Not So Alternative Anymore: How 2 Independent Theaters Found Success with Event Cinema
Sarah Erlewine, the Michigan Theater, Ann Arbor, Michigan
Carol & Robert Sadlon, the Moviehouse, Millerton, New York
Moviehouse: The Moviehouse is located in Dutchess County, a beautiful, pristine area two hours north of Manhattan on the boarder of Litchfield County, Connecticut. We are fortunate to be in an interesting region populated by artists, writers, celebrities, and people in the performing and creative arts. The Met Opera was a pioneer in the digital delivery of opera in HD, and we felt we would have success with this type of cultural programming, which was slowly coming into the marketplace. We invested in satellite equipment to access the Met Opera Live in HD, the National Theatre Live, and the Bolshoi Ballet; with the digital access in place we now could market content beyond movies—concerts, plays, ballet, opera, and exhibitions.
Michigan Theater: We started National Theatre Live in fall 2009 with UMS, the University of Michigan’s University Musical Society, as a partner from the start. RSC Live started in 2014. We’ve only done a handful of programs without UMS, primarily what we call “eventized” film screenings, including having live director’s commentary from John Cameron Mitchell during a screening of Hedwig and the Angry Inch and a lot of sing-alongs. For what it’s worth, we don’t do broadcast opera—our market is saturated.
Moviehouse: Our first event screening was from NT Live via satellite. It was a fascinating experience screening Travelling Light, which is a play by Nicholas Wright, directed by the talented theater and film director Nicholas Hytner, (he also directed last year’s film The Lady in the Van). The play is a tribute to the Eastern European immigrants who became major players in Hollywood’s golden age—the experience was interesting because the audience was in a movie theater watching a play from London about the inception of film. In the beginning the audience was very small because event cinema was relatively new and most people were unsure of what to expect: Was it a movie? What does “live” mean? The talk-backs during intermission helped engage the audience in the experience, and we made a concerted effort to educate and explain the nuances of what we were offering. We made flyers with detailed information about the production, actors, plot, runtime, etc. We also used the key time during intermission to interact with our audience and create that sense of community and shared experience that event cinema offers. In time, with marketing and exposure to this new art form, the audience gradually became familiar with National Theatre; today it is one of our strongest programs.
Michigan Theater: Our first event screening was All’s Well That Ends Well; 450 people attended. We are in a fortunate position to have a partner organization to help offset the costs and to market the event. I highly recommend seeking out other like-minded organizations to work with, if at all possible.
BOX OFFICE IMPACT
Michigan Theater: The impact has been huge on our box office. We live in a very diverse town, so when you can have an event that touches lots of different audiences, I think that’s a huge win for us. And it’s more than just a financial win—sometimes we are so focused on right-fitting an audience to a movie that we forget that what we’re selling is a communal experience. People are really appreciative that we bring this kind of programming here, making these one-of-a-kind productions accessible both geographically and financially.
Moviehouse: Event cinema has had a positive impact on our revenue and has broadened the audience to include people who might have diverse interests other than films. In time, it has led to an increase of approximately 14 percent in gross revenue without putting a dent into movie attendance. Historically movie theaters have been the community “campfire,” where people gathered to experience the pleasure of the shared experience; incorporating the cultural events into our programming has further enhanced the concept of the theater as the community gathering place. We believe what is currently called “event cinema” is the natural evolution of the contemporary movie theater. The digital conversion of movie theaters has made this evolution possible.
Michigan Theater: The sing-alongs do really well for us. We pay more to the distributor, but we earn more. Plus, they bring in a multigenerational audience. Our sing-along audiences grow every year.
Moviehouse: From the beginning NT Live has been number one because of the varied type of productions the National Theatre presents, from experimental new plays to classic Shakespeare. The Met Opera and the ballet are also strong. A new genre that we have been nurturing is called Exhibition on Screen; it takes the audience into blockbuster museum exhibitions for an in-depth look at the art exhibition led by museum professionals—to learn about curating the exhibits, art conservation, and, most interesting, the lives of the artists themselves. It began in 2012 with London’s National Gallery exhibition called “Leonardo Live” and continues today with exhibitions from the great museums of the world such as the Prado in Madrid, the Uffizi Gallery in Florence, MoMA, and the Tate in London.
Michigan Theater: I don’t think [marketing event cinema] is a challenge, necessarily—it’s about reeducating your audience regarding the kind of programming you offer. We’re lucky in that we’re also a performing arts center, so people are used to non-film programming here. We market the series (in the case of National Theatre Live and RSC in HD) as much as we market the individual titles, playing up the exclusivity of the programming.
Moviehouse: Unlike movies, which are marketed by our distributors with national campaigns that we can tag onto, event cinema requires grassroots promotions. The most important way to reach the audience is building an extensive e-mail list supported by a strong website and social media. In theater, promotional materials, posters, flyers, guest speakers who moderate talk-backs are all important aspects. The event-cinema audience wants and expects interaction in the theater. Cross promoting special events with arts organizations in our region is also a valuable relationship—to help promote and stimulate interest in the many choices available to today’s audience. Setting up radio interviews with cast members, directors, producers—and then posting these interviews on your social media. We have a chronological PDF of all events available for download from our website for our audience who want to save the date for events they don’t want to miss. Engaging your audience during the 15- to 20-minute intermissions is a great opportunity to nurture the relationship. Event cinema is an “event,” and patrons should be nurtured. Carefully training staff to interact with and inform patrons about the upcoming schedule is critical.
TOP PERFORMING TITLES
Moviehouse: Just like we have blockbuster movies, there are blockbuster events. Early on in 2013 Helen Mirren gave a breathtaking performance as Queen Elizabeth II in Peter Morgan’s extraordinary play for the National Theatre, The Audience. In addition to the live satellite showing, we did 14 captured-live screenings. Following the tremendous global success of The Audience, it was booked for a theatrical run on Broadway starring Helen Mirren. After the Broadway run was finished it was offered back to theaters in 2015 and had an unprecedented second successful run. The same thing occurred with War Horse, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, One Man Two Guvnors, and Skylight. The most sought-after ticket last season was Benedict Cumberbatch in Shakespeare’s Hamlet. Danny Boyle’s dazzling production of Frankenstein, first released in 2011, is now an annual seasonal favorite. It is gratifying to hear our audience say they saw it first at the Moviehouse before Broadway. Likewise, the Met Opera and the Bolshoi have had many successful productions and many loyal fans. We consider the Moviehouse to be a portal to world-class performances from fantastic stages worldwide.
Michigan Theater: Hamlet with Benedict Cumberbatch (3,000 tickets sold for two performances) and Frozen Sing-Along. Recognizable marquee names certainly help increase audiences.
TIPS TO EXHIBITORS
Michigan Theater: Don’t get bogged down on how you do things from day to day. These events are generally for fun, so you should have fun with them. How can you make them special and tailored to your community? Our job as art-house exhibitors is to provide an experience that a film-going public can’t get at the multiplex. So what can you do to show that in a special event, and to show that year round?
Moviehouse: Analyze your audience profile and your market demographics, do the research with exhibitors who have experience and are willing to share. The world of event cinema is in its infancy but already it is broad, diverse, and global. Exhibitors should do careful research to find their niche, as every market is different. Joining a trade organization like the UK-based Event Cinema Association, which has a U.S. office, is a good idea. You will have the opportunity to connect with distribution and exhibition internationally as well as analyze actual numbers for what works in theaters throughout the world. Event cinema also includes socially conscious documentary films followed by live or Skype Q&A’s, concerts from classic rock—Grateful Dead, Beatles, Rolling Stones—to contemporary music, lectures, and readings. As access to event cinema evolves, sports and gaming will continue to grow. Event cinema requires special attention to the details and the audience; it takes time and consistency to find and retain the audience—so promote, educate, and communicate through all channels at your disposal.