Peter Gelb's experience in shepherding the world-renowned Metropolitan Opera House into movie theaters around the world counts among the highest-profile success stories in the nascent history of alternative content. Since its launch in December of 2006, The Met: Live in HD has broadened the reach and accessibility of opera through live transmissions of its performances. The Met has become a global leader in alternative content thanks to a project that could only have been realized through the spread of digital cinema. A program that began with under 80 theaters in North America is now an international enterprise that reaches 70 countries. BoxOffice spoke with Peter Gelb, general manager of the Metropolitan Opera, to discover how one of the world's premier arts institutions built a new revenue stream for cinemas through its niche audience.
How did the idea for cinema broadcasts of Met Opera performances come about?
It came about when I was appointed to my position as general manager in 2005. In that year, transitioning into the role, I spent a lot of time thinking of how to bring the Met to a broader public. The great challenge for the Metropolitan Opera and the art form of opera in general is figuring out a way of making it more accessible, how to reach more people, and how to find new audiences. From our start, we've utilized technology to broaden our audience base by integrating broadcasts; we've been a regular feature on national radio for more than 80 years. The Met was a pioneer in using media in the late '70s with public television broadcasts. In fact, in the late '80s I was producing those television shows. When I was appointed, I was eager to make use of my background in producing television and performing arts. Looking at the Met's historical success with the media, I really thought it was time to think of new ways of taking advantage of what was possible in this digital era. It seemed logical to bring the opera to movie theaters. I felt we had a built-in audience of millions of people across North America from our radio and public TV broadcasts. If even a small percentage of them would be willing to go to their local movie theater for a Saturday matinee performance, they could experience the event visually. That was the calculation behind our business plan: that we would have enough of an audience that would help cover the incremental cost of producing these programs for the movie theaters. It was an immediate success. We grew from our first transmission, where we had around 78 theaters for a production of The Magic Flute in December of 2006, to the point where now we're in 70 countries, more than 2,000 theaters. We are seen live on the West Coast of the United States; as far east as Jerusalem and Moscow; as far north as inside the arctic circle in Norway; and as far south as the southern tip of Argentina. Those are just live transmissions; on a delayed basis these programs are in time zones where we can't be live, like Japan, China, and Australia.
The idea behind it was to take advantage of modern technology. Whereas going to movie theaters isn't a new idea, the idea of transmitting live opera performances digitally via satellite is a new idea. Because of the improved quality of the cinema experience in recent years, the quality of the projectors and audio, those influences made this possible. It was also necessary to gain the support and agreement of all the various unions and artists at the Met. Our performers' lives have changed dramatically now that not only are they performing at the Met, but their faces can be seen on close-up in movie theaters all over the world.
The movie business is so heavily tied to the marketing business, with studios pouring millions of dollars into promoting their films. How did the Met approach the challenge of marketing alternative content?
It has grown in different places at different speeds. Sixty-seven percent of our movie theater audience is outside of the United States. Our biggest market outside the U.S. is Germany and Austria, where we're seen live on Saturday night. You can imagine how hard it is to get that time slot from theaters. In America it's relatively simple because [theaters] allocate a Saturday matinee. In Europe it's on Saturday night: prime movie theater real estate.
Our main commercial partner in the U.S. is Fathom Events. We also have direct distribution to about 90 independent performing arts centers who we distribute to directly. Then we have about 100 other partners outside of the U.S.; in Canada we have Cineplex; in the U.K. we have about 15 or 16 different competing movie theater chains; in France we have Pathé-Gaumont; we have a wide range of partners. We create marketing materials and, unlike movie releases, we don't spend a huge amount of money on average because we're basically appealing to people who like opera. We have a huge e-mail database and we notify them directly. We have hundreds of thousands of social media followers, a huge radio audience, and we also have a 24-hour digital channel on SiriusXM. With the help of Fathom, we get trailers into movie theaters. The amount of actual paid advertising is relatively little. It's a very small portion of our marketing effort.
You're very involved with how you package and produce these programs for movie theaters. To say it's just a camera taping a live performance is far from the product that your global audience enjoys.
I have a background in production, and my job running an opera house like the Met is very much a hands-on operation. Like managing a baseball team, you have to be involved in every aspect of it. I function as the executive producer of the Met content that reaches movie theaters. The reason why our programs are so well received is because they are produced by the Met itself; we don't bring in an outside production company. The stage crew that's working for the opera productions is also working for the HD productions. The artists who are performing are being engaged to perform for the audience in the opera house but also for audiences around the world. Opera is a bigger-than-life art form; it has more moving parts than any other performing art in the sense that a bigger orchestra on Broadway is maybe 10 or 12 players-we have 80 to 100 players in our pit. We have a chorus of 80-plus singers, we have dancers, huge casts, huge scenery. It's a mammoth kind of operation; it's a nonprofit art form that relies upon donors' generosity. The HD programs, however, actually make money for us. The idea behind them was to reproduce the experience on the big screen, and because opera is larger than life, it fits comfortably on that giant screen.