The Main Event: Event Cinema Responds to the Covid-19 Pandemic

Images courtesy (top to bottom): CineLife Entertainment (Celebrating the Sopranos), Trafalgar Releasing (Bring the Soul: The Movie), Fathom Events (The Blues Brothers)

With cinemas beginning to open up worldwide—in North America, top-three chains AMC and Cinemark have both confirmed that they plan to open the majority of their cinemas by early-mid July—a key issue on everyone’s mind is content. Whether they’re screening repertory titles or independent films like drive-in hit The Wretched, theaters have had to think differently about their approach to programming—something that’s unlikely to change over the coming weeks, even as new releases like Tenet and Mulan inject cinemas with some new blockbuster blood.

Event cinema has long given exhibitors the ability to diversify their content roster, slotting in screenings of opera, theater, concerts, special-interest documentaries, and more in between typical first run-content. Even as that big-budget Hollywood content returns to theaters—albeit with still-shifting release dates—event cinema could prove a valuable tool for exhibitors looking to draw sofa-bound moviegoers back into the theater with the promise of new content.

Still, the world of event cinema has not been without its own setbacks caused by the Covid-19 pandemic. With much uncertainty still in the air about how the exhibition landscape will look in the coming months, Boxoffice PRO spoke with a slate of event cinema experts about the possibilities and limitations they currently face.

Event cinema providers, like other distributors, were left with a slate full of programming and nowhere to put it once it became clear that the worldwide theatrical landscape was likely to undergo a near-total shutdown. As a result, many of these providers have shuffled programming intended for the first half of 2020 down the calendar, where they could prove a lucrative draw for moviegoers unable to participate in non-film forms of entertainment.

Large live concerts, for example, are a no-go until some unspecified point down the line. Says Bernadette McCabe, executive vice president of CineLife Entertainment, which has its Artists Den concert series still in the works: “With something like a concert, there won’t be bands touring this summer. So that will be an interesting opportunity for a consumer to see that in a movie theater versus in an arena.” McCabe sites CineLife’s screenings of Comédie-Française as a substitute for live theater, which “isn’t really available right now. So if somebody would like to see beautiful, high-quality productions from the French stage, they could go to a local movie theater and see something.”

A mix of CineLife’s already-released content and programming that would have hit theaters in the first half of 2020—including Rigoletto on the Lake, Celebrating the Sopranos, and a selection of four LGBT repertory titles originally scheduled for Pride Month—will now come out later in the year. All upcoming content, says McCabe, will be available for exhibitors to book over a larger-than-normal window of time—as much as ten weeks, depending on the title—in recognition of exhibitors’ need for flexibility as they gradually resume typical operations.

Fathom Events is bringing some of its older content back to theaters in North America, where the distributor’s “welcome back” programming has been designed to fill a 30-day window. Says head of marketing Letha Steffey, “We have some faith-based type films for Mondays; Tuesday, anime; Wednesday, classic films; Thursday, girls night out. We’ve built this welcome back program to support the exhibitors when they do open up, whether they have five theaters—as we heard from Cinemark for that week starting June 19th—or 500 theaters. This welcome back program is really built for flexibility, such that they can choose the titles that they want to play and the times of day.” 

That flexibility is especially key given event cinema’s global nature and the lack of consistency around a global reopening—countries reopening their theaters at different times, paired with uncertainty around a potential second wave of shutdowns. In Korea, for example, the cinema industry has never had the total, prolonged shutdown faced by much of the rest of the world. At the same time, box office plummeted during the spring months due in part to a lack of content. In April and May, Trafalgar Releasing brought three 2019 releases—The King and I: From The London Palladium, Josh Groban Bridges from Madison Square Garden, and Metallica and San Francisco Symphony: S&M²—to theaters in Korea, where they had never before been released. While the films perhaps didn’t do as well as they would have under “normal circumstances,” says Trafalgar CEO Marc Allenby, all three films “attracted an audience. They weren’t eye-watering. But I think in the case of Metallica, it was the largest event film in Korea that month, and both Josh Groban and the King and I still performed well.”

At the same time, the shifting landscape of global exhibition will likely lead to some changes down the line for event cinema distribution, argues Allenby. Event cinema is largely based on the concept of appointment viewing—selling a film as a one-time-only event, released at the same time globally (where possible, taking things like local holidays and regulations into account), with no guarantee that it will ever hit theaters again. Moving forward, there will have to be “greater elasticity” if countries go into second lockdowns, Allenby says. “From my perspective, we spent the last 10 years building up the global event model where [on] one night, same time, local time zone adjusted, an event happens and everybody’s unified. I think whilst that approach still stands, we’re going to have to accept there’s going to be variance. At short notice, countries may well be having to opt out of releases or postpone releases. And so we will need to have more flex in the model.”

Fathom Events is embracing change in their own way, going into the business of limited releases with military-themed thriller The Outpost, to be released on approximately 500 screens starting on July 2nd. Paired with the film will be a 30-minute pre-show, per Steffey comprised of “up to 15 minutes of unique [behind-the-scenes] footage” from The Outpost. The other half will consist of new creative elements developed by Fathom. The company has used the period of the shutdown to reevaluate their pre-show strategy as a whole, developing content designed to contribute to patrons’ theatrical experience “from the moment that they sit in the theater chair.” Adds Steffey, “Across the board, we’ve been really diving into things that perhaps prior to this pandemic [we] really hadn’t had the time [to focus on]…. This is a chance for us to take a step back and then determine, ‘How can we really look at optimizing our core business and our go-to-market?’” In addition to their pre-show, Fathom has also begun conducting its own research into consumer preferences and will soon be relaunching a redesigned mobile site.

CineLife, Trafalgar, and Fathom all plan to make announcements in the coming weeks as to what will be on their slate over the back half of 2020. But, in the longer term, a challenge looms: the struggle to create new content, as many of the live cultural events that make up so much of the event cinema landscape are on hold. The Metropolitan Opera, for example, has cancelled their fall season, and it’s hard to imagine the gigantic concerts from k-pop band BTS that have proven so profitable for event cinema taking place any time soon.

In effect, the challenge event cinema faces here is the same challenge faced by the wider film industry—a lack of new content ready to go into socially-distanced production. “Certainly,” notes McCabe, “acquiring content over the next 12 months is going to be a different landscape than it was six months ago.”

Here, Allenby believes that event cinema distributors are better positioned than typical studios because “the risk is slightly more contained.” Event cinema’s demand through scarcity model—reaching out to fans of a more niche subject, rather than one with more general appeal—means that they need fewer ticket sales to be deemed successful. And, with its smaller marketing budgets and quick turnaround time, event cinema is more nimble than its traditional counterparts; new product, whatever it is and whenever it takes place, can conceivably find itself in theaters in a matter of weeks after completion.

As for what that content will be—it doesn’t appear that anyone, at this point, is trying to reinvent the wheel. The types of event cinema releases will be much the same as they were before, but distributors will be looking at unique ways to work with exhibitors to get them to the public—whether that’s increased flexibility in scheduling, a new pre-show, or dipping a toe into the world of limited releases. (Fathom, for example, announced the 2020 schedule for its popular TCM Big Screen Classics series—to include The Blues Brothers, Ghost, and Close Encounters of the Third Kind—last week.)

To help fill a gap in content, Trafalgar is looking into staging theatrical productions in the U.K. in mostly empty theaters, “without an audience or with a socially distanced audience, essentially primarily for cinema and potential downstream post-cinema…  If you haven’t got a full paying audience in there, there probably is enough flexibility with the right planning to put shows on and capture them,” says Allenby. The worlds of event cinema and musical theater alike, he notes, are “looking at creative solutions to how we can continue some level of business during this period,” keeping the two industries “bubbling away, at least, whilst things normalize. I’m not trying to be overly or blindly optimistic, but I do think there are still great opportunities out there.”

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