Add yet one more honor to Disney’s massive list of accolades in recent years: CinemaCon’s Excellence in Event Cinema Award. Boxoffice spoke with Walt Disney Studios president of theatrical distribution Dave Hollis and Fathom Events CEO Ray Nutt about the two companies’ partnership, how event cinema helped the box office of Black Panther, the upcoming superhero-movie marathon, and Disney’s Broadway musical screenings at cinemas. Could Frozen be next?
When did Disney begin thinking about event cinema?
Hollis: I think we’ve always viewed going to the cinema as something special, but as consumer habits have evolved over the past several years, we’ve really ramped up our efforts to make going to the theater something that stands out from all the other choices that audiences have when it comes to entertainment.
Nutt: Fathom, as you probably know, is owned by AMC, Cinemark, and Regal as our founding members. Through them, we obviously had a connection with Disney since a long, long time ago. Even more recently, we started to form some partnerships with them with theatrical.
Hollis: One of the advantages that we have with our collection of world-class brands—whether it’s Disney, Pixar, Marvel, or Lucasfilm—is that audiences know they’re going to get a truly standout experience when they come to see one of our movies or come to one of our events.
Which events helped Disney perfect its event cinema concept?
Nutt: You’ve probably seen that we’ve done Disney’s Newsies on Broadway. That was a hugely successful title for us that we did last year. The beauty of that is that we did multiple performances. We brought Broadway all over the country, out of New York. We also now have a title that we can bring back on a regular basis, which we’re actually doing later this year. I believe it’s in July, when we’re reissuing Newsies. It’s also helped us fill our vertical in the Broadway category moving forward, as we have plans for a few more of those as well.
Hollis: We are always looking for ways to take things to the next level and provide a one-of-a-kind experience for people. One of those we’re most proud of is our recent project with IMAX and Twitter for Black Panther, where we streamed a Q&A with the talent from the film into IMAX theaters across North America and live on Twitter. An event like this helps expand and enhance people’s experience, not only with the movie but with the movie theater.
Nutt: It’s funny—we’re the 13th-largest distributor in North America right now, according to comScore. So when Disney released Black Panther, it was great for the industry and great for Disney. I called up Dave and said, “Just when Fathom was moving up the charts to become No. 1, you had to go and do that!” [Laughs.]
How did Disney’s collaboration with Fathom Events begin?
Hollis: Our relationship with Fathom Events dates back several years when we began working with them to put some of our classic titles in theaters, but we embarked on more ambitious events beginning with Inside Out in 2015, when we put together a special event that featured an exclusive video tour of the Pixar campus with the filmmakers and a live Q&A with talent [including director Pete Docter and star Amy Poehler]. Since then, we’ve continued to look for ways to work together and innovate in this space on events that range from current releases and library titles to content from across the Walt Disney Company like the stage show of Newsies or special content from Disney Junior.
Can you discuss any Disney cinema events planned for later in 2018 or in the pipeline?
Hollis: Opening night of a movie is obviously a huge event already for fans, and we continue to explore ways to make that even more special and memorable for audiences who make that extra effort to be the first to see our films. 2018 is the 10-year anniversary of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, so to celebrate Avengers: Infinity War, for example, in a handful of locations we’re planning an epic marathon of 11 of the films that have led to this point, leading right into opening night. It’s an opportunity to see these films on the big screen with people who love it as much as you do, and as a bonus you also get exclusive collectibles and you’re going to see the newest film before anyone else. So it’s about creating an unforgettable experience for fans and giving them something they can’t get anywhere else.
Nutt: We’re also talking to Disney Junior at the Movies. We have a relationship with them, where we’ve done a lot to highlight the work they do on their cable channel on television. We’ve done HalloVeen Party! We’ve done Mickey’s Big Celebration—really cool events for parents to take their kids to. We encourage the kids and parents to dress up, to dance, to sing.
We’re also in discussions with Disney to do more Broadway. Not certain that’s going to happen with the timing of it in addition to Newsies, but there’s certainly interest in that. So I think you’ll see more from Fathom and Disney moving forward.
Like Frozen on Broadway, perhaps?
Nutt: We’d love to do Frozen. That is just brand new, but we’re already looking at some of their older titles as well. The Lion King, Aladdin, that kind of thing. We’re talking about some of those titles. We’ll see.
What can exhibitors do to embrace and grow this event cinema industry?
Nutt: That’s a good question. I can talk all day about that, but I’ll give you the topline answer. We’re all owned by the three largest exhibitors in the country, but we distribute content to 57 other theater exhibition companies out there. What can theater operators do to help with the business? They do a partnership with us. They look at us to acquire the content and distribute it accordingly. They look to us to help market it, which we do in the theater and digitally and in other ways as well. They look at content to market. We don’t accept any content without the content partners having a very strong marketing plan that goes hand in hand with ours.
In addition to that, to get to your question, theater circuits have a significant interest in making sure that these things are successful. The ones that have loyalty programs, for example, partner with us to make sure that we go out there and reach the people that are the demographic audience that we have. They utilize their digital and social as well. The theater circuits have been just wonderful in terms of that and backing the whole thing.
They have skin in the game, too. They’re trying to sell tickets, they’re trying to sell seats, in many cases during slow times, Monday through Thursday, but many times on weekends as well. Theater circuits have been fantastic, in terms of helping support the cause.
Note: having led The Walt Disney Studios theatrical distribution team since 2011, Hollis is departing the company at the end of May and handing the reins to Cathleen Taff, a 24-year Disney veteran.