Alternative approach: New forms of programming are catching on in digital cinemas


Included in the promise of digital cinema was the belief that digital exhibitors would be freed from a single source of studio-produced content. No longer would exhibitors be held captive solely to the titles the studios offered. Digital theatres would be able to offer their patrons a wider choice of programming, appealing to broader demographics, and better utilize their facilities in the non-traditional moviegoing hours. During the past year, this promise became a reality.

What has been loosely described as “alternative content”—or non-theatrical titles—has recently become a lucrative addition to the exhibitor’s programming choices. The term “alternative content” spans a wide range of genres and quality, ranging from high-value, studio-supplied event titles such as the Hannah Montana and Jonas Brothers concert movies (both in DCI-grade 3D) to locally generated HD-grade programming such as town hall meetings and community events.

Alternative content has benefitted traditional content distributors too, with opportunities in the production, preparation and digital distribution of non-theatrical programs intended for cinemas. In addition to many start-up independent alternative-content distributors, major digital-cinema advertising networks have taken the lead by leveraging their large customer base and existing digital network infrastructures and forming specialty programming divisions. For example, National CineMedia’s (NCM) digital programming division, know as NCM Fathom, and Screenvision’s Network Premiere Programming Services Group (NPPS) have been created to handle special event programming. In addition, some of the major studios, such as Disney and Sony Pictures, have jumped in with specialty divisions created for the specialty titles.

Cinedigm (formally AccessIT), the largest full-service digital-cinema provider, has been a leader in providing high-quality alternative content to its 3,700-screen DCI-grade network. Using their CineLive™ technology, they were able to transmit the Jan. 8 FedEx BCS National Championship football game to theatres in 3D. In a unique collaboration of Cinedigm, Sony, Fox Sports and 3ality Digital, the event was groundbreaking in that it was the first scheduled showing of a live streaming 3D sporting event to a paying audience.

The BCS Championship in 3D reportedly grossed more than four times higher than the best per-screen movie gross for the same evening. Thousands of fans attended, selling out 19 of the 80 theatres. "The fan turnout shows the incredible level of interest in live 3D and digital cinema. Our sincere thanks and congratulations to Sony and Fox Sports for their incredible support for this historic broadcast and to 3Ality for capturing the game for us," said Bud Mayo, chairman and CEO of Cinedigm.

Participating in the BCS events was digital-cinema pioneer Rave Motion Pictures of Dallas. Jeremy Devine, Rave’s VP of marketing, reports, “Rave had 18 screens showing the game and was able to sell out nine of these. We are particularly pleased that with our localized and viral marketing campaign, Rave was able to capture 40% of the entire events gross with only 20% of the screens.” Devine would like to see even more events in live 3D and believes that other sports such as wrestling or ultimate fighting would lend themselves well to the 3D process and be a hit with Rave’s audiences.

Cinedigm followed up the BCS Championship with a transmission of the “NBA All-Star Saturday Night” on Feb. 14, also in live 3D, to over 80 theatres is the U.S. and Canada. Future live 3D sporting events are being planned.

NCM Fathom has been presenting a variety of one-of-a-kind entertainment events in movie theatres nationwide since 2002. NCM Fathom uses its proprietary digital network to present exclusive events, including live high-definition performances of the Metropolitan Opera, as well as special live town hall discussions, sporting, music, anime and many other unique entertainment presentations.

Possibly the first eye-opening success in alternative programming was the surprise popularity of operas in the cinemas. Although NCM Fathom has been offering live and pre-recorded event titles since 2002, they scored a hit in early 2007 when they made an innovative deal with the New York Metropolitan Opera to deliver live operas through their nationwide HD-quality in-theatre network. The popular “Met Live in HD” series kicked off with the Met’s Opening Night Gala—the first time it was ever seen on the big screen in theatres across the country. Most broadcasts include exclusive behind-the-scenes content and unique extras, giving audiences an experience they can’t get anywhere else. So far, NCM Fathom has provided exhibitors with 22 live Metropolitan Opera productions, bring the total to over 90 in-theatre events in the past three years. NCM Fathom events tickets are typically priced between $10 and $25, with more than one million sold in the last 12 months.

NCM Fathom has done several unique in-theatre event transmissions which feature live panel discussions following the main presentation. For instance, in August 2008, a live panel discussion featuring Warren Buffett and several other financial wizards immediately followed a showing of I.O.U.S.A., a documentary detailing the credit crisis. Similarly, on March 5, they transmitted to over 450 cinemas another live panel discussion featuring NBC news anchor Ann Curry, former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, Natalie Portman and others on the fight against worldwide poverty, following the showing of the touching documentary A Powerful Noise.

Coming in April is NCM Fathom’s transmission of Beer Wars Live, hosted by actor and economist Ben Stein with a panel of independent beer experts, who will discuss the struggles between independent and major brewers. “NCM Fathom is thrilled to be able to bring this timely and inspiring discussion to beer lovers across America,” stated Dan Diamond, VP of Fathom. “Beer Wars Live will start a conversation in a fun and inviting atmosphere in local movie theatres while providing some compelling insight into the political and economic ramifications of an industry like American beer.”

Screenvision, also a nationwide provider of preshow and cinema advertising, has likewise been a provider of event programming. In 2007, Screenvision launched a new business unit focused on alternative content. This division, the Screenvision Network Premiere Programming Services Group (NPPS), delivered ten innovative cinema programs in 2008, including a series of three New York Mets baseball games and the exhibition of the Major League Baseball official World Series film celebrating the Phillies win. Screenvision has provided its exhibition customers with programming such as the La Scala opera series, documentaries and children’s films. The company is able to develop programming strategies for both wide national releases as well as localized or regional events.

Another innovative use was the live broadcast of President Barack Obama’s inauguration, resulting from a groundbreaking agreement between Screenvision and MSNBC. The inauguration was exhibited in 27 locations across 21 markets and 11 exhibitor partners. The inauguration was during the midday hours, filling up auditoriums in the normally slow Tuesday a.m. time period. Screenvision was able to four-wall the auditoriums, providing participating exhibitors with rental revenue in addition to the increased concessions sales. Tickets were free and distributed by MSNBC, which promoted the in-theatre broadcast across their cable TV network.

On March 4, Screenvision teamed up with Universal/Motown to exhibit the “Stevie Wonder: Live at Last” concert. The concert was exhibited in ten locations across ten markets and seven exhibitor partners. Screenvision NPPS also has two independent features that will be exhibited this year.

Both the inauguration and Stevie Wonder events were successful in that the programming partners MSNBC and Universal were thrilled with the results, and the exhibitor partners generated additional revenue during non-core moviegoing hours.

Beginning in May, Screenvision NPPS will launch a comedy series hosted by Caroline Rhea to be rolled out on a national basis. The series will consist of four mainstream, one gay-themed and two Latino episodes. Audiences will be able to experience “live” comedy in a very unique way, and be entertained by some of New York’s top names in comedy at a great price, close to home, in a group environment and at a movie theatre.

Live and pre-recorded concerts presented as a “premiere event” have also been a popular addition. One specialty distributor is D&E Entertainment, one of the leading providers of live music and documentaries for digitally equipped cinemas. D&E was started in 2005 by Doug Kluthe and Evan Saxon, and has presented over 30 concert event titles featuring artists such as Pearl Jam, Led Zeppelin, Andrea Bocelli, Josh Groban, Duran Duran and The Who in hundreds of theatres worldwide. According to Saxon, "We've been very fortunate in that we have the trust of the artists and record labels, and have been able to create a mutually beneficial relationship between the content owner and exhibitor. Ultimately, it's about creating an exciting event and viewing experience for the fan. We truly are a content aggregator and alternative-content company and our clients realize that it is our sole focus."

One of the most innovative uses for digital auditoriums has been in the educational area. In January, Galaxy Theatres of Gig Harbor, WA, working with the local school distinct and technical support from projector manufacturer Christie, was able to present to 2,000 students a live interactive feed from the International Space Station. As part of NASA’s Explorer School project, all ten screens at the Galaxy Uptown Theatre were used in the morning session, which featured a Q&A session with the astronauts.

Frank Rimkus, CEO at Galaxy Theatres, was impressed with the turnout and the visible sense of excitement in the faces of the students. “We were thrilled to be one of the first movie houses in the country to work with NASA and host so many deserving students and educators in this stimulating and inspiring environment,” he said. “Digital cinema converts a theatre from a single-product business into an infinite product business, enabling a wide range of live events and entertainment options. I can see in the not-too-distant future when movie houses will once again become a community center and be able to provide exceptional educational opportunities for students whose schools could not otherwise afford them in the classrooms,” he added. As a bonus to the students, Galaxy provided each with a free promotional NASA-Galaxy t-shirt, further enhancing the marketing value of the event.
In addition to the NASA broadcast, Rimkus’ Galaxy circuit was able to put the Presidential Debate Series on its screens. With no admission being charged, there are no rights issues with respect to showing publicly available HD broadcasts Local community leaders were in attendance and lively discussions followed each debate. The Debate Series screening was a win-win for the exhibitor and the local community, building goodwill for the exhibitor and political awareness for the local residents.

In Europe, the two largest digital cinema providers, Arts Alliance Media (AAM) and XDC have been providing their customers with a supply of alternative programming. AAM has completed 20 events and has seven more planned for this spring, including the worldwide (37-country) release of Iron Maiden: Flight 666 in April. AAM has also been supplying opera from London’s Royal Opera House as well as live transmissions of ballet. In addition, they are preparing for a live transmission of Handel’s Messiah in April and finalizing plans for the next opera season that begins in September. XDC, the Belgium-based digital-cinema network, has agreements to provide a wide variety of alternative content from distributors such as U.S.-based Emerging Pictures, U.K.’s More2Screen and Italy’s DDCinema.

Whether it is a live streaming rock concert, an opera direct from the stages of New York, London or San Francisco, a major sporting event, or even a high-interest but no-cost conventional broadcast, digital exhibitors are now beginning to take advantage of the new programming choices.

Executives from Cinedigm, NCM Fathom, Screenvision and D&E Entertainment will discuss alternative-content options at a morning seminar at ShoWest on Tuesday, March 31.