Alternative opinions: Leading exhibitors reflect on new forms of programming


For our annual focus on alternative content in cinemas, Film Journal International sought the expertise of people on the front lines of vanguard programming: the exhibitors themselves. Our “roundtable” participants are Gary Green, Director of Alternative Content, Carmike Cinemas; Pat Marshall, VP of Communications and Investor Relations, Cineplex Entertainment; Bud Mayo, CEO of Digiplex Destinations; Bob Goodrich, President, Goodrich Quality Theaters; Karen Scott, Director of Sales and Marketing, Malco Theatres; Carlo Petrick, Marketing and Communications Manager, Marcus Theatres; and Shelly Maxwell, Executive VP, NCM Fathom Events (co-owned by AMC Entertainment, Cinemark and Regal Entertainment Group). We thank them for their time and insights.

How much alternative-content programming do you do?
Marshall: We currently offer one of the largest programs with the greatest variety of any motion picture exhibitor in the world. We have more than five ongoing series that run regularly, including opera, dance, theatre, classic films, family films and wrestling.
Over the course of a year, a single theatre location in a major market can run over 200 booked events. These include encore and additional showtimes of any single program.

Goodrich: We do traditional “alternative”: nine weeks of kids’ shows spring and fall with free admission, and nine weeks in summer with $1 admission, totaling 350,000 in 2012 attendance; hundreds of NCM Fathom onscreen presentations since fall 2007, with 2012 attendance of 50,000; and faith-based titles like The Lost Medallion and Fireproof. We do “Lights Up, Sound Down” presentations for families and people (mostly children 16 and younger) with autism. Our group-sales manager Dan Lavengood calls on educators for 40-minute traditional museum/science center titles at our four IMAX screens. We also show locally made independent narrative titles like Waterwalk and Coffee Shop Kings. Our 30 multiplexes with 277 screens consistently present three to 15 alternative onscreen programs each week.

Mayo: At Digiplex, some alternative content is onscreen almost immediately after a theatre is acquired. Once technical platforms are all in place, each Digiplex Destination features an average of three diverse alternative-content titles every week.

Petrick: Somewhere around 100 events (live and encore) a year. It really depends on what content is available and whether we think it will appeal to audiences in our markets

Green: We try to have on average two alternative-content events per week in our larger markets.

Scott: About a total of ten a month in four locations.

Maxwell: Fathom Events presented 90 events to theatres in 2012, 104 in 2011, and 74 in

What are the typical showtimes and days for your alternative content?
Petrick: The vast majority are weekdays around 7 p.m. Opera and ballet performances are late on Sunday mornings.

Green: For the opera and ballet performances that are a part of the Opera in Cinema/Ballet in Cinema program, the events are normally scheduled for Sunday at 2 p.m. and Tuesday at 7 p.m. Special showings for large groups can happen in the mornings any day of the week.

Goodrich: Most educational and autistic formatted titles show before the “usual” opening at 11 a.m. Alternative titles are almost always shown on Monday and Tuesday evenings for one or two performances.

Scott: 2 p.m. on Saturday or Sunday and up to 7 p.m. on weekdays

Maxwell: Fathom Events maximizes the best of what movie theatres offer, the biggest screens, the best sound and the best seats, and increases theatre utilization during non-peak theatre nights (Monday to Thursday evenings). However, “The Met: Live in HD” series is broadcast to theatres live on Saturdays (10 a.m. PT / 1 p.m. ET) and select sporting events (i.e., boxing and UFC) are broadcast on Saturday evenings.

Mayo: While Digiplex accommodates most fixed-time presentations as scheduled by their distributors, the company focuses on Monday through Thursday in the late afternoon and evenings where showtime flexibility exists. Depending on the type of content, we have found that intelligent day-part programming can have a significant impact on the success of alternative programming.

Marshall: Typically we focus on times when our theatres are not busy with blockbuster films. Monday, Wednesday and Thursday evenings and weekend matinees.

What kind of year-to-year growth are you seeing at the box office from alternative events?
Maxwell: Fathom Events experienced a five percent increase in event attendance from 2011 to 2012 and 13 percent revenue per event increase in 2012.

Marshall: While this is still a relatively small part of our business, it continues to grow year over year. Since we launched this area of the business, which we branded “Front Row Centre Events” in 2006, we have seen over 36% CAGR in attendance for our events.

Scott: It’s been stagnant over the last four years.

Petrick: This is really dependent on the content that is available from year to year.

Goodrich: There is a rapidly growing “camcorder” user community in every town we operate in who want to both show and watch non-Hollywood programs. The thousands of enthusiasts who work on local titles (in services such as carpentry, lights, sound, costumes, food and make-up) are theatre owners’ most frequent moviegoers.

Green: We are working to quadruple our alternative-content admissions over the next five years, with more locations coming online, additional content in the pipeline and added capabilities within the theatres.

Mayo: Since Digiplex is a young company (established in 2010) and the market is evolving rapidly, it’s not timely for us to identify year-to-year box-office comparisons at this point. At locations that Digiplex has operated for a year or more, revenue from alternative-content admissions has averaged 7% of box office.

What kinds of programs have been the most successful for you?
Scott: The Metropolitan Opera.

Marshall: By far our performing-arts programs have been the most successful including The Metropolitan Opera, The National Theatre and our Dance Series which features The Bolshoi Ballet and Royal Ballet. Recently our Classic Films Series has shown incredible audience interest and presenting remastered films with digital-cinema versions is helping build this monthly series. Recent examples include Lawrence of Arabia and Singin’ in the Rain.

Mayo: Performances from The Metropolitan Opera, sporting events and Broadway plays have been most popular right out of the starting gate.

Green: Sports followed by the arts. Select locations will outperform sports with the right opera or ballet performance.

Petrick: The Metropolitan Opera has been quite successful and has developed quite a following in places like Fargo. Live concerts also have done well. Some markets do very well with programs in which there is high local interest. Drum Corps Competition programs are a good example.

Goodrich: The most successful as to attendance are the kids’ shows, as to revenue are the Fathom Metropolitan Opera programs, and as to community interaction the educational titles.

Maxwell: In general, events and topics that connect the big screen to the passion fans have for a particular area of interest have always performed well. As two key examples, “The Met: Live in HD” series and Drum Corps International Competitions continue to be very popular annual series. The 2012-13 season marks the seventh season of the Met and the semi-finals of DCI this summer will be broadcast for the 10th consecutive year. Events with social/civic relevance such as Glenn Beck’s “Unelectable,” “I.O.U.S.A.” (featuring Warren Buffet) and Kirk Cameron’s “Monumental” have transformed theatres into national town halls. Radio programs coming to life of the big screen such as “This American Life,” “A Prairie Home Companion” and “Wait Wait…Don’t Tell Me” (May 2 & 7, 2013) are proving to be programs that fans want to experience annually in theatres.

What have been your biggest box-office surprises?
Petrick: Rise [a figure-skating doc] and the sports documentaries from D&E.

Green: The Broadway offering of Stephen Sondheim’s Company.

Mayo: Despite their availability on television and DVD and download, the popularity of classic movies has been a tremendous and pleasant surprise for Digiplex as an exhibitor. With Alfred Hitchcock titles and classics like To Kill a Mockingbird, we have seen sell-out crowds for screenings. The audiences have been surprisingly diverse as well. The old axiom that some movies are best seen on the big screen may indeed still be true.

Maxwell: In many cases we have found that a “subculture” of fans exists for a particular type of event, where their ability to experience it as communities only exists in movie theatres. Some examples are Drum Corps International, “Spirit of the Marathon” (the Chicago Marathon from the perspective of six runners), “Ring Kings (Floyd Mayweather vs. Miguel Cotto),“UFC 143 Diaz vs. Condit Live in 3D,” “Monumental: In Search of America's National Treasure Live,” “Leonardo Live— Leonardo da Vinci: Painter at the Court of Milan,” Casablanca 70th Anniversary Event, and Singin’ in the Rain 60th Anniversary Event.

Marshall: Initially it was the tremendous success of The Metropolitan Opera Live in HD. We could never have predicted the overwhelming response we received to this program, which has continued to grow year over year. This past year Canadians flooded cinemas to see Led Zeppelin: Celebration Day. The band members rewarded fans by presenting this final concert from 2007 in our cinemas. The band and their management made this a worldwide event on October 17 and that got the fans excited.

What do you do to publicize your alternative events?
Marshall: Our Front Row Centre Events brand has a strong year-round external media campaign to support all of our events. This includes everything from national newspaper and online campaigns, radio promotional giveaways, social media and strong presence in all of our theatres. Marketing is supplemented by extensive public-relations and media efforts which have generated tremendous media coverage for our events over the years.

Petrick: We use our website, posters, handouts, social media and the preshow if content is available

Green: We do all the social media arena along with press releases, in-lobby previews, TrailerVision spots, onscreen spots, one-sheets, media tie-ins, media partners, multiple website exposure, mobile-app exposure (like Flixster), and any other earned media opportunities.

Goodrich: We weekly send over 200,000 e-newsletters (recipients are removed if not opening in six months), and we have a well-maintained website and computer-functioning phone answer system to publicize regular as well as alternative programs. Each of our theaters has a Facebook page with someone from the management team daily “working” the Facebook postings: ours and moviegoers’. We also watch the main moviegoer websites. We’re looking for any comments (negative ones are fine if answered). Social media, again: If watched and responded to daily, we will find alternative-title audiences.

Mayo: Since its founding, the company has focused its attention on leveraging social media in order to build a strong relationship with our patrons. What is unique at Digiplex is that the customer-engagement effort permeates every level of our organization and is calibrated for hyper-local interaction. We use Facebook and Twitter like everybody else, but our promotional playbook also incorporates a lot of other parts of the social-media space we’ve found to be very effective.

Maxwell: Fathom Events uses many platforms to promote events, including event trailers run as part of our pre-feature advertising across our entire network; posters in select theatre lobbies; box-office clings with artwork that jumps out at anyone interested in the events; a rich website and monthly newsletter; a robust fan following on Facebook and Twitter; purchase of event ads with online properties that are relevant to specific events; mobile and search-engine marketing; marketing and media partnerships; grassroots outreach; local media coverage; fan incentives and engagement; contests and sweepstakes; content partner marketing; theatre manager incentives; and consumer handouts of postcards, flyers and event guides and community outreach by local theatre staff.

What are the greatest challenges of doing alternative content?
Green: Securing content that the public is interested in.

Scott: Getting appropriate live content.

Petrick: Fitting alt-content programming into our schedules so it complements our traditional film showings.

Mayo: Finding the audience for alternative content is certainly going to remain the challenge for the exhibition industry. In fact, there is no monolithic audience. They are stunningly diverse and legion. Perhaps the greatest internal challenge is how to think about audiences and communicate with them. They don’t necessarily segment along any standard demographic lines. However, alternative-content audiences do express clear preferences and have the tendency to exhibit consistent behavior.

Maxwell: Driving awareness through effective and cost-efficient marketing as well as patience with the gradual development of the technological infrastructure needed for distribution. We understood quickly how crucial it was that we properly customize the marketing mix for each project to effectively market a national product on a local market level, laser-targeting efforts to reach the niche customers to whom each piece of content is relevant. Building a team of highly specialized employees who understand how to best program and market alternative content in movie theatres is at the core of how we have successfully overcome the inherent challenges initially posed by the nature of our business (meaning, while we have a national footprint, we realized that our customers are all local). We have focused on programming content that has a built-in fan base that can best be activated via our strategic marketing partnerships and interconnected digital ecosystem, including social media and mobile initiatives that drive word of mouth. Additionally, as technology became more affordable, we were able to scale to markets all over the country and keep event prices affordable. Unlike a movie, one-night alternative-content events cannot support traditional P&A expenditures. Finding cost-effective ways to drive awareness was a challenge and required time and patience to allow the business to grow organically.

Goodrich: The key challenge is always influencing “adequate” attendance to meet the expectations of the alternative-content providers. We also need to prove to the alternative filmmakers that one or two showings will appropriately enable his/her audience to see the title.

Marshall: With over 11 years’ experience in alternative programming, we have to say live satellite delivery is always the most challenging. We have built excellent partnerships with companies like BY Experience, Omniverse Vision and Emerging Pictures who are experts in the field and work to provide the best broadcasts possible.

Anytime we launch a new series, which is something new that the public is not used to seeing in cinema, it can be a challenge. We ask ourselves: How do we reach them? They may only see a few movies a year in theatres and if we have a symphony series about to launch, what will be our plan to reach those who are passionate for this type of
performance? We don’t have a “one size fits all” media or PR campaign. Every campaign is unique to the program itself. I think this has been a success factor for us.

What is the feedback like from your customers?
Petrick: Very positive. People appreciate the opportunity to see programming that is unique.

Scott: They love the opera…and live events…and they ignore the prerecorded events.

Mayo: They love it! Invariably the process has been to introduce, explain and observe as skepticism evolves into enthusiasm. When a patron who is an opera fan finds The Met at their local theatre, they may bring a guest. When the next title appears, the audience grows. Whatever the genre, fan bases seem to grow when they’re cultivated properly.

Marshall: Our guests love our theatre managers! They are the ones who are hugged after a Met Opera guest has just seen something really fantastic in their theatre. Our guests are very communicative when it comes to Front Row Centre Event programming. They tell us what they like and what they don’t like, and through social media they share their comments directly and we work to respond to them before an event to answer their question. It is also a great way for us to obtain feedback on a particular series or festival—and we do listen.

Green: Feedback is by far positive, as is our feedback from our website, thanking us for bringing a wider range of entertainment choices to their local theatre.

Goodrich: The 4% to 10% of our annual audiences who attend alternative onscreen programs always thank us for the extra effort they realize is involved with showing non-studio material.

Maxwell: The customer feedback has been extremely positive for all types of events, from opera to sci-fi, sports to concerts, fans love them. In fact, here is some fan feedback we have received recently: “The event went beyond my expectations…So fun and the enhancements they added were tremendous…” “This was SO worth it...loved seeing it on the big screen…” “I am fortunate indeed to live in the time of Fathom…” To top it off, we have fans that have created their own newsletters about Fathom and paid to bus school kids into our events. There is no greater compliment from our perspective.

Overall, what does the future look like for alternative content in your theatres?

Maxwell: Extremely promising. As we have grown over the years, fans have come to expect alternative-content events in their local movie theatres. At the same time, more and more alternative content is being created for theatres based on the success we have seen. In essence, we have been able to transform theatres into “local community event centers” and as long as fans have a passion for the things that have relevance in their lives and content is created to ignite that passion, alternative content in movie theatres will become an even greater part of the value proposition of the local movie theatre.

Petrick: Alt content brings in many people who might not otherwise come to movie theatres very often. It is a great opportunity to remind those infrequent guests that seeing a movie at a theatre is the best way to experience film entertainment and hopefully they will return for more than just alt-content programming.

Scott: Until we get more live events, alt content is not going anywhere.

Marshall: We love how the studios are embracing digital by remastering and restoring their catalogue titles and audience favorites. Seeing these films again in auditoriums with massive screens and stadium seating changes how immersive an experience these classic films can be. It is great for baby-boomers to share their favorite movies from their youth and introduce their children and grandchildren to these classics.

The success of The Metropolitan Opera has opened the doors to performing arts being broadcast live into cinemas. We believe that live events will continue to be the staple of our programming and we will continue to test the waters with new offerings from a wide variety of performing arts, concerts, sports and speaking engagements.

Goodrich: If we can provide the service of frequently cooperating with local filmmakers, I’m confident they’ll respond with ticket purchases and help us super-serve out of home-movie watching. We are going to continue with all the various forms of alternative showings, plus we are expanding into showing festival award-winning titles with the assistance of mTuckman Media.

Mayo: Digiplex believes that more diverse content is the future shape of things to come. Our goal is to achieve 20% of overall admissions from alternative content over time.