The BBC made headlines in November 2013 with its first foray into event cinema, a simulcast of a feature-length episode of the cult television show Doctor Who to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the series. The event, called Day of the Doctor, drew large audiences to cinema screens around the world—including in its native U.K., where it ranked third in the weekend box office despite the fact that the show was readily available on free-to-air broadcast television in the same time frame. Boxoffice spoke with Soumya Sriraman, executive vice president of franchised digital enterprises at BBC Worldwide, to look back at how a global leader in television broadcasting became one of the most influential event-cinema producers in today’s film industry.
What was the BBC’s first incursion into event cinema?
It was the Doctor Who 50th anniversary; we came in with big plans and came out with big results. It was a unique idea, to take a TV episode and do a simulcast cinema event around the world. We know we have a very rabid fan following for the show, but like every other broadcast television company we have our standard obligations to support our channels, and that posed the central challenge: how do we do this? Why should anyone go to see a television event at the theaters? We saw event cinema as an opportunity for people to get together and celebrate this franchise. It became the No. 1 event-cinema screening after it came out. We had great results at the box office, taking the per-screen average away from The Hunger Games – Catching Fire that weekend.
What was the biggest challenge in coordinating the first simulcast?
It was a huge undertaking—not only because we had to find a way to overcome the logistical problems of getting the content out to so many theaters, but also in terms of production. The talent had its own fears. They’re already accustomed to a way of working in TV, and here we are telling them we’re changing that. We had to make sure to get all of these things to come together. Everyone came together to do something that we had never done before.
Have there been any lessons you’ve since applied to other event-cinema projects?
The biggest lesson would be the confidence to go out and do some more. We figured out a way to do it, and the next step was simply to go out and do it again. I hate to be that blunt, but it was as simple as realizing that we had figured out a formula and that we just had to go out and do it again and improve on what we achieved the first time out.
How do you go about marketing something like this, especially on a global level, with a team that doesn’t traditionally target moviegoers?
It was very multifaceted. The U.S. aspect was very grassroots using social media, and in the U.K. we have a great reach to a very large audience through our television channels. The other aspect came through our cinema partners, especially in North America. They were hugely influential in getting the word out there. Messaging is so important, and it was crucial for viewers to understand that they were going to be getting something extra at the theaters. I have very fond memories of working with our cinema partners and BBC colleagues down in Miami to get the right elements together. In the U.S. you have the standard pre-show trailers; in Latin America we were far more proactive in other areas like using billboards and handouts.
Every show has a different of audience, a different sort of fan base. Does your approach to event-cinema screenings differ significantly among shows in order to best reach those audiences?
We know which of our shows our “fan shows” are, and we know how to market them. Others require more of a press approach or a pure marketing strategy to get people to come to it. So no, it’s not a one-size-fits-all strategy, but if you know where to find your fans, go find them there—go fish where the fish are. The challenge with event cinema is that it’s different than marketing for television or traditional cinema; you are promoting an event that people can only show up to on one specific day. The tactics have to fit that need, targeting the fan base for each event and picking a date that makes sense with them so they don’t feel it’s something coming out of left field.