Welcome to the Big Event: Event Cinema Makes a Post-Covid Comeback

Photo Credit: Justin Wysong, Courtesy Trafalgar Releasing. Stevie Nicks 24 Karat Gold The Concert

At this year’s ECA Slate Day, held virtually on June 9, the focus was on the future: How can the world of event cinema, in its content, marketing, and operations, better serve the global exhibition community as it emerges from the Covid-19 pandemic?

“Global” is a key word here—and one that marks a major change in 2021’s ECA Slate Day. Founded in 2012, the ECA—or Event Cinema Association, a trade body devoted to championing event cinema and connecting its providers to cinemas—has traditionally focused on the U.K. Understandable, given that event cinema gained a toehold in the U.K. years before it did in other parts of the world.

But past box office successes, whether a World War I documentary from Peter Jackson (They Shall Not Grow Old, winner of CinemaCon’s Event Cinema Award in 2019) or a growing series of concert movies from Korean megastars BTS, show us that other markets are catching up to the possibilities to be found in event cinema.Too, the past year and a half has driven home the fact that the cinema industry is a global one, where events in one country—whether viruses, vaccinations, or shifting norms around exhibitor-distributor relations—can have a massive impact on another.

One of the ECA’s “core objectives” with this year’s ECA Slate Day, says Managing Director Grainne Peat, “is to bring a more global perspective to event cinema and how it performs across different territories. It’s an exciting time for event cinema content. Audiences, more than ever, have a bigger appetite for variety and entertainment from the big screen experience.” The ECA’s embrace of global markets was present early in its June presentation, when a roster of international executives—hailing from the U.K., the U.S., Ireland, Brazil, Spain, Australia, New Zealand, and Pakistan—spoke to the ability of event cinema to draw in diverse audiences and to their hopes that event cinema can contribute to their respective cinema chains moving forward.

But to look forward, it’s necessary to look back—both at event cinema box office performance in various markets and at audience demographic data for recent releases. To provide that analytical insight at ECA Slate Day were, respectively, Luke Williams, senior operations executive at Comscore, and Chief Client Officer Sarah Lewthwaite of Movio.

Most of the countries surveyed by Comscore saw an understandable dip in event cinema box office between 2019 and 2020, the only exception being New Zealand. On a more positive front, all markets except France and the U.K./Ireland saw the proportion of box office attributable to event cinema tick upward between 2019 and 2020, with Brazil showing by far the most substantial growth. Movio’s Lewthwaite, meanwhile, provided ECA Slate Day attendees with data comparing U.K. and U.S. audience demographics for select 2020 and 2021 titles, with a key takeaway being that “event cinema will play a very important role in building audiences altogether and can actually be the reason that someone chooses to return to the cinema for the first time [since the beginning of the pandemic] over, potentially, a film release.”

Event cinema audiences, per Movio’s data, tend to skew older and more female than general cinema audiences—a fact that presents a challenge, as both women and those in older age groups have been slower to return to cinemas post-Covid. But, here, the shutdown has offered a potential silver lining for the event cinema space. As select event cinema programming has temporarily moved digital, and thus become more easily accessible to a more diverse audience, their distributors have been able to connect with demographics they had trouble reaching before—which could eventually yield benefits for exhibitors.

Shortly following the onset of the pandemic, the U.K.’s National Theatre (NT) Live, whose filmed versions of National Theatre performances have long proven a reliable earner in the event cinema space, released 16 productions for free on YouTube. There, between April and July 2020, they were watched by 12 million people in more than a hundred countries, leading to a “huge amount of growth” in social media followers and YouTube subscribers, said NT Live’s Head of Marketing and Distribution Karen Palmer during an ECA Slate Day panel on streaming. “We’ve reached a young audience we’ve not been able to convince to go into the cinema before,” she says, hopefully leading to a “funnel effect,” where those first exposed to the National Theatre via YouTube will seek out productions at the cinema and then, later, live onstage.

In an interview with Boxoffice Pro, Letha Steffey, head of marketing at Fathom Events—North America’s largest event cinema distributor and a joint venture of exhibitors AMC, Regal/Cineworld, and Cinemark—said that Fathom has also used the pandemic as a time to refine its outreach, building performance dashboards that provide insight into who is being reached and how. What Steffey calls a “test-and-learn” approach, correlating platform-by-platform marketing campaigns against ticket sales and third-party data, “is where my entire team takes a step back. …We say, ‘All right, here’s what we did. Here are the channels we leaned into for these particular events that fall within these genres.’ Is there something that we learned through that that we could use to [say], ‘You know what? We should probably test that with another type of event.’ Maybe it’s within the same genre. Maybe it’s a different genre. Because that audience is very similar.”

When it comes to music-based content, Trafalgar Releasing uses data to determine which acts are likely to attract cinema audiences in different territories. The company has distributed concert films from BTS and fellow K-pop band Blackpink to more than 100 territories; their cinema success provides “two examples of how music transcends borders and how musicians from outside of North America are starting to dominate the charts globally, creating passionate fan bases that have been compared to the frenzy of the Beatles,” says Kymberli Frueh, SVP programming and content acquisitions at Trafalgar Releasing.

With the influx of data now available, whether a particular act will hit big in international territories is no longer a matter of guesswork. “For each of our music releases, we analyze data from social channels, Spotify, and other metrics to determine which territories are viable for a theatrical release for any given event,” says Frueh. A wide international release—where backed up by data—”gives fans in markets where the bands would not likely be able to tour, especially in the current post-pandemic climate, the opportunity to connect with the artist and other fans in a meaningful way.”

Once a moviegoer attends an event cinema production, whether NT Live or BTS, said owner Kevin Marwick of England’s The Picture House during ECA Slate Day, it’s a good bet they’ll get hooked; his cinema certainly has event cinema bona fides, with an estimated quarter of its pre-Covid box office coming from event cinema programming. “People come to the Royal Opera House stuff. They come to the NT Live stuff. They only need to experience it once. … Once you’ve got them, you’ve got them. And there are few businesses that have that advantage.” Palmer echoes that. With NT Live, she says, the “biggest barrier to people buying tickets” is a lack of understanding of how immersive the experience really is; “We’re battling against those fixed-camera recordings that you were asked to sit through in school.” Streaming “has been an incredibly valuable exercise in building audiences and reaching new corners of the globe, as well as new eyeballs.”

If streaming introduces at-home viewers to new types of content that they can later go see on the big screen, Fathom Events CEO Ray Nutt argues that the cooperation can go even further, with streamers turning to event cinema distributors for one-off events that they can integrate into their marketing. The caveat, Nutt adds, is that “what we don’t want to do is get in the middle of discussions that are happening between streamers and our exhibitor owners.”

Once those discussions reach a point of equilibrium, however, Nutt sees potential in a strengthened relationship between streamers and event cinema providers. “Why in the world wouldn’t you want to monetize every single window if you have content out there?” he asks. “You monetize it with Fathom, first of all. Maybe you do a theatrical distribution, and then you do all your downstream PVOD and everything after that. We’re a great platform for all these content providers to promote their content. We’re only one or two nights, so at the end of the day the biggest attraction for content providers is the promotional and advertising vehicle we offer.”

In the meantime, event cinema is still finding success—if “success” is defined by different numbers in the Covid era—with the genres that have served as its bread and butter over the years. Of particular note is music-based content, which has given entertainment-hungry moviegoers an alternative to in-person concerts over the course of the pandemic. In June 2020, drive-ins made bank with a Garth Brooks concert film, distributed by Encore Live . Trafalgar’s later release of concert films from Stevie Nicks (in October 2020) and Bon Jovi (in May 2021, distributed in partnership with Encore Live) succeeded in finding multigenerational audiences, said Trafalgar’s Frueh during ECA Slate Day. Stevie Nicks 24 Karat Gold The Concert “did close to a million globally,” said Frueh, helped by aggressive support from Nicks herself. “She drove a multigenerational audience that we were really surprised about. Instead of just having older fans in cinemas, we realized [those older fans] were bringing their daughters, their grandchildren, etc. So that was exciting.”

As the world emerges from the pandemic, event cinema staples like the Metropolitan Opera and the Bolshoi Ballet will get a new breath of life, with new productions leading to fresh event cinema content down the line. For concerts, the balance of supply and demand is a bit different—more fans can catch a band on a stop in their world tour than see a play in London’s West End. Bernadette McCabe, EVP at CineLife Entertainment—which distributes the “Live from the Artists Den” series, based on the Emmy-nominated series of the same name—does not believe, however, that the return of live music content will negatively affect the performance of music-based event cinema, so long as the musicians chosen for a silver screen outing have the fan base and are willing to help promote the event. The demand, simply put, is high enough to sustain both big-screen and in-person musical programming—both, she argues, providing a far better experience than sitting on one’s couch.

Trafalgar’s Frueh, too, pushes back on the assumption that the return of concerts necessarily means a diminished interest in their big-screen equivalent, arguing that event cinema can serve as a “backfill” for a tour that’s sold out or can’t play in enough locations to satisfy demand. “The other situation that we look at oftentimes when talking to management is, they’ll say, ‘We’ve wanted to tour to Australia, but we’re not really sure if we have an audience there and if it’s going to be commercially viable.’ What we can do is test that and be able to reach those countries where there is a question mark about whether the band really does have a fan base that can support touring.”

Looking at the back half of the year, it’s not just concerts but blockbusters themselves that are set to return en masse, with major studio releases scheduled to debut nearly every week between August and December. Though Fathom’s Nutt is unconcerned about competition for screens—”As I talk to our exhibitor owners and affiliates that we distribute content to, they’re just saying, ‘You bring us good content, and we’ll find a place for it’”—he does admit that Fathom is being “very, very disciplined” about the content they’re picking up.

The waters, as Freuh notes, aren’t smooth yet, with the global exhibition market lacking the stability it enjoyed in the waning days of 2019. The key for Trafalgar in navigating the coming months is that “We have to be agile and flexible,” she says, as well as cooperative in how they work with exhibitors. “Quite honestly, we’ve got reduced screen space, we’ve got touring that could stop again, we’ve got territories opening and closing. We have to figure out, how do we adapt quickly to be able to serve the end user, which is the customer and the client?” Compared to pre-pandemic times, Freuh notes that the bulk of Trafalgar’s marketing work for each individual title now begins weeks later than it otherwise would have. “This is in part due to cinemas working towards shorter ticket on-sale periods to monitor changes to Covid guidelines and capacity restrictions, but also to protect us and our marketing expenditures in the event of additional closures, especially internationally.”

“Flexibility” is the mantra for CineLife Entertainment, which over the last 16 months has offered several titles—including Sopranos Sessions: A Special Theatrical Triple Feature—to exhibitors hungry for new content. Now, with content no longer thin on the ground, the goal over the coming months is “maximum flexibility [so that exhibitors can] book when they have time,” says EVP Bernadette McCabe. “Instead of giving them a very narrow window of, ‘It has to be on this day,’ we’re saying, ‘Here’s a longer window. Let us know what works for you.’” After all, she says, “We’re all in this together.”

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