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Alternative Content at the Movies: Experience High-Brow Entertainment at Your Local Theater

The other day, while looking up showtimes for my fourth viewing of The Avengers and deciding whether it was worth seeing again in 3D (if you’re wondering, it was), I noticed an online advertisement for a screening of Frankenstein, the award-winning play that ran for several weeks in 2011 at the National Theater in London.

Stage theater at the multiplex? Consider me intrigued. Like most moviegoers, I’ve seen the advertisements for opera and other non-movie entertainment play on the big screen before a film starts. And, probably like most moviegoers, I generally ignore them.

Benedict Cumberbatch and Jonny Lee Miller, the two leads in the National Theater’s ‘Frankenstein’

Benedict Cumberbatch and Jonny Lee Miller, the two leads in the National Theater’s ‘Frankenstein’

But here was an event I actually wanted to see. My obsession with BBC’s Sherlock was escalating, and Sherlock Holmes himself, Benedict Cumberbatch, was playing a leading role — two leading roles, in fact, alternating each night as the Creature or Victor Frankenstein with costar Jonny Lee Miller.

Frankenstein is just one of many events that distributors like Fathom Events and Cinedigm bring to movie houses. In addition to stage plays, cinemas also screen alternative content like opera, ballet, drum corps competitions, music concerts, sports games, children’s cartoons, and classic films, just to name a few. While most of these events are pre-recorded, many are broadcast live to movie theaters around the country, such as the regular season of the Metropolitan Opera.

In the case of Frankenstein, Fathom Events was bringing both versions of the casting to my local theater over two nights in June. And seeing as the stage run is finished and there are no plans to make a DVD, this was likely the only chance a U.S.-bound viewer like me would ever get to see the production.

Naturally, I went to both events. Besides enjoying the experience, I was also introduced to a world of alternative content at the movies that I had never given notice to before.

In an era of high-definition home theaters and endless hours of entertainment available streaming through Netflix and YouTube, alternative programming is one way in which theaters hope to attract more people to the cinemas. Most of these events are screened on weekdays, when ticket sales from films are low and seats need to be filled. Plus, such programming is easier and far less expensive to distribute now that digital prints, as opposed to reels of film, are more common.

Opera at the movies: Fancy clothes and binoculars not required.

Opera at the movies: Fancy clothes and binoculars not required.

For consumers, alternative content provides an opportunity to see events one might otherwise never experience. Opera is a popular series; tickets for broadcasts of the Met in 2011 sold out months in advance. And though you lose some of the magic by watching on a screen instead of live, it’s still great to be able to attend, say, a high-brow theatrical production for a reasonable price and in the comfort of your blue jeans.

However, opera aside, the attendance at these events can be lacking. Neither of my screenings of Frankenstein attracted enough people to fill even half the theater — and it seems I am not the only one to experience such small audiences.

Much of the blame arguably lands on the shoulders of marketing. Unfortunately, companies like Fathom and Cinedigm are limited in the amount of promoting they can do; according to the Las Vegas Review-Journal, Fathom cannot hang banners or posters in movie theaters because “the film studios would be unhappy” sharing that advertising space. Only being able to show these events on weekdays doesn’t help attendance, either. Add in some technical difficulties here and there, and it’s clear there are still issues to iron out.

Despite all this, the market for alternative content in movie theaters is growing. Non-movie entertainment made $112 million for U.S. theaters in 2010, up 51 percent from 2009, and is experiencing varying degrees of success in other parts of the world. And given how rapidly digital screens, which make the distribution of these events possible, are spreading across the globe — an estimated 63 percent of worldwide movie screens will be digital by the end of 2012 — the stage is set for alternative programming to take off.

If that means more weekday trips to the movies for performances like Frankenstein, I’m game. It was great fun watching a stage performance I never thought I would see, and I’m sure I’ll take advantage of the opportunity again. Who’s with me?

Have you ever seen alternative content at the movie theater? If so, what was your experience like? If not, would you ever consider it? What else can these distributors do to attract your interest?


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  1. Eric

    Stephen Sondheim’s “Company,” complete with an all-star cast, was shown in this fashion. I think it’s a terrific idea, especially for folks who’re hoping to see a Broadway show, but can’t get to New York City, or even Broadway in Chicago. It’s much, much affordable, and could give SUCH a larger audience to some of these shows that otherwise remain relatively unknown to the general public.

    You know, too, I’ve heard the movie-going experience is a lot more refined over in England, and much more of an experience. If it still is, I’m unsure, but I remember a friend in high school saw a film while she was there and it was entirely unlike what we’ve, here.

    At any rate, I think this is a terrific way to bridge the gap between the movie-going crowd and theatre patrons. And get a hell of a better view than you would from the balcony.

    Great post, Rachel!

    • Rachel

      Totally agreed about how great it is that broadcasting these shows expands the audiences for them — whether that’s Broadway, or performances from across the pond, or anywhere else. And it’s absolutely more affordable! My Frankenstein ticket cost just a few dollars more than a regular movie ticket. Not to mention the thousands of dollars I didn’t spend flying to London and back. 🙂

      “And get a hell of a better view than you would from the balcony.” — Very true. Though you do view the performance differently than you would live, since your eye is being guided by the camera instead of being free to view the stage in full. Also, for Frankenstein at least, I read that they made a few minor cuts to the production for the recorded version, and there’s not as much nudity in the recorded version as in the live one — since this is Amurr’ca and all. 🙂 All that being said, I’d still gladly take a recorded version (with a great view, you’re right) over no version at all!

      Thanks for the comment, Eric! Glad you liked the post. 🙂

      • Eric

        Interesting you bring that up – that simply by the camera having to select what we seen, how we see, and when we see it – we lose those decisions we have as audience members. Two people can see two entirely different shows, and – true – selective focus or omission of a reaction, etc…is not only a visual choice, but a storytelling choice, too. Somewhere in the world, a bunch of undergrad, film-student-hipsters are probably making this the topic of conversation.

        I think there’s a great power to this that we’ve not yet realized. On the right track, though, ‘Murica. 😉

  2. amy

    I’ve seen the ads for this “alternative content”, but I haven’t seen any that really interest me enough to go. I’m not a huge theater person, so it takes a lot (or someone else paying) for me to go, haha.

    I totally agree with your comment about there not being enough marketing for these events. There’s been a few plays that I know my grandparents would really enjoy, but as soon as I leave the theater I forget about it. It’s a shame they can’t put up posters or banners in the lobby or on the doors as people leave 🙁

    A very interesting post, Rachel!

    • Rachel

      I hope you do find something that interests you — it was a fun experience! From my understanding, a lot of these events also include behind-the-scenes featurettes and that sort of thing, to make it even more special. Frankenstein, for instance, showed a roughly 10-minute mini-documentary with the director and writer before the show, with footage from rehearsals and stuff. I thought it was pretty cool, especially since I wasn’t expecting it.

      And I agree, it really is a shame about how little marketing there is for these things. I guess you just have to go to a ton of movies until the alt-content ads are ingrained into your brain, hah! 🙂

  3. Jen

    What a great concept, I think the movie theaters have the right idea here. I’ve seen the previews for operas, ballets, sporting events, and concerts, and like you, I didn’t pay too much attention to them. I guess I just didn’t think going to see one of these events at the movie theater was a good idea, but it totally could be. If there is a Broadway musical I really wanted to see, it’d be much less expensive seeing it in the movie theater. Plus, who knows if I’d ever get to NYC to see it! Thanks for the great info Rachel!

    • Rachel

      It really is a great idea, especially when they are events you just couldn’t ever see otherwise, whether due to distance or cost or whathaveyou. I wish there were even more stage theater options! But unfortunately there are also cast/crew contracts, legalities, and other various issues that keep these things from happening.

      Thanks, Jen! 🙂

  4. Mandy Kilinskis

    I have seen some alternative content at the movies! I love theatre and Broadway, so these events are right up my alley.

    My friend and I went to see a recorded version of Rent‘s final performance on Broadway. For being short on cash, this was definitely a great way to see one of our favorite shows. I recently saw a recording of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Love Never Dies (a never-asked-for sequel to Phantom of the Opera). The show was awful, but the HD viewing of a musical was stunning.

    I wish they could get through the red tape and show a lot more Broadway shows. I want to see about 80% of the shows on Broadway right now, but as I don’t have unlimited vacation days and/or funds, this would be a great way for them to reach fans like me.

    Basically, I’m a big fan of the alternative content. I hope that they can find some more creative ways to market themselves! 🙂

    • Rachel

      Ooh, it would have been great to see Rent. And sorry that the Phantom sequel sucked, haha. At least it looked nice on the screen!

      I wish they could show more Broadway shows, too, but alas, there are so many rights issues and other hoops to jump through. I get Fathom Events’ email newsletters now, though, so I’ll keep an eye out for other theater stuff that you/we might like. 🙂

      Here’s hoping for more alternative content and better marketing strategies in the future!

  5. Jenna Markowski

    I don’t know what kind of movie theaters I’ve been going to, but I’ve never seen an ad for anything like this. It sounds pretty neat! It seems like a great way for theaters to fill seats during the week. I don’t know if I’d pay to see opera or a Broadway musical (unless it was the new Spice Girls musical), but I could totally get behind watching a concert! (One that isn’t Justin Bieber, the Jonas Brothers, or Katy Perry, of course.) 🙂

    • Eric

      I second that motion, Jenna. Hollywood? Put some legitimate – emphasis on “legitimate” – musicians up on that screen! Save the teeny-bopper pop stars for Disney-produced films.

      • Amanda

        Jenna!!! I’m shocked! You and I are Beliebers, remember? =)

    • Rachel

      They do lots of cool stuff besides theater and opera, so I’m sure you could find something! It looks like there’s a documentary-concert-mashup thing for The Who happening in July … and Fathom did a bunch of other concerts earlier this year, too. Anyway, point being, concerts are definitely a regular inclusion in the schedule of events for these things. 🙂

      And I would totally go see the Spice Girls musical at the movie theater too, haha … 🙂

  6. Jana Quinn

    I’m with you!!

    I’ve seen the ads for Fathom Events as well (only the Met operas as far as I can recall), and I, too, have dismissed them. But if they would bring Broadway or West End productions into my local theatre, I’d absolutely sign up.

    With your points, I understand completely why movie theatres want to fill their weeknights up with this type of alternative content. Also, the movie studios claim an insane percentage of the opening weekend profits of movies (and less and less as the weeks roll on), which is why movie theatres charge so much for popcorn and soda; that’s where they make their money. It wasn’t a surprise, then, that you noted the studios also hate sharing advertising space.

    Thanks for the tips on the other types of performances that are available through these special screenings. I hope people realize how awesome those opportunities are and make it worth the theatre’s while to screen them.

    • Rachel

      Great point about the movie houses making most of their money on concessions. I’m not sure what the profit breakdown is for these alternative content events, but either way, that’s still more people coming to the theaters who might want to buy a tub of popcorn. 🙂 I can’t find the article now, but I also read somewhere that some theaters go all out with the opera live broadcasts and serve the kinds of foods and drinks that would be available at the opera houses, and people dress up for the occasion, all that stuff. So that’s another way to make some revenue, too, with the specialty concessions.

      I hope more people take advantage of these events, too! They are great opportunities for movie houses, the distributors, and consumers. Win-win all around, in my opinion. 🙂

  7. Jeff Porretto

    FOURTH viewing of the Avengers? How long ago was this written?! =]

    While I can’t say I’m interested in live theatre (Hmmm, unless Kate Beckinsale is doing something. Then I’m all in), it is obvious to me that if it wants to be successful, just like any other industry it must create a demand, and get its message out there. I think these “Broadway Broadcasts” (copyright ME just now), are a WONDERFUL idea. But WHY haven’t I even heard of them?? I can’t get out of the way of Justin Beiber ads, but this actually interesting, innovative medium wasn’t even on my radar. Sigh…

    • Rachel

      Haha, well, I’m only up to 6 viewings now! That’s not so bad … right? 🙂

      Yeah, the marketing isn’t great for these things, which is probably why you haven’t heard of them. And I’m sure you could find some fun things to see, even if you don’t care for theater: for instance, there have been lots of concerts, including for The Who, Grateful Dead, Rascal Flatts, Chemical Brothers, Linkin Park … and that’s just all from Fathom Events that happened or are happening this year. There was a Foo Fighters concert at some point too. Shoulda jumped on that! 😉

      But anyway, I’m glad that alternative content is at least on your radar now. Thanks for commenting, Jeff! 🙂

  8. Amanda

    I haven’t seen much advertising for alternative theater content either. =( I hope they can boost their advertising somehow and get more people on board with this. I’d absolutely watch things other than movies! Great blog topic, Rachel!! =)

    • Rachel

      I hope they can boost their advertising, too! I suspect alternative content will only become more common in the coming years, given how many movie theaters are switching to digital. Glad you liked the article, Amanda! 🙂

  9. Jill Tooley

    I can’t wait until one of these shows actually interests me, so that I can go to see it! Alan makes fun of me, but I love the idea of seeing operas and plays. Since I don’t like going to shows all by myself, I think this alternative content could give me a chance to see one without braving the big city all alone.

    I’ve seen a few Rifftrax Live shows at a theater in my area, and they were totally worth it! 🙂

    • Rachel

      I hope you find something that interests you! It was a really fun experience; I’m looking forward to finding another event I want to see. 🙂 And you’re right, it’s such a great opportunity to see content that might otherwise require a lot of hassle and stress to attend live, especially if traveling by yourself. I’ve never seen a Rifftrax show — those are the Mystery Science Theater people, right? It seems that they’re doing another show in August … maybe I’ll look into it. 🙂

      Thanks for commenting, Jill!

      • Jill Tooley

        Holy crap, you’d love Rifftrax! Yes, it’s some of the guys from MST (Mike Nelson, Kevin Murphy – the voice of Crow, and Bill Corbett – the voice of Tom Servo). They do switch around the cast for the actual Rifftrax recordings (Weird Al was on there once), but those three usually do the live shows together. I laughed so hard at the last one that I couldn’t breathe! You should definitely check out their next one (for Manos). We’re going to that, too! 🙂

  10. Jack@Theater binoculars

    I like this post. I’m tired of seeing movies every weekend – need something new to switch things up and these are some good ideas. Thanks!

    • Rachel

      There are a lot of fun non-movie alternatives out there from distributors like Fathom Events — definitely worth trying out if you’re getting tired of movies and are looking for something new. 🙂 Thanks for stopping by and commenting, Jack!

  11. Derek

    I am the CEO of a company that distributes alternative content to theaters and was really interested in this blog when I saw this. We started by delivering orchestral performances to senior living centers – to people who couldn’t otherwise get to a theater. It was so uplifting that we got into the distribution business and we serve over 300 theaters now. We distribute content like “Phantom,” “Love Never Dies” and “Company” to smaller theaters and smaller chains as well as everything from film festivals to rock concerts to opera and ballet. The problem with the marketing is the cost relative to the size of the market. We really can’t do nationwide advertising because the cost is too high. But the content we have is truly great and really worth seeing. You can see it at our website We are trying to find ways to reach out to people who like this kind of content through alternative means. Social media is the primary culprit, but it is hard. For the smaller theaters it is also hard to get the word out. If you have ideas about how you would like to know if this kind of content is at a theater near you, I would be very interested in hearing about it. We provide services to performing arts centers and school auditoriums as well. Keep up the great blog. If you see content on our site that interests you, we can tell you if it is playing at a theater near you.

    • Rachel

      Thanks so much for stopping by and commenting, Derek! I can imagine how difficult it is to promote something like this when funds and available advertising space are so limited. You mention social media — that was my first thought regarding reaching out to people and raising awareness. I’ve heard good things about the effectiveness of Facebook ads, too, if you’re pointing back to a page that offers valuable content. Fathom Events, after I first saw their advertisement on my local theater’s website, kept my attention because of their newsletter signup — so I am frequently reminded of their offerings via email, even if I’m not actively seeking out alternative content.

      Those are a few of the things that have worked on me, anyway. 🙂 I wish you all the best in spreading the word about SpectiCast — I’ll surely keep it in my radar from now on! Thanks again for stopping by, Derek!

  12. Derek

    Thanks for the reply Rachel. Fathom was spun out by a conglomerate of commercial theaters as a way of monetizing their advertising revenue. Because they have equipment in the three largest commercial theater chains, they have more access to resources and more theaters in which to show content. Over 80% of Fathom revenue is from advertising. We work with the smaller chains, independents and alternative venues all across the country. None of our revenue is from advertising. I like the idea of the newsletter signup and we will see if our theaters will allow us to do that. Best.

    • Rachel

      Yeah, definitely a huge difference in advertising revenue! I hope you find some other inexpensive ways to get your name out. All the best to you as well!

  13. Stephen Saylor

    Our organization just upgraded to digital projection and are interested in alternative content but I cannot seem to find a list of vendors. Specticast, Fathom events any others? It all seems so variable in the terms of services and gate fees, we hope alternative content will help us smaller theaters. Any advice would be a great help.

    Stephen Saylor
    Bradford County Regional Arts Council

    • Rachel

      Thanks for stopping by, Stephen! Unfortunately I don’t have a list of alternative content distributors, though this Film Journal article mentions a few companies that might be worth a look. Sorry I can’t be of more help — best of luck in your search, though! Thanks again for reading. 🙂

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