Exibitors add opera, concerts, sports to the off-night mix

After a slow start, French exhibs are finally embracing alternative content.

One of France’s biggest cinema chains, UGC recently announced it will show operas in 16 theaters across France, kicking off Nov. 4 with Verdi’s “La Traviata.”

UGC will unspool 10 operas — half in French, half in Italian — once a month on Thursday, for a premium rate of €28 ($39). There will be repeats in five theaters every Thursday.

UGC acquired the rights to the operas directly, without going through a third-party distributor, and it partnered with bookstore chain La Fnac to sell tickets.

“We picked Thursday because it’s usually an off-peak day and we want to demonstrate to film distributors that this diversification of programming doesn’t hurt film exhibition,” explained UGC’s general director Alain Sussfeld. “We’re never going to show anything but films on Fridays and the weekend.”

While France is Europe’s digital pioneer with a record 1,523 screens, it’s been slow to embrace alternative content.

Up until recently, CielEcran was the only provider of such content in Gaul. The group, which is now owned by Europalaces (Pathe-Gaumont’s cinema chain), started distributing live concerts, sports and opera four years ago to roughly 110 theaters in four circuits — Kinepolis, Europalaces, Cap Cinema and Cineville.

Now CielEcran is going global, says general director Marc Welinski.

In addition to its pacts with the New York Metropolitan Opera and the Paris Opera, the company has acquired rights to Russia’s Bolshoi Ballet and will beam content from all three to some 300 screens in Europe, the U.S., Japan, Australia and South Africa.

“Alternative content is part of the future of cinemas: Not only does it bring a small but significant part of revenues, it also widens the access to product,” explains David Hancock, senior analyst and head of film and TV for media research firm Screen Digest.

But Gaul’s indie distributors have been fierce opponents to the trend.

“It feels like we’re being forced to shoot ourselves in the foot by financing 75% to 85% of the digital conversion of French theaters, which might eventually decide to show things other than films,” says Eric Lagesse, co-prexy of Dire, a network of independent European distributors.

In May, Gaul’s third biggest cinema chain, CGR, launched Cote Diffusion, its own distribution company specializing in alternative content.

CGR general director Jocelyn Bouyssy says Cote Diffusion has deals with 30 independent exhibitors, as well as leading arthouse circuit, MK2, which will start showing “The Barber of Seville” in four theaters in April or May.

The company has just signed a deal with British opera, ballet, music and theater distrib Opus Arte for 14 operas, and is in negotiations with the Vienna Philharmonic.

Last year, alternative content screenings grossed $100 million worldwide, and Screen Digest expects it will generate $526 million, or 2% of the box office, by 2014.

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