Want More2Screen? U.K. distributor brings global entertainment to local cinemas
Although not too many people seem to like the actual term, alternative content has become not only an exhibition buzzword but an essential part of the cinemagoing future. According to IHS Screen Digest’s 2010 forecast, in a mere three years alternative content will already account for more than 2% of global box office. The company’s senior analyst David Hancock foresees its share to reach about 10% within a decade. No wonder exhibitors want more to screen.
Enter Christine Costello. As the managing director of the aptly named London, England-based More2Screen (www.more2screen.com), she has a five-year track record of bringing opera, ballet, music, theatre and other special events to movie theatres across Europe, the Americas and Asia-Pacific. At the most recent count, More2Screen had presented over 100 different productions and 18 live broadcasts—including five world-first events, such as a live 3D Lucrezia Borgia and the first 3D taping of Giselle—to more than 3,000 screens in 32 territories. “We’ve got a catalog of great content right now, one that offers the kind of wide selection that audiences want and demand,” she notes, explaining why exhibitors should look for More2Screen when they want to screen more. “We know what works and can advise exhibitors on putting programs together. And we can give them advance notice of all the new projects coming up.”
Remaining on her schedule for 2011 are Il Barbiere Di Siviglia (September), Le Nozze Di Figaro (October) and Il Trovatore (December) from Teatro La Fenice in Venice, Italy.
“Most of the projects that we release are worldwide, maybe with the exception of a couple of territories.” Costello names India and Australia as among the more exotic and faraway theatre locations. “Starting out in 2006, we grew our catalog by actively going out and searching for great content, making contacts and building relationships.” First to come aboard was the Glyndebourne Opera Company, followed by the Mariinsky Theatre, ENO and now the U.K.’s Royal Opera House. More2Screen also works with music companies such as XL Recordings (the White Stripes film UGWNL), EMI (“Burlesque Undressed + Sigur Ros”), Warner Music (“Chess in Concert—The Musical”), and Universal Music Group (“50 Years of Stax Records”) on concerts and events such as the farewell concert of pop-soul band Simply Red at O2 Arena, one which is headed for U.S. theatres as well. “Doing deals on three- and five-year terms where possible helps us to build an archive. Currently, we have eight to ten recorded titles that can play at any time.”
Initially working with those cinemas that were part of the U.K. Film Council’s pioneering digital network, Costello quickly realized that “when exhibitors had gone digital, they’d be looking for content and become interested in experimenting.” Drawing on her experience at cinema advertiser Pearl & Dean, where she took up the reins in 1999, and her seven years as VP and executive council member of the Screen Advertising World Association (SAWA), Costello knew many circuits and theatres around the world. “That meant that I was already aware of which cinema partners would be really ready and willing to get involved.” At the same time, “people got to hear about us as distributors and they in turn brought content to us so that we could work on it together,” she says.
“As everybody knows, the culture side of programming has been the introduction to alternative content where most people are concerned.” Costello elaborates how both network and content continued to develop. “Opera quickly established itself as the leading genre, followed by ballet. Stage theatre is a bit more difficult,” due to the inevitable language and translation issues. “That these are surmountable is proved by the success of English theatre productions in Swedish cinemas. The fantastic thing is that you can build a series of productions. We quickly realized that both for us and the exhibitor, it is much more cost-effective and successful to put the marketing effort behind a coherent series rather than ten isolated programs.”
Costello further notes that “audience awareness also grows by word of mouth, much in the same way as happens with independent films.” Marketing effort is crucial in this regard, she feels. “We provide all the assets and design the posters and leaflets, and create customer programs that contain all the necessary event information. But while we take responsibility for that whole side of things, any successful program still requires a lot of effort from the cinema owner. They have to be engaged and enthused about it, and need to get out there and draw the community in.”
Awareness and enthusiasm build, of course, when a cinema presents more and different offerings. “It helps that the regulars are quick to give feedback and tell you what kind of events they want to see, all of which is useful in terms of building successful programs. The exhibitor can market more effectively and we all build our databases in the process. From the beginning, we have put questionnaires on the back of our programs as a way to capture feedback. The program feeds on itself and improves all the time. There are fantastic cinemas all across Europe that have been quick to get the hang of it. Having recognized the potential value of alternative content early on and having really stuck with it, they are now in a great position because they have built a bespoke database.”
And what is the position in term of splits? More2Screen follows the “same revenue-share model that the studios use, because that’s what exhibitors know best,” Costello responds. “Since we are looking at one- and two-night event screenings only, it is clearly higher than for normal films.” The arrangement is purely “between us and the theatre. After that, More2Screen has its own agreement with the rights-holder.”
“The business model has improved,” she continues. “With more digital screens, there is increasing demand and my mission becomes absolutely about getting out there and telling people what we’ve got to offer. Exhibitors need to know how to get a hold of such programs and how to do so from trusted advisers. And that trust is valuable.”
On the other hand, “some people think this area is easy to set up,” she cautions. “That they talk up things they can’t ultimately deliver is obviously not helpful in terms of building the overall market.”
Costello’s advice to exhibitors on how to get alternative content to work for them is “to deal with people you know and who have a track record. Tell us how we should be communicating with you. Tell us what we can do better… There are about six companies, all of whom have been in the market for a while. We all know each other and work with one another. We’d never let an exhibitor down because we are professional and completely committed to this growing area. At the end of the day, as a distributor you need to go wide and for volume if your event is not getting played through the entire week.”
On the technical front, getting content to so many screens and territories is “not complicated really, but is time-intensive,” Costello has come to know. “We work from a standard HD-Cam SR tape and 5.1 sound, usually. If it is recorded content, we do the digital encode, duplicate the drives and get them shipped. Obviously, we try to stagger releases in sensible ways so that we don’t have so many drives going out at the same time. Yes, that’s all very time-intensive but logistically it’s quite simple. Live content is much easier in one way and a little bit scarier in another. With live, we can get out via satellite to some 200 cinemas in the U.K. and Europe… As long as you understand what you are doing and have great technical partners like Arqiva and XDC, the cinemas deal with drives and files and keys just as they’d be doing for any other film.”
And those films are changing how live and recorded content is being presented. Costello has noticed differences between something that is staged and recorded for the stage and that which is actually produced just with cinemas in mind. “A number of directors are now filming events for cinemas specifically, much as was the case in the development of music-videos, and they’re getting better and better at it all the time. And, of course, there’s interactivity. People love it when they get to glimpse life behind the scenes and see interviews with the stars. All of that is so interesting and entertaining to them. The event production is developing along those lines and we keep adding and reviewing what we do to make it more exciting.”
One of the undisputed benefits of “watching any kind of performance on the cinema screen is that you are getting fantastic close-ups,” she feels. “You have the best seat in the house, as people say, and at an affordable price. Having experienced live 3D opera for the first time back in February, we could see what did and didn’t work. The dark backgrounds, for example, which had been great in the opera house, didn’t really work as well in 3D. Sometimes the artists weren’t standing in exactly the right place for the lighting, but it’s getting better all the time. Audiences are really beginning to notice this and that’s what they have been feeding back to us. They’re becoming the experts now because they have been watching so many of these alternative-content offerings.”
Clearly, the time is ripe for more to screen.