Fathom Events CEO Ray Nutt on the Distributor’s Upcoming Slate and Their Incursion into Specialty Distribution

Coming off a highly successful 2022, in which Fathom Events saw gross box office revenues of over $68 million, the distributor has big plans for its 2023 slate—including an incursion into specialty distribution. Fathom Events launched its move to specialty distribution model last year, breaking new ground by premiering the two-episode finale of the faith-based streaming series “The Chosen,” grossing over $5 million in the process. The company then expanded its distribution efforts internationally with The Journey: A Music Special from Andrea Bocelli, which grossed over $3 million.

Boxoffice Pro spoke with Fathom Events CEO Ray Nutt following the company’s presentation at CinemaCon 2023 in an interview covering the distributor’s Event Cinema slate and upcoming plans for longer theatrical runs with high-profile films. 

It was a big CinemaCon for Fathom Events this year, introducing your slate ahead of the filmmaker’s luncheon with Martin Scorsese that was moderated by Leonardo DiCaprio. What was your big takeaway from this year’s event?

We had a great CinemaCon. I think the buzz over the entire conference was that it felt like 2019 again. We sponsored the filmmaker’s launch for the fourth consecutive year, preceding the conversation between Martin Scorsese and Leonardo DiCaprio. It was good for us at Fathom, giving us a full room to present our slate. 

One of the main things that we look forward to when we go to CinemaCon is the ability to get together with all the exhibitors we distribute to. We tend to see our owners—AMC, Regal, and Cinemark—a little more often than we see some of the other exhibitors that we distribute to, and we distribute to 100 exhibitors in total. It was great to see a lot of those folks face-to-face that we hadn’t seen prior to the pandemic and talk about ways that we can distribute our content to them as well. 

Major circuits reported a nice bump in business in their Q1 results. How was the first quarter of the year for Fathom?

We exceeded all of our budgets for the first quarter, it was one of the best quarters in the history of the company. Keep in mind, we were coming off a great 2022, where we were actually performing at 86% of 2019, while the industry was at 66% of 2019. It was a spectacular quarter for us, and it looks like Q2 is going to be very strong as well.

Fathom Events released 10 of the top 30 documentary films in theaters last year. What are you expecting in terms of documentary releases this year?  

Yes, we released 10 of the 30 highest-grossing documentaries of last year. We had the Academy Award winner, Navalny, that we partnered with both Warner Brothers and CNN Films on. We also had the Mother Teresa documentary No Greater Love in the faith-based area, and you’ll likely see some more faith-based documentaries coming out soon. I think you’re going to see some more documentaries coming out of our original programming department as well. Those two categories will keep us very busy this year. 

You mentioned Navalny, which won the Academy Award for Best Documentary last year, a film that was released to theaters by Fathom Events. Based on this background, do you see Fathom having more of an activity in getting more Oscar-contenders in the coming years?

There are so many filmmakers that want to take their films into theaters. In the past, we’ve looked at about 3,000 potential films or events a year, and only about 100 of them will make it to our network of cinemas. We’re very selective when it comes to our programming. Of course, if you end up with an Oscar®-winner, it’s a nice feather in your cap to attract additional attention and filmmakers down the road. It’s not our primary goal, but I can tell you, it would be awfully nice to have Fathom mentioned in the Academy Awards®.

We know that there’s a lot of competition right now for theaters from streaming. What is your strategy regarding partnerships with streamers, whom you can partner with to release new content to theaters?

We partner with all the major studios who have downstream rights to content. We also deal with a lot of newer filmmakers that aren’t very experienced in this particular area. We don’t view that as competition. We’re looking at new models of releasing films—new windows—like our church network—where we take content that we’re licensing for movie theaters, draw a geofence around them based on the density of the geography, and then license those films to churches outside that area. Those churches have an opportunity, in those underserved communities, to connect with people who would never make the drive out to the theaters that we serve. Instead, they can enjoy our programming and events locally in their church. It’s the best form of grassroots marketing, when you have a priest, a pastor, or a minister getting up saying, “Show up on Wednesday, we’ve got this great film.” It’s an awesome opportunity to create a brand new window that didn’t exist before. We’ve never considered ourselves competitive with any of the downstream opportunities or windows, and I think you’ll probably see us doing a little bit more in the direct-to-consumer space later this year.

What is Fathom’s relationship with mainstream film distributors and content producers?  Anything new on the horizon?

We’re continuing to work with all the major studios. At CinemaCon we announced our partnership with Bleecker Street to premiere Golda, starring Helen Mirren, on August 23rd. We’ll be doing a premiere event that features a Q & A with star Helen Mirren and Director Guy Nattiv.  That will take place before Bleecker Street distributes the film theatrically in a traditional manner afterwards. 

And we’ve just come off a highly successful return to live music by bringing BTS member SUGA to theaters nationwide as part of his D-Day Tour.  We captured it live in Japan and brought to theaters in the U.S. and Canada later that same day.  

Event Cinema has emerged as a disruptive and inclusive way for filmmakers to release their films to theaters without having to go through traditional distribution models. For those filmmakers interested in submitting a film, how can they go about doing so?

We have a culture of transparency at Fathom Events. If a film is not quite right for our platform, we’ll work with the filmmaker and suggest alternative modes of distribution. We’re the tenth-largest distributor in North America. We work very closely with both major studios and independent distributors across our platform, as well as dealing directly with filmmakers and producers. Anyone who wants to work with us can contact our programming department directly. We like to work with everyone, and whenever it isn’t a fit we’re – more than happy to help anyone find a different direction that may be right for their film. We love to work directly with filmmakers and our door will always be open to them.

Fathom has a robust lineup of classic films on its schedule, how important is this piece of the business for you and the films’ distributors?

Very important. It reminds me of how old I’m getting whenever I see a movie like Grease having its 45th anniversary, which we did an event for earlier this year. This year we have titles like Raiders of the Lost Ark, Hairspray, The Birds, and Enter the Dragon, all celebrating anniversaries and coming back to our theaters. We tend to pursue repertory programming around anniversaries because we like to get home entertainment involved on the studio side to assist in the marketing and promotion of our event screenings. Those marketing dollars simultaneously promote the Fathom screenings and the Blu-ray launch as well. We just hired film critic Leonard Maltin to introduce 11 of our titles this year, and he’s done a spectacular job. He’s a walking film encyclopedia, that guy knows more about movies than just about anybody I know. He introduces these titles with a three or four minute clip that always adds to the context and appreciation of those movies. This category is important, not only to us, but it’s very important to the studios, who have a repertory library that they’re trying to monetize and get in front of audiences. You’ll see us continue with this particular category in the future. 

Two other mainstays for Fathom Events have been The Met operas and your relationship with anime titles through Gkids for Studio Ghibli Fest.  How are those categories performing for you?  

I think it’s been well documented that older audiences were a little bit slower to come back to the movies after the pandemic. The average age of The Met moviegoer is 73 years old, and we saw that for ourselves over the last two years. What’s interesting, however, is that if you look at what The Met is doing right now, you’ll realize that they’re being very strategic about going after a younger audience. We just came off a performance of Champion, about an African American boxer. It’s an example of how The Met is programming to attract a much younger audience out there. The Met’s season is winding down for us this year and I’ve already seen some of the content we have in store for next season—and it looks pretty good. 

With regards to anime, it’s been a very interesting year for us in that programming genre. We’re celebrating nearly half a century of Miyazaki in the film business, and we have a lineup of films like Spirited Away, My Neighbor Totoro, and Kiki’s Delivery Service programmed to celebrate. We just finished a run of My Neighbor Totoro, which we’ve done in the past, and it performed better as part of this 11-film package we’re presenting it under. Another interesting event we recently held was Spirited Away Live on Stage, which did very well. There are all kinds of opportunities like that out there in the anime space. 

Fathom added over 400 affiliates last year to its theater network, is that number still growing? What’s behind that growth?

In the past, we had a requirement where exhibitors had to install our satellite technology to join our network. That was a capital expense on the exhibitor’s side. We listened to our partner cinemas, especially after the pandemic, about being more flexible and inclusive in the programming and distribution of our content. That’s why our leadership group decided to drop that requirement. We still have 1,100 theaters and 2,200 screens out there with that technology installed. In order to reach more screens, however, as we did with The Chosen, one of our biggest hits, we needed to expand into distributing content via Digital Content Package (DCP). We called that program “DCP Only,” and it has allowed a lot of exhibitors—basically any cinema with a digital projector—to book our content as if it were any other movie on their screens. That’s the primary reason why you’ve seen that expansion in our network of theaters. 

Part of that growth has also been into international territories.  Have you seen any success outside of the U.S?

Yes, we have – and it’s been a great learning experience for us as well.  While we have distributed content in 45 countries in the past and often extend into Canada, we are working to extend that reach in 2023.  For example, late in 2022 we brought The Chosen to the U.K., Ireland, Canada, Australia and New Zealand.  

Leaving the big news for last here, Fathom Events announced at CinemaCon that it’ll be entering into the world of specialty distribution. What can you tell us about this new project?

We will always be an Event Cinema company but there’s an evolution going on—from alternative content years ago to event cinema today—and leading to a future for Fathom that will include going into Specialty Distribution. We’re going to be taking a handful of films that aren’t necessarily going to play for one or two nights, the way Event Cinema distribution usually does. Take a picture like The Blind, for example, a biopic on Phil Robertson, from the “Duck Dynasty” TV series, which we’ll be releasing September 28 for a full week with at least two showtimes per day. That is the sort of model we’re going to be exploring. Most of our content will still be one or two nights, but there are a lot of filmmakers out there that want to release their movies through Fathom versus other distributors. These are releases that we expect to gross around $5 million and up. We’re very excited to take on this new adventure in Specialty Distribution through the rest of this year. 

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