also finds an underserved audience because the studios deliver very few G-rated films. And with giveaways and games in addition to the “feature presentation,” Kidtoons achieves the status of a real event.

Diamond and NCM Fathom also look for “niche programs that appeal to a very passionate group of fans.” One example was the documentary look inside the lives of six Chicago marathon runners that sold over 94,000 tickets for NCM Fathom. And those drum and bugle corps marching band events continue to, er, drum up business. Niches in alt-ent matter, Diamond believes, because “they allow us to bring communities together.”

The huge popularity and solid grosses of special programs for special audiences like these and Kidtoons, the operas, the pop-oriented stuff or films like girl-fave Hannah Montana/Miley Cyrus are paving the way and widening the path for alt-ent.

Music programming boasts name stars with mass appeal like Prince or Springsteen, Garth Brooks, Celine Dion and so many more. But music programs are also coming from surprise corners like Texas and its SXSW concerts for Bigger Picture/Blaze TV distribution to theatres.

And TBP still has “faith”! Previously identified with the FoxFaith brand for movies, TBP is pushing the genre further. Says Dern, “The FoxFaith banner will soon become Bigger Picture Faith and Values. We’ll still be working with Fox and other sources, but in addition to features we’re moving into faith-based concerts for Christian audiences.”

The alt-ent distributors are clearly looking everywhere for new ideas and leaving no stones unturned. For TBP, possibilities include special programs for foreign-language speakers, like a Wednesday night for Spanish. Dern adds that TBP is already talking to the studios about their sending Spanish or French-language files to accompany a first-run movie.

And TBP is also contemplating film classics nights, already proven popular by the packed AFI and American Cinematheque events in L.A. (although there have been complaints about the AFI’s print quality).

And in a nifty twist to all the alt-ent activity, The Hot Ticket (THT) just arrived on the scene and on screens with two pre-recorded programs for 2K and 4K theatre presentations. THT was launched last June by Sony, the first of the six major studios to commit so fully to the alt-ent distribution sector.

Cirque du Soleil's Delirium, a final London staging of the performance group’s worldwide tour, played in theatres August 20-24. And currently, THT is distributing to more than 500 theatres the Sept. 7 final night of the smash Tony- and Pulitzer Prize-winning Broadway musical Rent, which plays as THT’s second alt-ent offering in theatres Sept. 24-28.

Nothing succeeds without marketing behind it, especially in this new alt-ent arena where the alternative programs may seem like theatre interlopers to film fans. NCM Fathom, The Bigger Picture and others are delivering the marketing “oomph” and learning every step of the way as there’s room for improvement.

Campaigns, a joint effort of the alt-ent distributors, show producers and theatres, are primarily in-theatre, online and grass-roots. Everything is done in a “partnership fashion,” says Diamond. And both NCM Fathom and TBP are able to flex some synergistic muscle by promoting events in their ad pre-shows.

Reaching TBP’s anime fans is easier than it seems, says Dern, describing the anime audience as a “very self-defined niche of millions of people, about 60/40 male/female.” The audience is broad (ages 13 to 40, mainly in college towns and major markets). “It’s a very viral online community, so the bulk of our marketing is delivered online.”

Online and local radio work well for both anime and music shows. In-theatre marketing consists of trailers and one-sheets for the lobbies or box-office areas.

Marketing approaches vary according to genre. Often, as with operas and music, the fan bases are exploited. And e-mail blasts and targeting appropriate websites are often popular strategies.

Says Dern, “We partner with those who are experts in the particular genres. These are the people with databases and the approach is very, very viral. And in addition to these third-party marketers, we also interface with theatres for in-theatre marketing and promotions. For Kidtoons, we do our own marketing.”

For Delirium, The Hot Ticket did a mix of Internet and in-theatre marketing. Says Sony Pictures Releasing president Rory Bruer, “We did grass-roots, a lot of e-mail blasts targeting Cirque du Soleil fans, as they have a huge base of members.”

Generally, explains NCM Fathom’s Diamond, “what we focus on with our content partners is putting across the message to audiences that the experience they will have in theatres is unique.”

A recent example of such “uniqueness” and exclusivity is what Diamond calls the “groundbreaking” I.O.U.S.A. premiere program, which featured both the documentary about the national debt and a live discussion and Q&A with a CNBC personality and finance superstars Warren Buffett and Pete Peterson. “The discussion went live on about 359 screens and the feedback from audiences was extremely positive,” says Diamond.

The alt-ent distributors understandably prefer not to speak precisely about “splits” with theatres, but theatres usually determine ticket prices. They suggest that the splits are typical, apparently letting theatres keep about 20 to 50% of ticket grosses, depending on the event and other factors.

The important thing, they say, is that the theatres are embracing the alt-ent events. “They are moving forward,” observes Diamond, “because they see the value. It’s an equitable deal for everyone and a good revenue opportunity for theatres during non-peak movie times. Our research has told us that our price range is attractive, especially for our live, exclusive content.”

Ticket prices vary, of course, depending on the event, the venue, the format, etc., but the broad range can run from $10 to about $25. Shows like the operas are at the high end. In the case of The Hot Ticket’s current Rent, tickets are around $20, although exhibitors decide the prices, says Sony’s Bruer.

While NCM Fathom and The Big Picture dominate the alt-ent space and The Hot Ticket looks like it will be just that, other entities have enthusiastically entered the fray. These include pre-show pioneer Screenvision; alternate-space pioneer Emerging Pictures; L.A.-based pop-oriented D&E Entertainment, which embraces the 2K projection systems; and U.K.-based Vue Entertainment, also an exhibitor, which delivers rock concerts on DVD and other genres for a hip demographic.

But Sony’s entry is a good sign other studios will follow and that they aren’t fearful of cannibalization of their hallowed first-run feature business. As Sony’s Bruer puts it, “everyone is doing well” in alt-ent.

But what did newcomer The Hot Ticket learn from its recent alt-ent debut with Cirque du Soleil’s Delirium? “We played four shows throughout North America on four different dates at 767 theatres and got a handle on how to better market these kinds of events and learned something about timing and pacing. All in all, it was a very positive experience.”

Delirium already proved that theatre size doesn’t matter, as the show did “terrifically” in all size venues, reports Bruer. Even playing big markets like New York and L.A. works, although “we’re primarily giving audiences something they can’t find in their own communities,” he adds.

Sony will only distribute to theatres with 2K or 4K digital projection capabilities and concedes that the progress of alt-ent will depend on the digital rollout.

With so bright a future, the alt-ent distributors are leaving no stone unturned and are looking everywhere and talking to everyone about new kinds of programs. For his part, Bruer says that Sony is considering “many, many projects now because there are so many different possibilities and applications.” He predicts that “more studios will dabble and explore the possibilities, [but] we’re excited to be the first to commit to ongoing programming.”

Right now, with so much to learn and so much changing in alt-ent, there’s plenty of camaraderie to go around, including that good rapport with the studios. Says Diamond, “We’re in a very fast-changing environment and it feels good to have more people in this space.”

So what lies over the rainbow for the alt-ent business? “The sky’s the limit,” Diamond enthuses, extending the metaphor. “As we continue to have new and exciting technological opportunities, there will be more and more unique things coming to theatres, whether it’s an event like I.O.U.S.A., or a sports event or more performing arts or international programs, there are so many opportunities and we’ve only scratched the surface. I’m incredibly bullish on what we’re doing and the reactions from people are so great.”

And how about AccessIT’s new CineLive product, that will enable live 2D and 3D events in appropriately equipped digital theatres? Installations are already happening, with 200 sites targeted by year’s end for the top 100 DMAs (designated market areas) and TBP will oversee distribution of many of the events.

Dern says announcements are soon forthcoming for live concerts, sports and other events that fans can experience at about 20 dollars a pop. “We’ll be marketing the events and, at the same time, help our participating venues become known for their live 3D events.”

Sony’s Bruer suggests that “people will be seeing in theatres things they never imagined. Things we haven’t even thought of and that’s what’s truly cool. We’re still in an exploration stage and trying to learn. But we’re definitely committed to the future of all this.”

Looking ahead, one can imagine truly huge live events like the Oscars, the Super Bowl, U.S. Open Tennis, the Westminster Dog Show or the NBA Finals as likely slam-dunks in theatres. So what are the obstacles? Diamond reminds that because of their traditional wide distribution on TV, the rights, for now, are sewn up.

But with additional sponsors brought on board, wouldn’t there be something for everybody (TV, theatres?) since these big events have such mass appeal? After all, movies and TV shows are already going out every which way.

Or what about big trade shows or corporate events (Apple gatherings, CES, etc.) for theatres, or big events like political conventions? Diamond concedes these are possible. “All of these are opportunities, as we’re in so many theatres and markets capable of playing live HD events. But conventions have their own rules and theatres would have to play into that.”

To date, the alt-ent offerings are proving to everyone that, in addition to movie revenues, there’s plenty of room, hunger, demand, product, and profit potential in alternatives because such alternatives also happen to be entertainment, reasonably priced, hip, exclusive, even participatory.

And here’s another excuse and place for passionate fans to come together in a communal experience. Dern, who says he’s “signing up theatres left and right,” reminds us, “There are the 40-foot screens, the surround sound, the shared experience. People want to step out.” And with all things digital and a central server, “theatres can literally and easily drag and drop content into any auditorium of their choosing whenever.”

With so much on the horizon and so many programs available in so many places, maybe some entrepreneurial Web visionary will get what’s going on and build the first one-stop alt-ent website. Unlike the maze that is TV programming, cinemagoers nationwide—new or seasoned—would have all the information and ticketing capabilities necessary to find and attend that alt-ent event of their choice “playing at a theatre near you.”

And where are the metrics? How long before one of the information giants steps up to measure and provide annual alt-ent ticket sales? Won’t grosses inevitably vault from millions to billions?