Who needs Hollywood? A healthy new revenue stream is growing for the theatrical exhibition industry. It's coming not from studio suites and backlots but from the more rarefied realm of high art.
Indeed, while the domestic motion-picture box office may be down 21.4 percent year-to-date, and the major studios on the verge of playing havoc with release windows, the market for alternative programming shown in movie theaters — everything from opera to Broadway productions — is burgeoning.
In 2010, theatrical presentations beyond just movies generated $112 million for the exhibition industry, a 51 percent uptick over 2009, according to Screen Digest.
"We think this is an historic moment in terms of alternate content in movie theaters," said Dan Diamond, VP of National CineMedia's Fathom Events, which presents hundreds of special events in a digital broadcast network of nearly 1,400 movie theaters around the U.S.
Driving the market: the rapid adoption of digital projection technology, with exhibitors hurrying to keep pace with the demand for 3D films. And it's that digital technology that's allowing theaters to expand their program offerings.
In addition to opera, which has drawn sellout audiences to movie theaters for the last five years, recent weeks have seen capacity crowds showing up in movie theaters around the country not just for live productions from New York's Met but for a major Danny Boyle play from London, and orchestral concerts from Los Angeles featuring wunderkind conductor Gustavo Dudamel with help from actors Orlando Bloom, Malcolm McDowell and Matthew Rhys.
Indeed, as theater companies, symphony orchestras and opera companies fight the continuing effects of the recession, high-definition movie-theater broadcasts of their work have hit a new high:
>> London's National Theatre is in its second season of bringing its productions to movie theaters worldwide, currently with Boyle's acclaimed production of "Frankenstein." The production (pictured above left) showed last week with Jonny Lee Miller as Dr. Frankenstein and Benedict Cumberbatch as the monster; a second screening on Thursday (postponed until next week at the Chinese 6 in Hollywood) finds the two actors swapping roles. (National Theatre photo by Catherine Ashmore.)
>> "Memphis," the reigning Tony winner for Best Musical, is about to become the first current Broadway show to broadcast a complete performance in theaters around the country. Another hot Broadway musical, "Fela!," had its London production broadcast as part of the National Theatre Live season in advance of its national tour, while the "Les Miserables" 25th anniversary show last November was enormously successful in movie theaters.
>> The Los Angeles Philharmonic just showed the second concert in its inaugural season of "LA Phil Live," a Tchaikovsky program featuring the orchestra's music director Dudamel. One more HD transmission, broadcast live from Walt Disney Concert Hall to more than 400 theaters, is scheduled for June.
>> The Rave Motion Pictures theater circuit has joined forces with Emerging Pictures to present live and pre-recorded cultural programming, much of it from European opera and ballet companies like the Gran Teatre del Liceu, Teatro Alla Scala and the Bolshoi Theater and Ballet.
>> And of course, there's the New York's Metropolitan Opera, in its fifth season of bringing its productions to theaters. Since it began in December 2006 with Julie Taymor's production of Mozart's "The Magic Flute," its reach has grown from fewer than 100 screens in its first season to more than 600, almost all of them sell-outs. By 2008 close to a million fans were attending the screenings, more than come to an entire season of theatrical performances.
The current season, which ends in May, includes 12 different productions, from "Lucia de Lammermoor" (above) to "Nixon in China," including two of the operas in Wagner's Ring cycle.
Diamond told TheWrap: "The objective from the beginning has been to create unique experiences in movie theaters and transform the theater environment into a local community performing arts center. And we've been growing significantly in the performing arts category."
Besides the Metropolitan Opera and Los Angeles Philharmonic (with Dudamel, left), Fathom also presents special events from outside the realm of high art, including pop music that ranges from Bon Jovi, the Black-Eyed Peas and Eric Clapton's Crossroads Guitar Festival to an upcoming special screening of "The Grateful Dead Movie"; documentaries including "My Run," the story of a 57-year-old Terry Hitchcock, who ran 75 marathons on consecutive days, followed by a Q&A with Hitchcock; and sports, from mountain biking to UFC title bouts.
Others have experimented with the concept as well — including Sony Pictures, which launched the "Hot Ticket" series and has staged special events that include performances of Cirque du Soleil, the musical "Rent," and singers Celine Dion and Kenny Chesney.
In other words, it's not all high art — but it's bringing people into theaters that might otherwise sit empty, and theater, classical music and opera is playing a key role in that.
"You'd be surprised at how many tickets we sell to these events," said Rick Butler, the chief operating officer of the Fandango ticketing site. "The Metropolitan Opera screenings are consistently among our best-selling alternative programming at movie theaters … and it’s exciting to see folks lining up at the multiplex for Puccini and Donizetti.”
Typically, arts programming occupies time slots during which theaters are likely not to be crowded: midweek nights and weekend mornings.
For a theater, a full house for the opera is not taking the place of what would be another well-attended screening; it's bringing in a couple hundred popcorn-eating, soft-drink buying patrons who otherwise wouldn't be coming at all, to fill an auditorium that likely as not would be empty or sparsely populated.
A key to the success of arts content on movie screens, added Fathom's Diamond, is that promotion costs are small for the events, which typically cost more than a usual movie ticket but significantly less than a concert or theater ticket. (A usual price for one of the events at a Los Angeles theater is around $20.)
"The bottom line is that a demand for an arts community exists around the country, so you get grassroots, community-based support for these programs," said Diamond. "And that's critical because if we had to spend thousands of dollars in P&A expenses, it would render the model unaffordable."
Diamond declines to break down how the revenue is distributed from onscreen arts programming, but the money is divided between Fathom, its creative partners and the movie theaters. "It's profitable for us and the theaters and the operas and other content providers," he said, "as evidence by the growing number of programs."
Profitable? Not so fast, say representatives from a couple of arts organizations who describe their participation as more outreach than income.
"It should come as no surprise that this is not a moneymaker for us," said Chris Ayzoukian, the director of special projects for the Los Angeles Philharmonic (with Gustavo Dudamel, above). "It's very much an effort to create more access to people who can't see the orchestra otherwise."
The LA Phil signed a sponsorship deal with Rolex to defray some of the costs of the production, which is typically handled by the orchestra or opera or theater company.
The National Theatre in London signed a sponsorship deal of its own in its second year, but National Theatre Live associate producer Emma Keith says "we still don't make much" from the programs.
"There's a high cost of doing these broadcasts, because we don't really have the in-house facilities for them," she told TheWrap. "We have to bring in freelance cameramen, a video director, special makeup and lighting people who can advise us about working with HD … There's a significant cost to it, so we're not making lots of money for the National Theatre at the moment."