Theater owners adding alternatives to brighten exhib biz

Theater owners are hoping alternative programming can brighten the uncertainty in the exhibition biz — and sporting events are looking like the beacon of the business.

“The big breakthrough for the business will be trying to figure out how to broadcast sports effectively,” most notably by using 3D to juice the coverage up, NCM prexy-CEO Kurt Hall said.

Companies including Cine­digm and Screenvision are moving more aggressively into the business alongside longtime player NCM Fathom. Tuesday’s Foo Fighters concert was broadcast live and in 3D by Cinedigm to 88 locations.

From the Metropolitan Opera to lectures by Glenn Beck and an increasing number of rock concerts, alternative programming targeting a wide span of auds grew 50% from 2009 to 2010, according to Screen Digest. But the total gross for all alternative programming in the U.S. last year was a modest $112 million, equal to the gross of one medium-sized tentpole.

“There’s a huge indication that the public wants this,” said Cine­digm CEO Chris McGurk. “But no one’s really tackled it like a business.”

NCM currently dominates, with 40% of the alternative market share and 2010 earnings at $48 million from 74 events.

Those companies have been working to make events more commercial, capitalizing on built-in fanbases (e.g., those of the Foo Fighters for Cinedigm and the Met for NCM). Cinedigm is in talks with several indie distribs to coordinate a monthly indie film series, while according to Hall, his company is exploring options to establish a recurring live sporting event broadcast, such as boxing or football. NCM streamed the final four World Cup matches last year in live 3D.

Most alternative programming like the World Cup tourney has been done on a trial basis and meant to supplement empty theaters mid-week, which typically see only about 5% capacity from Monday to Thursday. “The primary focus has always been seat utilization,” Hall noted.

But according to Hall, “The biggest challenge of any alternative programming is creating awareness.” Those events aren’t able to support hefty marketing budgets, he said, so companies must rely on word of mouth and local advertising to entice audiences.

For the Foo Fighters concert, auds were targeted via a broad social media campaign, as well as coordinating with the music label to piggyback on the band’s new album, “Wasting Light,” which drops April 12. Event sold out screenings nationwide on Tuesday, including more than 2,600 total admissions from four locations in New York and L.A. Tickets for the event, which featured a live concert following a screening of docu “Foo Fighters: Back and Forth,” were priced at $20-$25.

Another company broadening its scope in the alternative arena is Microspace Digital Cinema, which distributes content via satellite. To date, Microspace has skedded 19 events for 2011, tripling its sked since its first outing in the alternative space.

The key difference between Microspace and companies like NCM and Cinedigm is the former acts as a technology enabler that doesn’t share in an event’s profits. Microspace has deals with 260 domestic theaters. Curt Tilly, director of digital cinema distribution for Microspace, said the company is currently in talks with NCM and Screenvision to distribute their content. “We’re talking with other providers to be a neutral provider,” he said.

Currently, NCM screens its content in a network of more than 600 locations; that count is expected to jump to 750-1,000 over the next few years, Hall said. Cinedigm plans to implement a more aggressive content strategy over the next six months. “The overall concept that we’ve always been operating under has been scale,” NCM’s Hall said. “This is a great incremental revenue driver for the theater owners, utilizing seats, time periods and screens that have not otherwise been used very well.”

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