Front Row Centre seating: Cineplex takes entertainment events across Canada
Whether it’s a Twilight “bridal shower” or a tour of Canada’s national parks, Cineplex Entertainment believes in alternative attractions. To borrow a phrase from William Shatner’s Trekkies documentary The Captains, which explored the final frontier in theatres across Canada last fall, the number-one Canadian circuit continues “to boldly go where no man has gone before” at the movies. The exhibition giant of 130 theatres with 1,352 screens has developed, branded and marketed a truly vast range of entertainment for cinemas. Front Row Centre Events (FRCE), as the initiative has been branded, are currently scheduled at 105 Cineplex locations with satellite-delivery capabilities throughout Canada.
The first presentations of something other than movies in movie theatres, however, go back at least 15 years, according to Pat Marshall, Cineplex’s VP of communications and investor relations. Marshall says that all three circuits that later became part of Cineplex Entertainment—Cineplex Corp., Galaxy Entertainment and Famous Players—used to show WWE (World Wrestling Entertainment) matches and the occasional concert on their big screens.
“What we found was that this particular medium does very, very well when events are regularly scheduled or when offered in a series as opposed to one-time showings. WWE was a regular monthly initiative that had great results and developed a very loyal following.”
That remains the case today, as “Wrestlemania” continues to sell out the majority of locations. Marshall has “come to discover—and this is no surprise to us in the movie business—people love the giant screen, the great sound and the communal element of watching an experience that they like with other people.”
Ever since, alternative programming at Cineplex has developed into a full package. Each and every month, Front Row Centre offers a dedicated calendar that highlights upcoming programs across key categories (www.cineplex.com/events). The February/March 2011 line-ups covered Live Events (“Kevin Smith: Live From Behind”), Arts (“Leonardo Live”), Classical Music (LA Phil Live), Opera (The Met: Live in HD), Concerts (Chemical Brothers’ “Don’t Think”), Theatre (Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, captured live at The Stratford Shakespeare Festival during the 2011 season; National Theatre Live’s She Stoops To Conquer), Ballet (The Bolshoi Ballet’s Le Corsaire), Documentaries (I Am Bruce Lee ), Cinema Kabuki (performances of The Zen Substitute, Murder in a Hell of Oil, Heron Maiden and Hokaibo), Sports (“WWE: Elimination Chamber”), Big-Screen Gaming with Xbox 360 (Gears of War 3), and even Movies (The Great Digital Film Festival, Classic Film Series, Family Favourites).
“Our first Front Row Centre-branded event was the Metropolitan Opera,” recalls VP of alternative content Brad LaDouceur. “We had a number of individual one-offs happening at the time, but we actually branded The Met as our first Front Row Centre Event at the launch of the season four years ago.” Currently in its sixth season at Cineplex, “we are at the point now where we started to sublicense The Met to a number of smaller sites across the country. Twenty-five to thirty percent of our independents are live venues, mostly in smaller markets and tourist destinations that are building up their events at times when they don’t have any live performances.”
When obtaining content rights, Cineplex counts on the size and reach of this network that also includes locations from fellow exhibitors Empire and Landmark Theatres. “By sublicensing, we are not only enabling theatres to get the content, but we also provide them with promotional materials like posters, flyers and trailers. We are really making it easy for the content providers as well—be they from Sydney or from London—to get their product into Canada.”
On the business side, “while every deal is different, the majority are revenue-sharing deals,” LaDouceur says. As for programming choices, Cineplex is always putting its foot in to test the waters. “We have never been afraid to try something new. We have done documentaries about Scottish bagpipe dance, the Chicago Marathon and the Tour de France. It really is a bit of a leap of faith sometimes… We try new things and not everything works perfectly in every market, but we have done a number of events to see if we can find a market for them in Canada.”
Cineplex chief executive officer Ellis Jacob “has really set a tone for our company,” Marshall explains. “The only time you are going to fail is if you don’t try something. So he is very encouraging to all of us to try out new things. That has given Brad and his team tremendous opportunity to go out and look at a variety of content that in another organization they may not necessarily try. Six years ago, no one here or even at The Metropolitan Opera could predict how successful that initiative would come to be. So we are going to continue to look for what is to be the next Met.” Marshall mentions the L.A. Philharmonic Orchestra, the BBC Proms, the Bolshoi Ballet, and the presentation of Broadway plays like Memphis while they were still on stage in New York City.
“We just scratched the surface,” LaDouceur feels. “Stage theatre has grown exponentially over the last three years. Outside of Broadway we have been able to work with the Stratford Shakespeare Festival, which has been an excellent, excellent source of great theatrical content that our audience loves. Pairing that with the National Theatre from London, we’ve really been delivering some first-class stage events to our audience.” The 25th anniversary of Les Miserables playing live was another success. “People love the behind-the-scenes aspects of these presentations,” Marshall adds. “Even with the best seats on Broadway or at The Met, you are not going to get the same perspective that you get with an eight- or 10-camera theatre shoot.”
While some of these events have a built-in audience, Cineplex relies on “the power of our 3.5 million members in the Scene loyalty program databases,” she continues (FJI June 2011). “We know exactly what type of entertainment content each one of our members has gone to see. We have really robust data that we can mine and heavily target specific films or types of genres so that we are able to get them to come out and try these initiatives.” LaDouceur cites the example of promoting a Tour de France event. “We know which audience saw Race Across the Sky, which is more of a long-term track bicycle documentary. As they would really enjoy this one about the Tour de France, we were able to direct-message them and to speak with them specifically about their interests in this new documentary coming up.”
“You never really know what is going to take off,” Marshall agrees. “It is always interesting for us to see what does play.” Admittedly, not everything plays everywhere, for reasons of auditorium availability alone. “We analyze our past events and performance at each of our locations,” LaDouceur explains. “That’s how we select a location for a specific event. Phantom would probably play in 75% of all our alternative-content locations, but Kabuki is in two locations in Toronto and Vancouver [for now.] We have a great relationship with the Japan Foundation here in Canada and they have really built that program up with us.”
Marshall further notes, “Bollywood programming falls under the same umbrella. A dozen theatres across Canada are tremendously successful—often they out-gross the Hollywood films. If you think about how ethnically diverse Canada is, there are all sorts of opportunities. We have shown films in Tamil, Filipino and even Italian films. Obviously, Quebec has a huge portion of the French-speaking community.” In addition to bringing “lots of upside,” these offerings provide “good service to our communities,” she asserts.
Expanding on that offer, Cineplex launched a dedicated weekly program for the younger crowd in February (www.cineplex.com/family), where a portion of the reduced admission price is donated to the Starlight Children’s Foundation. (Over the course of 2011, Cineplex guests, employees and management helped raise one million dollars by buying commemorative pins and children’s concession combos, donating proceeds from gift-card sales and participating in special fundraising events. On National Community Day alone, $400,000 was raised with free screenings and discounted snacks.) With a year-round Saturday morning showtime, “Family Favourites” ranging from The Muppets Movie (1979) to Madagascar (2005), with Stuart Little and E.T. in-between, harken back to the good old days of kiddie matinees. “Families can share and celebrate the experience of taking a child to their first movie in a theatre or the return of a beloved movie back on the big screen,” Marshall said at the launch.
Other filmed entertainment has been returning as well during the Great Digital Film Festival for one week in February and with truly Classic Movies monthly, such as Ben Hur (November) and Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (March). The latest outgrowth is “Most Wanted Mondays,” developing from the success of the Digital Festival. “Our guests wanted more classics throughout the course of the year,” Marshall has observed. “Back in September, people started voting on Facebook which films they actually wanted to see.” While The Godfather (January) seems a fairly obvious choices, moviegoers have also shown more of a cult flavor with Ghostbusters (October), Top Gun (December) and Labyrinth (March). While some selections in the family program come at Blu-ray/DVD resolution “as a number of those titles are not yet converted to 2K,” LaDouceur says that “they are all shown on 2K projectors” nonetheless. “We are working with the studios and program the classic films based on their updated mastering lists and build our program based on DCP availability.”
For LaDouceur, this “really comes back to why alternative content came about. It is about utilizing our theatres at slower times to increase their capacity.” Despite all the success, it is not surprising then that LaDouceur does not want to speculate how large a share alternative content might one day hold in the overall box-office take. “We have so much to offer and we’re just scratching the surface.” Looking forward, Cineplex will continue “to respect that we have great relationships with our studio partners. There are only certain nights that make sense for us to play with and schedule alternative content. Maybe less is more. We want to be selective and put the best content on the screen for our guests.” Of all the great entertainment, what is his personal best? “We love all our events,” LaDouceur assures, “but the Metropolitan Opera has become a favorite with our guests and we get so many thank-yous and kudos for running it in their towns. We have even received Christmas cards.”