Unfathomable Success: Fathom Events takes event cinema to new heights

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2017 was a banner year for Fathom Events. You can see it in the numbers.

* Eleven: Number of Box Office Awards received at the 2018 Event Cinema Association Conference.

* Twenty-six: 2017 releases that grossed over a million dollars, almost double the 14 releases that passed that threshold in 2016.

* 4.7 million: The amount of dollars earned by Fathom’s screening of Disney’s Newsies: The Broadway Musical, making it the year’s highest domestic earner.

* Thirty-five: the number of countries in which Fathom screened Pokémon the Movie: I Choose You!, the year’s highest worldwide grosser with a total cume of $6 million.

In the whole vast scheme of the exhibition industry, event cinema is still relatively new. Founded in 2002, Fathom Events has yet to cross the two-decade mark. But over its relatively short lifespan, it’s grown not-so-slowly and surely to become the 13th-largest distributor in the United States. “That’s something that’s a little-known secret,” says Fathom CEO Ray Nutt. “We’ll never be Disney or Warner Bros., but there’s a place for Fathom, and it’s a really nice place. We’re making a lot of fans really happy.”

Fans of opera, faith-based content, sports, ballet, anime, comedy, classic film and more—the categories of content that Fathom programs is vast and expanding. Nutt name-checks “over the top,” or OTT content—online streaming content like YouTube Red’s “Step Up: High Water,” several episodes of which Fathom screened along with the first Step Up movie in a special January 2018 event—as one that has a lot of potential for growth. Ditto anime and faith-based events, the two verticals that saw the biggest growth in 2017.

Even in more established verticals, like opera—Fathom’s longstanding partnership with the Metropolitan Opera brings in about 20% of Fathom’s revenue—the potential is there to reach out to a younger audience in addition to the older demographic that opera is currently associated with. “You have a lot of Baby Boomers who are now in retirement communities. They’re healthy and wealthy, and they’re mobile, and they can get to the theatre to see the Metropolitan Opera or the Bolshoi Ballet,” Nutt explains. At the same time, Fathom aims to “take some of the content that might seem more mature and reach a different audience with it.”

Gordon Synn, Fathom’s chief content and programming officer, sees room for growth in television: “A lot of this [premium TV] content you can imagine being experienced on a big screen in a theatre, because the production values are there, and the creative vision is there. And it would make sense from an audience point of view to experience it in that way. Their experience of that content will become so much bigger, greater and more engaged… People want to have that communal experience. They want to be able to talk about it and share in it together with their friends. And you can’t do that when you’re watching on a device at home by yourself.”

That communal experience is a key part of Fathom’s vision. Both Nutt and Synn emphasize that the goal at Fathom isn’t just to screen content, it’s to, in Nutt’s words, “eventize and create a different experience for most of our guests.”

Audiences “are conditioned to show up to the theatre and [be told to] turn off their cellphones, to be quiet, to be courteous—and that’s very important on the exhibition side of the industry. No one knows that better than I do,” says Nutt, a veteran of Regal Entertainment Group before moving to Fathom in mid-2017. But with Fathom screenings—say, a sing-a-long or a boxing match like last August’s Mayweather vs. McGregor boxing match—“we want them to come and have a good time and be interactive. In most cases, it’s ‘Turn your cellphones on.’ It’s funny, because right now, when you go to a Fathom event where you expect them to be engaged, for the first five minutes or so everybody’s kind of looking around, like ‘Should I be clapping? Should I be yelling? Should I be doing anything?’ Then all of a sudden the dam breaks, and everybody starts doing their thing. It’s neat to see that transition.”

Yesto chatting, to posting on social media, to engaging with what’s on the screen and the other fans you’re sharing the experience with. It’s not your typical model—but then, the point of Fathom Events is to always experiment, to not be tied down by the status quo. Working at Fathom “definitely isn’t cookie-cutter,” Synn acknowledges. “There’s a lot of problem-solving that has to be done, because each opportunity has its own unique challenges. And it’s not always going to be presented to you in a beautiful box with a beautiful ribbon on it that you can just open up, and kaboom, it’s there. You have to figure out how to get over some of the hurdles to be able to make it happen in our theatres, so that at the end of the day it gets seen by an audience.”

Traditionally, one of event cinema’s biggest hurdles has always had to do with advertising. Screen a first-run movie, and more often than not that movie comes part and parcel with millions of dollars’ worth of advertising provided by the studio. For something that’s going to screen one time—with an encore performance, maybe two if there’s enough demand—that’s not an option. What Fathom does have, however, is partnerships: with both exhibitors (Fathom is a joint venture of AMC, Regal and Cinemark and programs content with 57 other affiliate theatres) and content providers. Disney, for example, or the Metropolitan Opera, or distributor GKids, with which Fathom has a Studio Ghibli series planned for 2018.

“We look at about 2,500 to 3,000 titles a year, and about 140 of those titles make it to the screen,” Nutt says. “It’s a high-class problem to have!” One criterion for content making it to theatres is that, per Synn, there’s something “special or unique” about it. “We ask ourselves, ‘What impact will this have on the audience?’ And if there isn’t a great answer for that, then we might keep looking for something that better fits that mantra.”

Another must, explains Nutt, is that “unless the content partner is coming to us with a significant amount of marketing assets available, we pass on that content. That’s a must. We know the importance of there being a joint partnership with regards to marketing. Typically, whoever brings [content] to us has a database, and we have access to our owners’ loyalty programs and our own databases. We have a significant social department.”

In building awareness among moviegoers, Nutt explains that the end goal—one that’s already well underway—is the bolstering of Fathom’s brand identity as a reliable provider of quality entertainment beyond whatever individual event the customer is initially attracted to. “We’re talking about touching base with the customer before, during and after an event. We’re engaging with them before, making sure that they come to that Tuesday night event at the cinema, because we know they have other entertainment options. And then certainly we’re making sure they have a great time when they get there—singing and dancing, depending on the content. And then [afterwards] we want to make sure we have the partnership with the fans so we keep them coming back to the next one. We’re trying to develop some series as well and get away from the one-off [model], so we’re not starting over all the time.”

The end result is more and more fans having a standing date with Fathom. “We can condition the fans out there [to know that on] the first Tuesday of every month, for example, there’s some thematic event that they’re used to coming to and having a good time at.”

So far, Fathom’s willingness to experiment with different types of content has been more successful than many in the industry anticipated. Last August’s Mayweather vs. McGregor fight screened in 532 theatres and cracked the top ten, a nearly unprecedented occurrence for event cinema. “We knew that it was going to be good. Now, did we know it was going to be as good as it was? Perhaps not,” Nutt says. “We never charged $40 a ticket before for any of our events. On Pay-Per-View, individually it was $100, so we thought $40 was a fair price. And so did a lot of fans! I thought the way that it was promoted and teed up was fantastic.”

The screening of Pokémon the Movie: I Choose You! also marks a point of particular pride for the Fathom CEO, who sees the $6 million success story as proof that there’s potential for Fathom in international markets. “The team really, really brought it together. To distribute content to 35 countries, to develop websites with the appropriate languages, to work with all the exhibitors, to do a promotion where we got collectible cards on a limited basis in the hands of fans… Everything came together from a marketing standpoint. You think, OK, what’s it going to do? And the next thing, you turn around and it’s being distributed all over the world to six million bucks.”