Firstrun screenings have become events

Can kung-fu fighting monks, cave screenings and feral, caged Santa Clauses save the movie biz?

Exhibitors sure hope so. Around the globe, theaters and distribs are fighting competition from new media by turning firstrun screenings into the kind of events one expects at a theme park or state fair.

London’s Future Cinema, set to hit New York and Paris next year, draws up to 17,000 people for its surprise Secret Cinema screenings, with a troupe of actors mingling with the audience in environments staged to match the film. Alamo Drafthouse flew a real-life “Iron Man” with a custom jet pack above one of its theaters on the film’s opening weekend. Microdistrib Variance Films enlisted local comedians for 10-minute warmup sets and post-screening Q&As for its comic doc “American: The Bill Hicks Story.”

Though indie films can often make their biggest profits via one-night or weekend event screenings, one stumbling block to this approach, notes filmmaker and “Think Outside the Box Office” author Jon Reiss, is that news outlets usually won’t give crucial reviews for films booking less than a weeklong run. Another is that box office for these runs usually isn’t tallied by Rentrak or other tracking services, which can handicap filmmakers looking for ancillary deals.

To date, most event screenings have centered on ingenious revivals, such as Alamo Drafthouse’s Rolling Roadshow programs, including a “Jaws” screening for audience members floating on inner- tubes in a lake. They partnered with New York City-based Rooftop Films to present “The Godfather, Part II” in the same Little Italy neighborhood where it was set.

“Studios are petrified about piracy, and in an outdoor environment, that’s a little bit harder to control,” says Alamo Drafthouse founder Tim League, who was able to overcome concerns for his preview of the spelunking thriller “The Descent” in a real Texas cave.

“It’s very easy to secure a cave,” he explains. “There’s only one entrance.”

There are other creative ways to keep films contained: Secret Cinema staged “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” inside an abandoned U.K. hospital.

Firstrun distribs are starting to program event screenings for some new releases. Future Cinema founder Fabien Riggall, who staged the public “people’s premiere” of “Watchmen” with 60 actors amid London tunnel replicas of the film’s sets, is in discussions with a major studio to screen an unreleased Oscar contender in London next month.

With its cult following, the outfit can charge up to $55 dollars a ticket without even naming the films being screened in advance — only a request for audience members to wear appropriate attire geared toward the film to be shown.

Aside from an occasional cryptic image published with media partner the Guardian, Secret Cinema events aren’t advertised — just announced to some 120,000 email newsletter subscribers, 100,000 Facebook fans and 18,500 Twitter followers.

Riggall says his Secret Cinema events can cost £100,000-£200,000 ($157,000-$315,000) to stage — he plans to bring the screenings (which run from a night to nearly three weeks) to Los Angeles and San Francisco in the near future, although he wouldn’t divulge n box office revenue.

Aside from presenting live concerts, ballets and other events via their 15,000-screen theater network, NCM Fathom teamed with Summit this month for “Twilight Saga Tuesdays,” one-night-only screenings of the first three “Twilight” films with behind-the-scenes content and footage unseen in theaters, all to build more interest in the new “The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn — Part 1.”

For the release of Guy Maddin’s “My Winnipeg,” Canadian distrib Maximum (now eOne) arranged for Maddin to provide live narration at select screenings, including an Images Festival event featuring $40 VIP seating with gift bags. Charlotte Mickie, eOne exec VP, sees an opportunity for distribs to use gift bags, live performances and other incentives with a higher ticket price, citing Canada’s Open Roof Festival as staging successful summer-long events with this strategy in partnership with Canadian distributors.

Not all films need big promotion budgets, giveaways or higher ticket prices to create must-see event nights. Variance Films was able to bring in monks to demonstrate kung-fu moves at the New York and L.A. opening of its doc “Shaolin” for nothing more than free screening tickets for their temple, plus a chance for the monks to pass out flyers and get website/e-blast promotion for their school.

Other low-cost Variance events have included air-drumming contests at a doc on the subject (“Adventures of Power”) and bringing the composer of experimental doc “General Orders No. 9″ into cinemas to perform a “3D augmented score” live.

Distribs such as Monterey Media, Cinema Purgatorio, Canada’s Films We Like and the U.K.’s Dogwolf, as well as venues like L.A.’s Cinefamily, also make events a regular part of their business strategy.

Some filmmakers are taking a hybrid approach, with event preview screenings before an official opening. Reiss notes that the parenting comedy “The Best and the Brightest” enlisted stars such as Amy Sedaris and Kate Mulgrew to appear at a few of the 200 screenings in 24 cities/venues before its official opening, grossing between $600 to $2,600 per screening in 50/50 or 70/30 splits (most for the filmmaker) with theaters after expenses.

Such hooplah is far from new in the film biz. In the 1930s, Depression-era audiences were lured to theaters for a “Bank Night” cash lottery, and weekly “Dish Night” tableware giveaways. When the economy rebounded after WWII, theaters faced another scary threat — television — leading them to develop gimmicks like 3D, Cinerama, William Castle-era vibrating seats (“The Tingler”), floating glow-in-the-dark skeletons (“House on Haunted Hill”) and Smell-O-Vision to lure audiences from their sets. Today’s exhibitors face the double challenge of a bad economy and new media (VOD, videogames and online distractions) siphoning audiences away.

Perhaps no one in the business is reviving the gimmick era better than Alamo. The 10-theater Texas-based chain (with new venues set for Denver and Austin) serves food and booze with every firstrun film.

The Lamar theater’s parking lot housed a 40-foot-tall, fire-breathing robot for “Transformers” opening weekend, buried four contestants alive to watch “Buried” in their own private coffins, staged an all-day “summer camp” for “Freddy vs. Jason” and provided lobby photo-ops with a caged Santa at the opening of “Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale.” On the dining front, they hosted a Rocky Mountain oyster-eating contest for “Your Highness” and offered a Harry Potter-themed menu when “The Deathly Hallows Part 2″ unspooled.

These mainly homespun setups typically cost no more than $1,000-$2,000; price for the scary Santa promotion was $500. But Drafthouse worked with Paramount’s marketing department to offset the cost of the Robosaurus for “Transformers” (pricetag roughly $25,000), as it does for exhibits with most event films that have “superfans.” The “Buried” stunt ended up costing $8,000-$9,000, and while the distrib didn’t cover any of the low-budget film’s promotion, and the film failed to score big box office, League is just pleased the studio’s legal department didn’t halt the live burials.

“I don’t think there’s a quantitative way to analyze” how much the promos add to their theaters’ grosses, League says.

“We look at it in terms of what our identity is as a company. It’s part of our marketing and branding strategy — we want to be known as the theater that’s run by fans for fans, and sometimes that means doing some things that don’t make sense for the bottom line.”

“If the most important moment of the year for you is the new Harry Potter film opening, you want that day to be special,” League explains. “If you’re just going to serve somebody an overpriced Coke and popcorn and turn on the projector and show people some ads and show the movie, that’s not special enough.” n

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