Alternative content takes center stage: Lessons in success from those who've made it work


“I think, in this age of more and more independent isolation, all of us with our online activity, Twitter and Facebook and watching content on our laptops and our phones, that there’s still this human need to connect to other human beings,” says Fathom Events senior VP Shelly Maxwell. Fathom is America’s top dog in the alternative-content space, a leading provider of one-off or brief-run entertainment events that, though they screen in movie theatres, are designed to expand upon the notion of the cinema as a venue exclusively reserved for the exhibition of movies. Ballet, stand-up comedy, boxing—anything that can be filmed and championed by a dedicated base with “a human need to connect to human beings” can be screened in cinemas as alternative content.

We here at FJI have extensively covered the burgeoning alternative-content industry in past issues dedicated to the subject. It seems apparent the formula has borne out: Many forms of alternative content work. The challenge producers and exhibitors face today is that familiar accompaniment to success: How do we sustain our relevance? How can we continue harnessing technology to promote those community, “human” ends our audience desires? If past behavior is any indication of future outcomes, the answer to longevity may lie in that which Fathom and one of their most successful collaborators, The Metropolitan Opera, and the Coolidge Corner Theatre in Boston have done, and learned.

“Initially the charge was: What can we put on the screen Monday to Thursday that’s not movie-related, but will perhaps drive consumers in?” explains Maxwell of Fathom’s early years, when it was exclusively owned by Regal Entertainment Group and known as Regal CineMedia. (Fathom Events is now co-owned by AMC Entertainment Inc. and Cinemark Holdings in addition to Regal Entertainment Group.)

They could, on the one hand, earn extra money by renting out individual theatres to companies in need of meeting rooms. Throughout the late ’90s and early aughts, this was something of a trend among multiplexes searching for ways to monetize their considerable real estate. CineMeetings was the B2B solution to the problem of a fallow weekday spread. When current senior VP Dan Diamond joined the team in 2002, however, he sought to bolster the business-to-consumer side of Regal CineMedia.

Diamond began with music. “We basically took specific artists and labels and worked with the labels directly to create what would be the ultimate fan experience.” Thus, the screening of a Bon Jovi concert included a live Q&A with the band, filmed exclusively for the theatre transmission. An early and large success involved figurative and literal icon Prince.

Recounts Diamond, “Prince had been off the radio stations and record charts for almost nine years, and he was trying to figure out how he could create a unique way of getting himself back into the marketplace and launch his tour. So we sat in on a call with Prince’s management, and we said, ‘Well, why don’t we launch it in movie theatres?’ Prince immediately said, ‘No one’s done a live tour launch through movie theatres?’ We said no. He said, ‘OK, I want to do that.’”

Not only did the event sell out, Prince added markets and tour dates in order to keep pace with demand. “We began to see the beginning of what Fathom has done so well, which is, ignite the local marketplace. Rekindle interest,” says Diamond. Part of the company’s continued success lies in this lesson well-learned: Take advantage of opportunities that revitalize passion in an event or personality. The return of David Bowie in 2003 fit the mold nicely, and a transmission of the artist singing live in a London recording studio proved a hit. Diamond explains, “If someone happens to be very popular, but is overexposed and available to be seen everywhere, it’s much more difficult for an audience to want to go to a movie theatre to see what they’re already seeing everyplace else.” 

Fathom has also learned the value of a niche audience. “Something we sort of knew intuitively from the beginning is that if we could identify consumers who feel underserved, and find products or content they’re interested in, that would probably make a pretty good recipe for success,” says Maxwell. Collaborations with Drum Corps International; an event structured around a documentary about runners, Spirit of the Marathon; and screenings of Phish concerts have all supported the theory.

Finally, Maxwell, Diamond and their team have learned to keep their fingers on the pulse of the contemporary moment. “Timing is very, very key,” Maxwell attests. For instance, “The most successful thing we’ve ever done in our network was the 50th Anniversary of ‘Dr. Who,’” the popular BBC series with “rabid fans.” On Nov. 25, 2013, Dr. Who: The Day of the Doctor boasted the day’s highest per-theatre average, raking in over $17,000 per location. It was number two at the box office that night.

“If you try to relate [Fathom events] to movie box-office numbers—most of these events are maybe one night and an encore performance. It’s not multiple showings over weeks. And yet, in the case of Dr. Who, the box-office numbers for that particular week [showed] Dr. Who was right up there at the top. So, keeping that perspective in mind, you can see the power of why we believe so deeply in alternative content playing a prominent role in the movie theatre landscape moving forward,” Maxwell states.

Being a part of the alternative-content surge has had a prominent, markedly positive impact on The Metropolitan Opera. The Met’s collaboration with Fathom on The Met: Live in HD series is an international success. Thanks to Fathom and other partners, Met matinee performances screen live across 12 different time zones, accompanied by subtitles in eight different languages. They are viewed in 64 countries and in 2,000 theatres. According to general manager Peter Gelb, “we’ve actually quadrupled our paying audience because of the movie theatre transmissions.”

“The idea behind [The Met: Live in HD] was to enhance the experience for opera lovers and also to renew opera lovers,” says Gelb, echoing Diamond’s emphasis on revitalization. “It may have hurt us a little bit in the Northeast corridor,” he admits. “Some people might be more willing to go see The Met in a movie theatre than trek up or down to New York. On the other hand, it’s also extended the lifespan of opera lovers. I get letters every week from people in their 80s or 90s who say they are able to continue going to the opera because of the movie theatre transmissions.”

As is often and perhaps inevitably the case when progressive means are used to service an old, or beloved, or traditional form, a keen sense of balance is required. “It’s a challenge for any venerable institution that wants to stay alive. It has to walk the tightrope between not offending its older audience, which wants things to stay the same, and also attracting a new audience,” notes Gelb.

“It’s something of a conspiracy theory among those who think we’re creating these productions and casting the singers for the camera,” Gelb continues. “It’s really that we’re just trying to create the best possible theatrical experience for the audience in the opera house and then capturing that on camera.” He likens filming opera performances to a specific cinematic form: “It’s more like a documentary. Because we’re following the action, we’re not creating the action for the cameras.” Ultimately, Gelb has learned, “You have to take risks.”

Many theatres have begun to follow the lead of The Met and Fathom and now feature opera screenings of their own. The Coolidge Corner Theatre in Boston offers an “Opera at the Cinema” program, as well as the program “NT Live,” transmissions from London’s National Theatre. The Coolidge, however, stands apart from many of its fellow exhibitors by virtue of its homegrown initiatives.

“Science on Screen” pairs a film with a discussion: A speaker, usually a professor or scientist, leads a talk on a scientific topic loosely related to the themes of the film. The looser the connection, the better: “We’re not showing Jurassic Park and talking about dinosaurs,” says Coolidge Corner executive director Kathy Tallman. A screening of Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure featured an MIT physicist waxing theoretical on real-time travel; Young Frankenstein’s screening included a talk about bioelectricity with a Tufts principal investigator; and, during one of Tallman’s favorite events, a viewing of 8 Mile featured a discussion on the brain activity of musicians when they improvise, led by a Johns Hopkins surgeon.

In 2008, then executive director Denise Kasell brought “Science on Screen” to the attention of the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, a nonprofit grant-making organization. “They were impressed enough by the program to expand it on a national level,” says Tallman. That year, Sloan gave Coolidge Corner a grant the theatre then re-granted to eight cinemas for the purposes of establishing their own “Science on Screen” programs. The Coolidge has received three grants from the Sloan Foundation, Tallman reports, totaling over $1 million. They have so far supported 30 theatres.

The idea for “Science on Screen” came from a Coolidge member, while another popular offering, “Sound of Silents,” in which the theatre commissions original scores from local orchestras (most recently from students at the Berkeley School of Music, which has established a class specifically for this purpose) and pairs them with screenings of silent films, was the brainchild of a board member. Like Maxwell and Diamond, the Coolidge Corner has learned to listen to what is happening around it, and, like Gelb, the merits of keeping an open mind. “It’s interesting, because when you hear about ‘Science on Screen’ and ‘Sounds of Silents,’ these started as little ideas that we just thought, let’s try it for one year and pair it with these things and see what happens,” says Tallman.

The Coolidge Corner doesn’t currently plan to expand other original programming nationwide, although, of course, it remains receptive to ideas. In this way, the organization implicitly espouses Gelb’s point of view, which could double as the credo for the alternative-content business in general: “If you just sit back and not try to move the art form forward, that’s the surest recipe for it ultimately dying… That is what life and art are all about. Taking calculated risks and winning more than losing."