More Than Just Movies: Event Cinema in the Post-Pandemic Era

Courtesy Iconic Events

The number of films released to movie theaters has declined by 60 percent or more during the pandemic, according to the latest figures from the Motion Picture Association. The sudden drop in content availability poses what could very well be an existential challenge for movie theaters around the world. How can exhibition sustain itself with fewer titles in a business that has become increasingly reliant on blockbusters?

Event cinema, also known in the industry as alternative content, is ideally situated to help address the programming gaps between studio tentpoles. In the digital-cinema age, the sector has successfully engaged with niche fandoms (such as opera, anime, combat sports, and concerts) to optimize off-peak showtimes. Yet because promotion is tied to a fixed set of dates, the sector was prevented from claiming significant box office market share as cinemas first reopened in the pandemic. When release dates across the industry are in flux—subject to change whether by choice or a public health crisis—marketing based on a fixed event date becomes practically impossible.

Entering 2022, however, the outlook is significantly more positive for event cinema distributors to help cinemas reclaim a dynamic 52-week release schedule.

“We’ve seen a need to develop more flexible release models,” says Marc Allenby, CEO of Trafalgar Releasing, which entered the U.S. market in 2018. “In event cinema, dates would typically be coordinated globally. Everybody around the world swings for one engagement or limited engagement on a set date. I think we’ve all had to recognize local restrictions and lockdowns and find ways to be more flexible about our release approach.”

Before the pandemic, a normal marketing campaign for an event cinema release would span about 8 weeks. During the Covid era, however, an 8-week period could be enough time to see cases drop and theaters reopen, only to have a new variant arrive and reintroduce capacity restrictions all over again. It was a Sisyphean effort, a process as frustrating for distributors as it was for exhibitors.

“We went down from 8 weeks to something closer to four or five so we could address that. That may be something we continue in the future. But ideally, we’d like to return to a time when there is a longer presale period,” says Allenby.

The shorter sales and marketing cycle also forced distributors to adjust their acquisitions strategy. Once cinemas were allowed to reopen, cinemas found themselves in a Catch-22 predicament: audiences hesitant to return unless there was new content, and studios unwilling to release new content unless audiences were ready to return. A vacuum in the release schedule presented an alluring opportunity for event cinema providers to fill those gaps with programming tuned to specialized audiences in a variety of genres.

“During the closure, we prioritized looking ahead and planning for the type of content that would provide much-needed content for exhibitors as they reopened across the U.S. and encourage moviegoers to return to theaters,” says Bernadette McCabe, executive vice president of event cinema and exhibitor relations at Spotlight Cinema Networks, which runs event cinema distributor CineLife Entertainment.

CineLife has released 10 event cinema titles during the pandemic. In the fall of 2020, CineLife brought John Carpenter’s original Halloween (1978) to over a thousand screens across the U.S. and Canada—a lifeline for exhibitors during a time when few studios were making films available to cinemas. “The most important thing for us right now is to be very flexible and allow exhibitors a long window to book a title,” says McCabe.

Both Trafalgar and CineLife were known as relative newcomers to the U.S. event cinema sector when they entered the market in 2018. At the time, only Fathom Events, founded in 2005, had an established presence. Today, the three companies are joined by the latest major event cinema distributor in the country, Iconic Events Releasing, to form a core group of four distributors leading the sector in the 2020s.

“Iconic was founded at the beginning of the pandemic, before anyone knew how terrible it would be,” says industry veteran Steve Bunnell, who was named as the company’s CEO in April 2021. “In spite of this, we stuck with our original mission, which was to take advantage of the new technology for live events.”

In its first year, Iconic brought 21 events to cinemas and built ties to several important players in the entertainment business. They’ve also established a working relationship with major streamers to bring titles otherwise unavailable for theatrical release to theaters through limited engagements. Titles like Netflix’s The Mitchells vs. The Machines and HBO Max’s David Byrne’s American Utopia made their theatrical debuts as event cinema programming through Iconic. The company is anticipating delivering 30 or more events in 2022.

Cultural programming—like theater, ballet, and opera—is among the most historically successful genres in event cinema. Those audiences tend to skew older, however, and have proven to be the most elusive demographic to return to theaters. This residual effect of the pandemic has impacted programming decisions from the country’s four leading event cinema distributors. “While the performing arts genre has been slower to return, it has not been stagnant,” says Ray Nutt, CEO of Fathom Events, which runs popular programming series like The Met: Live in HD. “As Covid infections continue to decrease, we’re confident we’ll continue to see a return to theaters.”

That stance is echoed by Trafalgar’s Allenby. “We are still seeing there is a challenge with the more elderly audience returning to cinema at the same levels,” he says. Allenby cites the November 2021 U.K. release of West End musical Anything Goes as evidence that the situation is improving. “It was the highest-grossing theater release in the U.K. and hit pre-pandemic numbers. Over 80,000 people came to see it in cinemas in the U.K., with an average audience age of at least over 55, 65-plus in many cases. That audience is coming back, but they are being a little more selective about what they’re doing.”

Faith-based titles serve another audience segment that took slightly longer to return to theaters. By October 2021, however, it was clear that the right programming could see the return of a considerable audience in that segment. Fathom Events broke its pre-sales record within hours of making Christmas with the Chosen: The Messengers available to ticket buyers. The company registered $1.5 million in advance tickets within 12 hours of tickets going live ahead of the film’s December launch. “The Chosen,” a faith-based streaming series, had established a deeply engaged fan community well before it made its theatrical debut, and its strong social media following and crowdfunded app helped publicize its Christmastime special in cinemas. Christmas with the Chosen: The Messengers went on to become Fathom’s best-selling title of all time, with over $13 million in domestic ticket sales.

“We knew even before tickets were on sale that this event was going to be big, we just didn’t know how big,” says Nutt. “The stars aligned for this event. Christmas with the Chosen: The Messengers is a story about the birth of Jesus through the eyes of Mary and Joseph that premiered during the first week of December when there typically isn’t an abundance of commercial films available. We also knew that while many enjoyed watching the show on their phones, there was an appetite to experience this story on the big screen and together as a community.”

Younger audiences have proven to be the most eager to return to the cinema since the reopening. This is a trend evident in the box office at large, with tentpoles like Spider-Man No Way Home and The Batman matching or exceeding pre-pandemic attendance levels. Meanwhile, titles skewing to an older demographic like Steven Spielberg’s West Side Story (2021) struggle or, as in the case of Downton Abbey: A New Era, continue to be rescheduled deeper into the calendar.

Those results have led event cinema distributors like Trafalgar to focus on younger audiences during the pandemic. “The tribal fanatical nature of music is a real driver for us, and we’ve found those audiences are returning quicker,” says Allenby. They’re also returning in great numbers. Trafalgar was one of the principal global distributors of BTS Permission to Dance On Stage—Seoul: Live Viewing, the first live worldwide cinema broadcast of a concert from South Korea by K-pop stars BTS. The live event became the highest-grossing global event cinema release of all time, bringing in $32.6 million from 3,711 screens across 75 countries on March 12, 2022. The event reached as high as No. 2 at the U.S. box office on the day it aired—a Saturday—grossing $6.84 million from 803 screens, trailing only The Batman in the entire market. With only one day’s worth of grosses, the title finished the weekend as the third-highest-grossing film of North America.

“BTS breaks all of the rules, they’ve just got such a massive following,” says Allenby. “Our role in an event like this is to take the pragmatic approach of making sure cinemas are well briefed, given the information they need, and have the infrastructure in place to deal with a huge demand. When they’re primed and tied into our key campaign moments, they can maximize that demand.”

Marketing support is also one of the principal tenets of CineLife Entertainment, who delivers a turnkey marketing and distribution plan for each of its cinema events. CineLife heavily increased its focus on media awareness for its events to better engage with audiences coming out of the pandemic. The company launched a press blitz to publicize its February release of New Worlds: The Cradle of Civilization, a recorded performance of music and poetry featuring Bill Murray and renowned cellist Jan Vogler. Murray and Vogler participated in two press days that garnered coverage on national outlets like “CBS Mornings,” “The View,” “Access Hollywood,” “Entertainment Tonight,” CNN, and Rolling Stone.

“We also coordinated a pop-up performance with Bill, Jan, and the two other musicians from the film, in New York’s Washington Square Park, which was picked up quite a bit on social media and created a great buzz,” adds McCabe. “In turn, we were able to provide fantastic coverage to exhibitors so they could share with their moviegoers in newsletters, websites, and social media.”

Social media engagement is especially valuable as moviegoing behavior evolves coming out of the pandemic. “We have noticed that fans are shifting their purchase behavior and they are making their plans much closer to the event date,” says Fathom’s Nutt. “This change in behavior has impacted when we pull the trigger on various initiatives including press and paid media. We’ve also been adding some new tactics into our marketing mix including influencer partnerships and leveraging platforms like TikTok and Pinterest.”

A recent example of Fathom’s social media outreach is its campaign to promote the Metropolitan Opera’s Live in HD encore of Terence’s Blanchard’s Fire Shut Up in My Bones, the Met’s first opera by an African American composer. Fathom partnered with an African American opera influencer, Babatunde Akinboboye, to connect with his followers to publicize Fathom’s release. “The campaign had thousands of views, likes, comments and shares including comments from Terence Blanchard himself. Now that people are coming back to theaters and being more selective about what they see, it is paramount that we find authentic ways to create awareness and FOMO [Fear of Missing Out] for our events,” says Nutt.

Iconic’s Bunnell also stresses the importance of having an event’s key talent actively engaged and involved in its theatrical release. “The most amazing revelation for us has been the willingness of the talent to promote their own projects through social media,” he says. “Bo Burnham, Kanye West, UFC fighters, Lindsey Stirling, and others have all been incredibly excited to know that their content—comedy, documentary, fights, holiday special—are on the big screen. For a talented creator, there is simply nothing more magical and engrossing than the big-screen experience.”

On the exhibitor side, Trafalgar’s Allenby notes that the exhibitors who tend to perform best with event cinema titles are those who have either a team or executive assigned to prioritize it within their circuit. “Someone who is responsible and has ownership over the drive to push it through the company, to ensure that it’s getting its fair placement and exposure within the cinema chain,” he says. “Having a champion of event cinema within the organization tends to, on balance, bring better results.”

Major circuits are taking note. AMC Theatres, the world’s largest cinema circuit, addressed the topic in its earnings call for the first quarter of 2022. “Alternative content is something that we are very intrigued by,” AMC CEO Adam Aron told investors. “We’ve dabbled in it so far to gauge consumer response. Some of the people who track us closely know that we’ve had WWE and UFC events. We showed DirecTV’s Sunday Ticket for two years over the last three, showing out-of-market football games on Sundays. We’ve had several concerts, including one recently from Kanye West in Imax theaters around the country.”

“We’ve just agreed with Warner Music to look really hard together at which of their concert artists we can bring to AMC Theatres,” he continued. “But the big one here is sports rights. And we all know that AMC is going to make a real splash in alternative content if we can secure the rights for major professional and collegiate sporting events, not to mention these others like WWE and UFC. Getting professional and collegiate sports is something that has great potential. It’s much easier said than done. We have begun dialogue with leagues. There’s a lot to work out, but it’s something that we’re looking at hard.”

Cinemark, the country’s third largest circuit, has taken similar action since coming back from the pandemic. In December 2021, the circuit partnered with cable sports network ESPN to bring the college football playoff to its domestic circuit.

Major circuits aren’t the only players being proactive at securing event cinema engagements. As AMC’s Aron indicated, cinema tech provider Imax has increased its investment in bringing more special events to its premium-branded screens worldwide. It has worked directly with artists like Kanye West, Gwen Stefani, and Steven Spielberg to deliver special fan events exclusive to the format. This approach has helped expand the appeal of Imax’s premium large format (PLF) venues from opening weekend blockbusters to off-peak fan-centric events.

As artists and creators take a more active role in expanding their presence in today’s fragmented media landscape, cinemas stand as potential beneficiaries of content (and audiences) previously unavailable to them. “Our learnings in just over a year of putting events into theaters is that there is an enormous audience consuming content on dozens of platforms, from the major streamers to Tik Tok, YouTube, and all manner of social media,” says Iconic’s Bunnell. “Our role is to demystify the presumed barrier to entry for this kind of content to movie theaters by demonstrating that through the current technology, we can deliver a scale of distribution that is a win-win for fans, exhibition partners, and the content creators themselves.”

Movie theaters expanding beyond movies doesn’t necessarily mean cinemas are abandoning their roots. The move to diversify a cinema’s offerings can be seen on every level of exhibition today, from expanded concessions menus to the rise of cinema entertainment centers. Movies will continue being the main draw at movie theaters—the tentpoles aren’t going anywhere; this evolution is simply keeping pace with the fragmentation occurring across other media platforms. The line between short-form internet videos, television series, and cinema is blurring—and so are the platforms where audiences are engaging with that content. Event cinema isn’t replacing the role of studio titles at theaters, it’s complementing it by reinsuring movie theaters as the best destination for premium entertainment.

“Our success, as a sector, is not going to come at the expense of blockbusters.” says Trafalgar’s Allenby. “We want cinemas to be well serviced with great premium content all year round.”

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