Fleabag may be gone from your television screens, barring a first, second, or fifth rewatch of Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s Emmy-winning comedy. But it’s still to be found in theaters, thanks to twin efforts from event cinema providers Fathom Events and BY Experience.
The BBC series Fleabag, distributed in the United States on Amazon Prime, stars creator/writer Waller-Bridge as the show’s unnamed main character: a confused, angry, honest—and very, very funny—woman living in London. The show had its origins in a one-woman show presented by Waller-Bridge at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in 2013. Following the success of the television show, the play was brought to London’s West End and New York City…. but by that point Fleabag was so popular that getting tickets required an act of God. (Or maybe a Hot Priest.)
“I got shut out of the New York staging earlier in the year,” recalls John Vanco, senior vice president and general manager of New York City’s IFC Center. “And I thought, ‘Wow.‘ I’m just thinking of my own neck of the woods, in New York City, of all the people who got shut out or didn’t even know that the New York run of the play was happening. People are discovering Fleabag all the time. Nobody knew about it in the beginning, and then it kept building and building and building.”
The IFC Center was one of the theaters to jump on NT Live’s broadcast of Fleabag. The show is being distributed in the United States by two companies. The first, BY Experience, represents NT Live globally, excluding the U.K.; they have a presence in around 75 countries (depending on the show) and are bringing Fleabag to countries across North America, Europe, and Eastern Europe, as well as Russia, India, Japan, Australia, and New Zealand. In the United States, their network largely consists of consists of smaller theaters and performing arts spaces, among them the IFC Center. With screenings taking place through the beginning of 2020, it’s hard to pin exact numbers down, but co-founder Julie Borchard-Young estimates they’re bringing Fleabag to around 1,000 screens worldwide throughout the show’s theatrical life.
BY Experience first screened Fleabag on September 12, which was after Emmy nominations were announced but before the show steamrolled the comedy competition to win six awards, three of them (Writing, Lead Actress, and Outstanding Comedy Series) to Waller-Bridge herself. Since that initial screening of the NT Live show, BY Experience has had “huge, overwhelming demand from all of our exhibitor partners to screen it,” says Borchard-Young. “Many are doing multiple screenings, so it’s almost like a little mini film run. Obviously this dovetails very well with Phoebe Waller-Bridge and her success with the Emmys and her presence on late night TV, hosting ‘SNL.’ She’s been very present here in the U.S.. So it’s been great to take what was otherwise a very limited theatrical experience that happened in London and Edinburgh and New York and really eventize it through cinema.”
“Fleabag is a zeitgeist moment,” adds Borchard-Young. “It’s so rare. You can’t plan it, the fact that Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s star has ascended concurrent with the availability of this play.” When an NT Live show reaches a high level of consumer demand—whether through an aligning of the stars as with Fleabag or the presence of an already-big name, like Helen Mirren in The Audience or Benedict Cumberbatch in Danny Boyle’s Frankenstein—in steps Fathom Events with its extensive theatrical network. BY Experience’s distribution of Fleabag is ongoing, whereas with Fathom, it’s a one-night event, taking place on November 18. (As with other Fathom titles, there is a potential for encore screenings.)
“When we have a big commercial hit that we think is going to travel, that’s when Fathom comes on board, because they can reach many more markets across the country in a very national campaign,” explains Borchard-Young. “The truth is when we got notice that Fleabag was going to happen for cinema, it was very short notice. We scrambled, put together a great platform to begin [with], and then Fathom saw what had happened with the initial launch and said, ‘Even though we couldn’t participate because of the timing, now we’d like to.’ It’s great that they’ve come on board. It’ll give customers across the country who otherwise wouldn’t have the chance to see this an opportunity to do so.”
“We program primarily for broad appeal content. [Borchard-Young will] bring us content, and we’ll make a decision based on what that audience is,” agrees Fathom vice president of programming, business affairs, and strategy Daren Miller. “We’d had conversations with Julie early on. Our challenge really has been that, at this time of year, we are super challenged [from] a scheduling perspective. It’s a very, very busy time of year between tentpoles and working around studio releases and our own releases. It was really all about finding the right date that we could optimize for the content.”
Fathom and BY Experience’s releases of Fleabag—as with previous NT Live productions, like The Audience, Frankenstein, and Benedict Cumberbatch in Hamlet—are done independently from one another; BY Experience licenses content to Fathom, and they each distribute to their own networks. Both companies, it goes without saying, benefited from Fleabag’s Emmys wins. Marketing can be tricky with event cinema, given you’re not working with studios that have millions of dollars to drop on P&A. Here, Fleabag got a substantial bump in name recognition without Fathom or BY Experience having to lift a finger.
“It’s definitely key in event cinema that we tap into preexisting franchises and the audience and fanbase,” explains Miller. Fleabag “clearly has all the right ingredients that we look for in any product that we distribute. It has a lot of good things working for it.”
As such, pre-sales “came out the gate strong,” says Fathom vice president of operations Lynne Schmidt. “I’m a little surprised, especially because [at the time pre-sales started] a lot of our marketing hadn’t even hit yet.” At the time of our discussion, Fathom had placed Fleabag in approximately 400 theaters. “We are adding theaters as they’re being requested,” added Schmidt. “We pay attention to our social media and fans coming in asking for these additional screenings.”
Pre-sales are massively important in the world of event cinema. It’s there there in the name—we’re looking at a event, something exclusive, so if you want to get in you’d better buy your ticket in advance. “When I go see a film, I mostly wait for the day-of, because I know if I’m going to get sold out for the five o’clock screening, big deal, I can go at 6:30,” says Borchard-Young. “Whereas with event cinema, people plan like they’re going to the arts. They buy tickets well in advance. So we’re seeing great pre-sales [for Fleabag], and that doesn’t surprise me.”
At the IFC Center, Fleabag smashed its own pre-sale records, with over 3,000 people buying tickets in advance. The IFC Center, however, did something unusual: giving Fleabag not just one or two screenings, as is typical with event cinema, but entire week’s run, nights and weekends included. “It did $100,000 for the first week, which put it at that point second only to Boyhood for the biggest opening week of a film that we’d had,” says Vanco. (Pre-sale and first week records were swiftly thereafter broken by Bong Joon Ho’s Parasite. It’s been a busy month.) A second week was added, and “we started patchworking shows after that.” (If you want to see Fleabag on Halloween night, you can, but you’ll have to fight through the annual parade crowd.)
Part of the success of Fleabag at the IFC Center, Vanco explains, is that “we leaned into the presentation.” The tickets are at a premium price point, but the experience is premium, too: “We didn’t show any trailers. There are very few times that we don’t show the IFC Center logo trailer. This was one of them. We didn’t put up any adds for popcorn or anything. And people felt like, ‘OK, well, this is different. I’ve gone to the IFC Center as a regular movie theater lots of times, and this is something that I don’t normally get.’”
The production quality, as well, contributes to NT Live as an exceptional experience, argues Vanco: “They go in and they set up all of their technology within some West End theater in London. They cut from camera to camera and they create this movie that is like you’re there, in the best seat in the house. You get close ups. It’s really quite a thing. There’s all this pre-show [content] that you makes you feel like you’re in the room. You have ambient noise from the people as they’re walking into the room, and there’s an introduction from a host.”
Many programmers, Vanco argues, “kind of use different parts of their brains” for event cinema versus more traditional content. “You don’t think of them as crossing over. You think, ‘OK, I’ve got my alternative content, and it fits in whatever week I’m playing it. They fit in around the periphery and have no impact on my regular, first-run stuff.’ It’s out of sight, out of mind. But, I’m sorry—when it’s Fleabag, you have to change the rules!”