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.
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.
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?