On the Rise Again: Event Cinema Celebrates a Robust Year

Carmen Suite. Photo Credit E. Fetisova HD

by Melissa Cogavin

The trajectory for event cinema began to rise steeply back in 2013: For about two years, the industry worldwide saw world records being set and broken with happy regularity. Then, all of a sudden, the bubble burst. Insiders had watched this growth knowing deep down it was unsustainable, and at the time many attempted to explain the reasons behind it: the end of the recession, 100 percent digitization, a maturing market, a new trade association, or a combination of all of the above. But the plateau that followed was longer than anyone anticipated, and while everyone had an opinion, few could predict how or when things would improve.

Until 2018. The UK market alone rose from £34 million to £41.5 million, up a massive 19 percent from 2017. There wasn’t even a Secret Cinema event to skew the numbers this time. It was a fantastic year for event cinema, rejuvenating what some had worried was a stagnating industry.

The big headline last year was the arrival of K-pop and boy band teen sensation BTS. Their event cinema title Burn the Stage: The Movie grossed an eye-watering £14 million worldwide over the weekend it released in cinemas and dramatically affected the averages. Anyone over the age of 30 was mystified, anyone over the age of 40 utterly ignorant—truly an example of how social media completely bypasses mainstream media and then storms the box office. The music industry has historically had mixed feelings about engaging with event cinema, but surely this has boosted confidence in the art form? Yes, says Marc Allenby, CEO of Trafalgar Releasing, but the successes across the industry of Coldplay, Muse, and Cliff Richard in the last year and a further BTS event have also done much to encourage record labels to take the plunge. 

This all looks great, but where do we go from here? The sector still suffers from unwillingness in some camps to share box office data; for an industry now considered mature, this is frustrating, misleading, and frankly mystifying. It’s still very difficult to obtain any real global sense of what the market is doing; key distributors and even data-collection agencies remain adamant that their data is their own and nobody else’s, even for a price. 

Allenby reassured me that, anecdotally,  there is more visibility in the U.S. market lately and he is optimistic that will continue to improve, but there is obviously still work to be done. Withholding box office data helps no one and allows misinformation to flourish, affecting investment, confidence in the sector, and overall growth. Against such a stunning year and a promising 2019, the hope is that such attitudes will soften and collaboration, even in terms of a new industry report, will reveal a true and undoubtedly bright picture of what is really happening out there. It took the major studios a long time to come round to this idea, so hopefully it’s just a matter of time. 

In 2009 the market was cluttered with starry-eyed kitchen-table startups—back then David Hancock of IHS Markit counted up 26 UK distributors alone in the event cinema space. Fast-forward to 2019 and distributors with regular slates of content number around just 15 distributors worldwide. Slick, experienced zeitgeist experts, they told me what we are likely to see in this most unpredictable of sectors.

The UK’s event cinema output is almost entirely distributed by Trafalgar, CinEvents, CinemaLive, Exhibition on Screen, and More2Screen, with other companies occasionally dipping in and out. On the continent, Piece of Magic, Pathé Live, Rising Alternative, Version Digital, Nexo Digital, and Magnitudo are the main players. In the U.S., four companies generally cater to the whole country: By Experience, Fathom Events, Trafalgar, and a newcomer, CineLife Entertainment. In Canada, Front Row Centre, owned by Cineplex, is the only provider and has opened 23 dedicated event screens across the country to meet audience demand. Personnel involved on either side of the Atlantic may have moved around, but few have left the industry, and few senior staff have joined the business from elsewhere. Event cinema is still a niche art form and it’s a testament to its loyal players that there is such low turnover. It seems unlikely we will see competitors to these organizations emerge in 2019, which is no bad thing. Event cinema is growing, but in real terms not enough to see the landscape littered with ambitious copycats. Consolidation is a sign of a mature, stable market.\

The King and I. Photo Credit: Matthew Murphy.

Certain key factors set the scene for 2019. VPFs will expire this year, making it likely we will see more content programmed without prohibitive charges. In the UK, Brexit doesn’t seem to be affecting business across borders and is only raised in conversation with rolled eyes—though, like everywhere else, investment and expansion are probably on hold until the future is at least a little clearer. Unlike the previous 2013 surge in awards, record breakers, and headlines, experienced players are approaching 2019 with more managed expectations. The mood is ebullient on both sides of the Atlantic, despite uncertainty and the strongest slate we’ve seen in a decade. 

Too often, key players in an industry will dismiss concerns and offer bland, committee-approved platitudes, but the statements from the market here are bold and direct. CEO of Fathom Events Ray Nutt told me, “In 2017 and 2018, we saw event cinema take further steps toward maturity, as Fathom set all-time revenue records in each of the previous years. I anticipate that 2019 will be a very strong year for the event cinema industry, domestically and internationally, with existing and emerging verticals.”

Those verticals include music, obviously, but children’s content seems to be making headway, as does gaming, which is seeing tangible growth year on year. Four distributors now offer art exhibitions (Nexo, Exhibition on Screen, By Experience, and Magnitudo), with no murmurs that the market is nearing saturation point, as opera was feared to be a few years ago. More2Screen broke barriers and records with live theater broadcast Everyone’s Talking about Jamie in 2018 and tapped into another bit of zeitgeist gold: the LGBTQ market. 

A tweet that night said, “The cinema here in Northampton is full of mums with teens, same-sex couples & gender diverse people. I saw a non-binary person smiling with their elderly grandfather. This is the effect the Jamie phenomenon has on the world and it’s amazing.” The pink pound has not been exploited like the grey one yet, but More2Screen has started something here—one to watch for 2019. 

That diversity isn’t limited to the content hitting screens. A host of new event cinema players have entered the U.S. market over the last two years, including Nagra Kudelsky’s cinema-on-demand service myCinema and cinema advertising leaders Screenvision and Spotlight Cinema Networks. CineLife Entertainment, the event cinema division of Spotlight Cinema Networks, for example, released 15 titles in 2018—its first full year in operation. Its high point was the 40th anniversary rerelease of John Carpenter’s Halloween, which made it into 1,800 cinemas in 28 countries worldwide.

Amid depressing populist talk of walls and borders, it’s clear the visionaries in this sector continue to build bridges, break barriers, and supply first-class content to cinemas in ever more exotic places; BTS even made it as far as Erbil in Iraqi-controlled Kurdistan. Trafalgar has screened content as far away as Guam, Aruba, and even Mongolia. The Middle East is enjoying unprecedented cinema construction, attitudes are relaxing slightly, and the appetite for all kinds of event cinema is growing; expect to see exports to the GCC and the Middle East region rising as a whole this year. 

Engagement from cinemas is still crucial to the success of event cinema at the box office; in 2019, the partnership between cinema and distributor mustn’t be overlooked. Carol Sadlon of independent The Moviehouse in New York often proactively collaborates with filmmakers as well as local organizations to provide additional enrichment in the form of panel discussions and audience Q&As, and she actively seeks out niche independent films and documentaries that she feels make a strong connection.

Caspar Nadaud, CEO of Dutch distributor Piece of Magic Entertainment and the engine behind the André Rieu juggernaut, sums up the current mood best: “The past few years have seen a seismic shift, with exhibitors welcoming more and more event cinema titles to their screens. Music remains a huge growth area, but new genres such as gaming are not only bringing further value to rights owners but also bringing the shared experience of the cinema to a new audience.” Everyone interviewed for this report agrees: 2019 is going to be a great year for event cinema.

Carmen Suite. Photo Credit E. Fetisova HD

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