CinemaCon’s 2019 Excellence in Event Cinema Award goes to Warner Bros, and it’s not hard to see why. The studio has worked with Fathom Events on various event cinema releases since 2006, and in 2019 collaborated with the event cinema distributor on screenings of several classic films from its catalogue. Still, there’s one bit of programming that stands above the rest: The record-breaking documentary They Shall Not Grow Old.
Directed by Peter Jackson, the World War I documentary utilizes restored footage and archival interviews to craft a personal account of the Great War. The film had a limited release in UK cinemas, including a premier at the BFI London Film Film Festival, before airing on BBC Two on November 11, 2018, the hundredth anniversary of Armistice Day.
Warner Bros.—which has a longstanding relationship with Jackson—realized early on that the film “might have some interest in [U.S.] theaters,” recalls President Domestic Distribution Jeff Goldstein. “What we explored was going through Fathom [and] having them do a one-day event. If the one-day event was really successful, we could have a follow-up with an encore. And if that’s really successful, maybe later on we could go for a museum run.”
Released by Fathom Events on Monday, December 17, 2018 and accompanied by a special introduction from Jackson, They Shall Not Grow Old initially grossed $2.3 million. It was the second-highest gross of that day, behind only Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, which had debuted the previous weekend. Multiple encores through Fathom Events followed. “Between Fathom’s marketing and Warner Bros.’ marketing, we really leveraged the heck out of this thing,” recalls Fathom Events CEO Ray Nutt. “Only three showings did about $8 million,” making They shall Not Grow Old North America’s highest-ever earner in the event cinema space. “It really shows you the power of the event cinema.”
That “museum run” that Goldstein thought they might do instead became a limited theatrical run that’s still, as CinemaCon kicks off, ongoing. As if press time, the film has grossed just shy of $18 million domestically.
Warner Bros. could have gone for a traditional theatrical release from the start, Goldstein notes, but the event cinema route “just seemed like the right choice. We thought this would be the best way to maximize exposure and generate interest. When you have a one-day event, it’s appointment viewing.”
Event cinema also made sense from a marketing standpoint. “The promotional value that you get through Fathom is very, very significant,” Nutt says. “We advertise all our events in the trailer space that we have available to us and the other promotional inventory that we have.” In marketing its successful The Met: Live in HD series, Fathom has more than proven its ability to bring in an older demographic, which is exactly the group Warner Bros. believed would be most interested in seeing They Shall Not Grow Old.
A smart choice of release date—December 17, with potential moviegoers out of work and school for the Christmas holidays—succeeded in bringing in a younger crowd, including families, in addition to the older group Warner Bros. initially aimed for.
“For the very first [screening], we did 1,100 [screens],” recalls Goldstein. “Then we did 1,000. Then we were up to 1,300 on our third wave. And then we went to a regular commercial break for about 735 theaters. It swelled past that at over 800. We’ve taken our time over a long period of weeks.”
The fact that Warner Bros. was able to go the traditional theatrical route for They Shall Not Grow Old, explains Nutt, is a key fact that studios looking to expand their event cinema offerings should pay attention to. “This isn’t a cannibalization play, here. We give this nice little window to premiere and promote the content.” The promotional value Warner Bros. got from Fathom’s network for They Shall Not Grow Old, he argues, contributes to the revenue earned throughout the entire life of the film. This also applies to event cinema screenings of classic films, which are often tied to anniversaries and thus home video re-releases.
This is all something that Warner Bros. was already familiar with, having partnered with Fathom in 2016 for the release of Batman: The Killing Joke, which earned $3.4 million in gross theatrical revenue. Warner Bros. also regularly partners with Fathom for screenings of films from their library, including The Wizard of Oz, Gone with the Wind, Rebel Without a Cause, The Philadelphia Story, and The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. Earlier this spring, Gone with the Wind screened as a part of the TCM Big Screen Classics series, becoming Fathom’s highest-grossing classic film. Its $2.23 million gross, garnered from six nationwide screenings across three dates, breaks the record set by not two months earlier by The Wizard of Oz, which earned over $2 million.
“We always want to bring our movies to audiences in the best way possible. We look at each situation uniquely on its own. We’ll look for the right opportunity, given the right property,” explains Goldstein. “We take risks on how we market. We make bold choices on how we distribute. And”—regarding Warner Bros.’ strategy for They Shall Not Grow Old—“that’s really what this was. Both a risk and a bold choice… We had a hunch that this would be the right way to maximize the movie. But it far exceeded our expectations.”
Nutt will present the Excellence in Event Cinema Award on Tuesday, April 2nd at CinemaCon. Accepting on behalf of Warner Bros. are Goldstein and Scott Forman, Executive Vice President, General Sales Manager of Warner Bros. Distribution.