Exploring new alternatives at the multiplex

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The main attraction at the multiplex will always be the latest movie blockbuster, without question. But adventurous cinemas are increasingly testing other forms of programming, and bringing new and varied audiences to their auditoriums.

Alternative content, as David Hancock of Screen Digest observes in this issue of FJI, is “likely to stay a minority activity for most exhibitors.” But for some cinemas, it offers a fresh business model that’s generating off-peak-hour revenue that simply didn’t exist before.

Hancock predicts that alternative programming, now a $100 million business globally, will generate more than $500 million in worldwide annual revenue by 2014. The U.S. currently accounts for two-thirds of that income, but Hancock expects that share will fall below 50% by 2014.

The breakout success in the alternative realm has been the live and encore broadcasts of Metropolitan Opera productions in cinemas, which draw big crowds at premium ticket prices. This past season’s series of operas played on 1,000 screens in 44 countries, a clear sign that this new business opportunity is being embraced in many territories.

Another very promising area is live 3D sports events. In the U.S., digital-cinema integrator Cinedigm has scored big with 3D broadcasts in cinemas of the FedEx Bowl college football championship game and the National Basketball Association’s “All-Star Saturday Night,” and has plans for more 3D events. As more and more 3D movies triumph at the box office and consumers become intrigued by 3D sports programming on the new generation of TVs soon hitting the market, we predict the prospect of watching a championship game live in 3D on a big movie screen with a cheering crowd will have wide appeal.

In this edition’s special section on alternative content, assistant editor Sarah Sluis speaks with several providers of new programming in cinemas. Many are repurposing prerecorded material by adding a live component to create a special “one-night-only” event—like a live debate to accompany Arts Alliance Media’s release of the environmental documentary The Age of Stupid, or country star Clint Black performing live and special celebrity guests appearing with the NCM Fathom program “Sons of the Fallen: A Live Tribute to Our Military Heroes.”

Today, the cinema can be virtually transformed into a town hall—or a stadium. On May 20, Fathom and Canada’s Cineplex Entertainment will each host a live broadcast of a New York Times-hosted conversation with the creators of the popular ABC TV series “Lost.” And Cineplex is coming off the thrill of playing all 17 days of the Vancouver Olympics live in its theatres.

Cinema buffs will be happy to hear that “alternative” embraces them too. Cineplex used its alternative “Front Row Centre” brand to promote “The Great Digital Film Festival,” a one-week program at a Toronto theatre that showed digital prints of movie classics such as The Godfather, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, The Wizard of Oz, Terminator 2: Judgment Day and Dr. No. The program will expand to more theatres in 2011.

All these “extra added attractions” are good for overall business at the cinema. As Fathom CEO Kurt Hall explains, “I think we brought a lot of people back to the theatre who hadn’t been there in a long, long time.” And Cineplex VP of communications Pat Marshall believes the cross-promotion of special events and the regular movie lineup within a cinema has “a domino effect.” As she observes, “Given the very broad variety of alternative content that we have presented in our theatres, we have really expanded our audience quite substantially.”

3D or Not 3D?

Every week, it seems, a studio announces that one of its upcoming features will be released in 3D. The latest are Warner’s The Green Hornet (which has already wrapped), Sony’s The Invention of Hugo Cabret (directed by Martin Scorsese) and Popeye, and Fox’s remake of Fantastic Voyage. At least 15 new 3D films are scheduled for release between now and the end of the year.

Since Avatar’s game-changing debut in December and historic box-office performance, all of the 3D films that have followed it have been successful: Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland was huge, Clash of the Titans performed strongly, and DreamWorks’ How to Train Your Dragon reclaimed the number-one spot in its fifth week.

But the 3D renaissance is not free of controversy. DreamWorks Animation head Jeffrey Katzenberg has been very critical of the practice of converting 2D films to 3D in post-production—he called the Clash of the Titans conversion “cheeseball.” Filmmakers like James Cameron, Michael Bay and Shawn Levy are also skeptical about the quality of the conversions.

Audiences, however, seem less perturbed. The New York Times surveyed random customers after showings of Clash of the Titans in Los Angeles, and their evaluation of the 3D was generally positive.

Despite the success of converted films like Clash and Alice in Wonderland, the industry shouldn’t take for granted the goodwill of audiences now paying premium prices for the new 3D movies. If a conversion is desired, every effort should be made to take the time and spend the proper money to do the job right, preferably with the filmmakers playing a key creative role in the process. Even films that originate in 3D won’t always have the immersive power of James Cameron’s groundbreaking Avatar. The “wow” aspect of Avatar is what got audiences truly excited about 3D, and moviemakers must strive not to devalue the experience and slow the momentum of this technological juggernaut.