Alternative Content in the Pandemic: 6 Highlights from Dine-In Cinema Summit’s Event Cinema Panel

Break the Silence: The Movie (Courtesy of Trafalgar Releasing)

On Jan. 28, a panel of event cinema experts—moderator Bernadette McCabe of Spotlight Cinema Networks along with participants Lynne Schmidt of Fathom Events, Joe Garel of Cinépolis Luxury Cinemas, and Kymberli Frueh of Trafalgar Releasing—convened virtually at the 2021 Dine-In Cinema Summit to discuss event/alternative content in the pandemic era and how it can best be employed in a post-Covid industry.

“Event cinema has done such a great job… of creating that differentiator—so adding the exclusive content, adding the immersive elements—that you can’t get watching on another platform at home with your family,” said Frueh, who serves as head of content for global event cinema initiatives at Trafalgar. “That’s what truly makes us special.”

See below for all the highlights from the discussion, including why music content is king, why accommodating longer event cinema windows during the pandemic is important, and how event cinema affects concessions sales.

  1. Music content is booming.

One key insight offered during the panel was the ever-increasing importance of music-related content, including the Trafalgar-released BTS documentary Break the Silence: The Movie, which debuted in most territories in September of last year and has since grossed $14 million globally, according to Frueh.

Garel said that Break the Silence “killed” for Cinépolis overseas, particularly in Latin America, where its performance was “on par with pre-pandemic numbers.” In the U.S., Cinépolis saw additional success with October’s Stevie Nicks 24 Karat Gold the Concert, also released by Trafalgar, which brought in over $400,000 domestically.

Looking ahead, one highly anticipated music release for exhibitors is the Neon-distributed documentary Billie Eilish: The World’s a Little Blurry, which is slated to premiere in theaters and on Apple TV+ on Feb. 26.

“I’m hoping that [Neon] know what they have and go hard, because I think we can sell out entire theaters with this thing,” said Garel. “Not just auditoriums, but all ten screens of my ten-screen theater in McKinney, Texas.”

Music releases “are the top money-generating alternative content  that we’ve had in the last five years,” Garel continued. “Anything else has been decent, okay, or a complete miss altogether.” The reason music-focused content tends to work, he added, is that artists’ built-in fan bases allow them to mobilize their followers in a way few others can.

That said, Garel added that making deals with the streaming services behind many of these films tends to be a “big headache,” noting that Cinépolis’ attempts to bring content such as Netflix’s Dave Chappelle and Eddie Murphy concert specials to its U.S. theaters have been unsuccessful.

But as McCabe sees it, the hassles that often come with securing this type of are worth it, particularly during the pandemic. “Movie theaters will be open before live music venues are open and have people touring, so it is a unique opportunity for us in the event cinema category to bring that to exhibition,” she said.

  1. Event cinema can be a boon for food and beverage sales.

“We definitely see spikes in our food and beverage numbers when we [program] alternative content,” particularly when it comes to concert films, said Garel. “You gotta think, the cinemas are the best sound and the best image that you have in most of these towns. So you could get up and theoretically dance in the aisles.”

Even classic films can lend themselves to boosts in concessions sales. “We’re doing things, like with The Big Lebowski…you just have to advertise a White Russian,” Garel added. “In one second, you’ve got trays of White Russians going out.”

  1. Catalog titles are fading in popularity.

With the studio’s big releases pushed back due to Covid-19, many catalog titles enjoyed strong business earlier in the pandemic, including CineLife’s re-release of the original Halloween, which grossed over $1 million worldwide last fall. But as the months have worn on, classic films have seen a marked drop in audience overall—and Garel believes that trend will likely continue beyond the pandemic, as a flood of postponed studio releases debut in theaters.

“Most of the stuff we’re playing in our cinemas, I’m seeing it on TNT or AMC during the day,” he said. “I just think that you’ve gotta step away from these classic titles for a bit before we can start making [them] special again.”

  1. Longer windows are essential for event cinema titles in the pandemic.

Securing longer windows for event cinema content has become essential in  adapting to capacity restrictions, as well as helping out theaters that were barred from reopening due to state and local government restrictions. “We released Elvis on December 4 with Warner Bros., and it’s still out there in the marketplace for cinemas that are beginning to reopen,” said Frueh. “We’re looking at a longer-tail content approach with content partners that gives us a little bit more agility than we would have had in the past.”

Schmidt added that securing longer release windows has also allowed theaters to program event content on weekends, when new studio releases would have typically glutted the marketplace. “[Providing event content during the week] has always been our stance, [as that is] when we provide the most value to theaters,” she said. But because theaters in many communities are now only open Friday through Sunday, longer windows give exhibitors added flexibility.

  1. Once the post-pandemic rush to release postponed studio films subsides, event cinema could play a crucial role in keeping cinemas afloat. 

“We’re gonna have an onslaught of first-run product coming our way in the first six months once we’re back open. And then after that it’s gonna be a desert for a year and a half,” said Garel. During that time, he foresees employing a booking strategy that will mimic that of broadcast television. “I’m gonna start programming it kind of like a TV channel instead of a flat two-week straight guaranteed [run],” he continued. “How do we program smart? How do we get these screens filled up with occupancy on every hour of the day?…We need alternative content to come in and flood our theaters.”

  1. The importance of event content will only increase as theatrical windows continue to shorten—for both exhibitors and streaming services.

“When it comes to leverage, it’s a hard thing. Because the studios are gonna say, ‘Look, we’ve got the best title’—like Wonder Woman. ‘We’re gonna offer it on our streaming channel, but we’re gonna let you play it in your theaters as well,’” said Garel. “Well, there’s a time right now when there’s no content. So we need to take as much as we can. That’s gonna change over the end of the pandemic and those numbers coming back to where they were. But I think the opportunity here is this alternative content. And this is where the alternative content space becomes more powerful. Because we’re gonna utilize hours of the day with [this] alternative content and not be so in need of the majors’ first-run content.”

Frueh predicts that the importance of event content will increase not only for exhibitors, but for streaming platforms that are looking to stand out from the pack in an increasingly crowded space. “The competition is gonna be heating up for them to differentiate themselves from other platforms, and that’s where I think that they can really use event cinema…to really rise above their other competitors and do something in cinema to create that community,” she said. “Because that’s one thing they don’t have. It’s flat, single-dimensional viewing at home, and creating a community is really gonna help them in the competitive landscape.”

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