Attractive Alternatives: Exhibitors share their experiences with event cinema programming

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Cinemas Features

Film Journal International asked leading exhibitors to comment on their successes and surprises with event cinema programming. We thank all the participants for sharing their experiences and expertise.

What are some of your most successful alternative events?

Steve Bunnell, Senior VP/Chief Content and Programming Officer, Regal Entertainment Group: In February 2017, Regal debuted the Best Picture Film Festival, which showcased all nine Oscar nominated Best Picture titles in a film-festival style schedule over the course of ten days. Customers had the ability to by individual tickets to the festival showtimes or they could purchase a $35 pass that allowed them to see all nine films for one low price. Regal played the Best Picture Film Festival in 100 locations and saw amazing success, grossing over $1 million over the course of the ten days.

Regal also had great success with animated titles including Batman: The Killing Joke and Studio Ghibli’s Spirited Away and Princess Mononoke, faith-based events such as “Is Genesis History?” and classical performances from the Met Opera. These events have enabled Regal to grow incremental revenue from alternative content in the trailing twelve months.

Brad LaDouceur, Vice President, Event Cinema, Cineplex: Our programming is very dynamic and has something for everyone, but in generalour live or captured live broadcasts from the Metropolitan Opera,the Bolshoi Ballet, and concert performances from “Monty Python Live” to André Rieu have drawn our largest audiences. We have had a lot of success with anniversary screening of films such as Back to the Future, Mean Girls and Titanic, and speaking of fan favorites, one of our most beloved and successful events is the Flashback Film Fest (previously The Great Digital Film Fest). It’s Canada’s only coast-to-coast festival bringing a lineup of sci-fi, fantasy and fan favorites back to the big screenfor a full week. Our Stage series is also very successful with audiences. A recent example is National Theatre Live’s broadcast of No Man's Land, which drove some big box-office success.

Sonny Gourley, Senior VP, Film, Marcus Theatres: At Marcus Theatres we feature a variety of alternative events in order to give our guests options. In the last few years, the Met Opera and faith-based events have really gained traction. These two types of content have a more dedicated guest following at our theatres, and for the faith-based content we’ve even experienced interest from church groups wanting to see the film together. In addition, a newer trend that has emerged in the past year is anime. It has become increasingly more popular and has established a following of its own.

Mark Walukevich, Manager, Senior VP, Film & Event Cinema, National Amusements, Inc.: Our most successful events are usually the live events with the National Theatre, Met Opera and Royal Opera and Ballet broadcasts. These events go on sale months in advance and audiences are well aware and seek to buy tickets early. We have also had success with our own releases such as Thomas the Tank Engine and recently Your Name, the highly acclaimed Japanese anime film.

Victoria Brouillet, PR & Communications Manager, Novo Cinemas (U.A.E.): Novo prides itself on our repertoire of alternative events and we have found great success with an exclusive series of Bolshoi Ballet performances, El Clásico and La Liga football, and live boxing matches from Las Vegas.

Francesco Bertolini, Marketing Manager, Alternative Content, CineArt Marketing/Kinopolis (Germany): Our cinema group has for years had a big focus on kids’ events like “Bob the Builder” and “Octonauts.” We have had pretty good success with these—especially when we had live acts and a kind of event program around the screening.

In the adults section, we have been rather successful with special screenings like our annual “Sharknado” cinema event, a big preview of “Game of Thrones” and the concert movie “Rammstein: Paris.” Not to forget our Met Live programs, which are in the sixth season in several cinemas with big success and still-growing audiences.

Joe Masher, Chief Operating Officer, Bow Tie Cinemas: Certainly Disney’s Newsies was the best event we ran lately. We perform well with the anime titles in certain markets as well.

Dalton Brown, Regional Manager, Paragon Theatres: We have had tremendous success with the Met Opera and animation. We have also started showing film classics, which have provided an opportunity for new audiences to see movies as they were originally meant to be seen. 

Bruce Farrior, District Manager, Paragon Theatres: Some of the most successful events at the City Center 12 have been those that cater to a specific audience and age groups, such as a religious film, anime, the Opera series, etc.

What’s the most unusual alternative event you’ve programmed?

Walukevich: Depends on the definition of unusual. Unusual for me, but not for the audiences that are attracted to the content. We recently released I Believe in Miracles, in which the event was premiered at a football stadium before being released in cinemas. The coordination and cooperation from many individuals involved and the enthusiasm throughout made this film go from ordinary to extraordinary.

LaDouceur: “Unusual” is really subjective when serving 75 million guests annually with different preferences, as we do. Rather than unusual, I would say our programming is unique and showcases content that audiences may not be able to see elsewhere or that they would have to travel distances to see. Most recently we hosted a live broadcast of Wrestlemania 33, which has been running in cinemas across Canada for the last seventeen years. Sport remains popular with Canadian audiences and we’ve run everything from the Stanley Cup playoffs to the Toronto Raptors playoff season in 2016.

Bunnell: The ability to stream live Q&As in Regal theatres. It gives such an added value to patrons and is something that used to only be available in big cities.

Gourley: Alternative content comes in all shapes and sizes—that’s what makes it so interesting! One interesting title was DCI, Drum Corps International. It offered something different for our guests, sharing hours of footage of the live World Championship preliminary round of drum competition. The response was amazing, as schools in the area were excited that we were offering the chance to see this content on the big screen with others that shared the same appreciation for it.

Masher: It has to be the “My Little Pony” features we’ve run. I had a manager call me and tell me that grown adults were showing up in costumes.

Farrior: Dragon Ball Z was amazing. Every show was a sellout. Ghost in the Shell performed well also.

Brown: We have an upcoming event called “MindGamers,” which is a live event and encourages audience participation. We are looking forward to providing more unique experiences in the future. 

BrouilletOne of the most unique programs we’ve offered is the European Film Screenings, which we’ve hosted for the past two years. The 2016 edition was held under the patronage of H.E. Sheikh Nahyan Bin Mubarak Al Nahyan, Minister of Culture, Youth and Community Development, the Luxembourg Embassy to the UAE and the European Delegation and featured 18 embassies of European Member States participating: Italy, Germany, France, U.K., Ireland, Spain, Portugal, Poland, Czech Republic, Luxembourg, The Netherlands, Denmark, Sweden, Austria, Latvia, Romania, Belgium and Finland. Each screening day during the week-long festival also featured a selection of Arab films and Emirati shorts, in particular.

Bertolini: There are at least two events I’d like to mention:First, we did a special screening, “Jonas Kaufmann—An Evening with Puccini.” The movie was screened with a live interview afterward with Jonas Kaufmann.Jonas was an evening guest in our Gloria Palast premium cinema. After the movie, we did a live satellite broadcast of the Q&A with Jonas from our cinema to all cinemas (around 100) in Germany which joined the movie. So a huge audience had the chance to experience this unique event.

Second, we did a screening last year called Terror. At the end of the movie, the audience had the possibility and duty to discuss and decide about one of two different endings of the movie. There was a twenty-minute break—the audience did the poll and the ending with the most votes was shown.

Have you had any unexpected successes?

Brouillet: One of our more pleasant surprises with our alternative content was the success we’ve had showcasing the Bolshoi Ballet performances (Swan Lake, Sleeping Beauty and The Nutcracker). It was the first time we featured these recorded performances by the prestigious Bolshoi Ballet and they were very well received by the market. There has been a great investment and interest in the performing arts in the UAE and throughout the GCC region over the last few years and this permitted local audiences the opportunity to experience the epitome of classical ballet from the convenience of their city and in state-of-the-art cinema comfort.

Gourley: We were approached a couple months in advance to consider playing Batman: The Killing Joke at our theatres. In part because of the popularity of Batman and anime, we decided to proceed with the title at every location that could play alternative content. However, when the film debuted at Comic-Con, it received challenging reviews. At that point, we weren’t quite sure what to expect. Happy to say, we had a huge hit on our hands. The title appealed to a specific audience and it really took off. In fact, it was so popular that we brought the title back and played it again.

LaDouceur: In 2015, we launched a dedicated screen program, or event cinema. These screens in large multiplexes run event cinema programming seven days a week and allow for flexibility. We recently began introducing a lot more anime programming, which has proven to be popular with many of our guests. Anime fans are very engaged in the content and we’ve received a lot of positive feedback. As a result of this response, we will continue to feature anime programming in this year’s event cinema lineup.

Bunnell: It’s great to see Regal expanding the number of locations for alternative content and netting positive results. We constantly push for more theatres to get exposure to this type of content. Our gross has improved over 33 percent over the last year, with many of these theatres new to alternative content helping drive this increase.

Masher: We generally perform well with the TCM Classics series that we run, but Singin’ in the Rain was scheduled and Debbie Reynolds passed away just before. It sold out in most markets where we ran it.

Brown: Animation has played better than expected, such as the Dragon Ball Z title last year and Yu-Gi-Oh this year.

Farrior:All anime product has done well. Both Dragon Ball Z and Ghost in the Shell have done well. Many guests often call about “the Operas."

Walukevich: In the early stages, we were contacted about a live performance by Andre Rieu, the Dutch violinist and conductor, for a multiples circuit—it strayed out of our comfort zone. The first performance was not exactly earth-shattering, but our ability to learn to reach the audience, through a wide variety of traditional and social-media platforms, has built this program as a key each and every subsequent year, growing into worldwide success.

Bertolini: Some alternative events are really unexpectedly successful, like our “Captain Future” special, the “Disney Mitmach Kino” or the aforementioned “Sharknado” screenings.

What’s the key to a successful alternative event?

Gourley: In order to have the greatest success with alternative content, there are three main questions to consider first:

* Is there awareness in the general public about this film/topic? Proper marketing support must be in place to create some interest and buzz.

* Is there a specific demographic that will appreciate the content the film has to offer?

* Is the audience passionate about the content? That helps drive attendance to these alternative events.

Bertolini: We think that there is generally no “one key” for a successful alternative event.It’s more the sum of different topics. For example, it is rather important to generate unique events with added value for the audience in terms of regular cinema screenings.Often you need a sense of upcoming trends or highlights which qualify for an alternative event (e.g., videogame releases). Generating series—like the annual Met broadcasts—also helps to win audiences over time. The predictability and the form of how you speak to different audiences—for example, you need different advertising tools for the older Met audience and younger people—should also be mentioned. Last but not least, it has become really important to use strategies like individual digital customer approaches to win the attention of different audiences.

LaDouceur: Knowing your audience, what they will like and how to develop new audiences are key to programming successful alternative events. Audiences have a broad spectrum of tastes along with considerable individual variations; that’s why it’s important to give them choice, and offer programming that reflects what they’re passionate for. In our experience, what draws in audiences are events that emotionally or intellectually engage them as well as give them a unique shared experience of something that they would not otherwise have access to, such as the live broadcasts, the one-night special screenings, or world-renowned productions and exhibitions.

Bunnell: In regards to the Best Picture Film Festival, one of the keys to success was the $35 Festival Pass and giving the customers plenty of showtime options with the ten-day schedule. However, the biggest asset Regal has when it comes to any alternative programming, whether it is Fathom Events or homegrown projects or art and specialized film, is our marketing team, led by Ken Thewes. They put forth every effort to help our events succeed from utilization of our social channels, in-theatre assets, localized marketing and PR outreach, along with marketing through the industry-leading loyalty program, the Regal Crown Club. Their enthusiasm for these alternative events helps Regal stand out from everyone else.

Walukevich: Having dedicated individuals who fully realize that there is perhaps a single show and months of buildup to get it right is a tremendous advantage. It’s an area that can be neglected because of the time and work involved for each event. We recognized years ago that if we were to set ourselves apart as a cinema and become an overall entertainment complex, we needed to build this program because of the diversity it brings to a cinema in truly offering something for everyone.

Masher: The key is promotion. It’s difficult to get the word out, as there is no national campaign for most of these events. We heavily promote onscreen and through our own loyalty and newsletter channels, as well as in-theatre.

BrouilletLike all successfully executed events, Novo takes pride in our well-thought-out marketing campaigns comprising smart planning, targeting key audiences and securing the desired content for ourguests.

Brown: Alternative events provide us an opportunity to showcase different content during non-peak times. Coupled with our focus on the guest experience and the latest amenities such as recliners, reserved seating and expanded food and beverage choices, we provide a compelling environment.

Farrior: I think the key to a successful alternative event is actually going with what is trending and popular to the specific targeted audiences. I think marketing to specific audiences drives the fan base and builds loyalty. I believe content for all ages should be the norm.