TORONTO — Who would have thought that the hottest news on the movie scene this year would involve the world of opera?On Feb. 24, dozens of movie venues across North America found themselves playing to sellout audiences for the Metropolitan Opera’s simulcast presentation of Tchaikovsky’s “Eugene Onegin.” Thanks to Met general manager Peter Gelb and his initiatives to involve his org with conventional moviegoers, the concept of Metropolitan Opera Broadcasts being available to a wide audience has gone from dream to reality. Changes in the previously stringent union rules regarding upfront as opposed to post-perf payment made the program viable, and Gelb rushed in to take advantage of the new opportunities.
High-profile projects as far back as Eli Landau’s American Film Theater in the mid-1960s had proved that while prestigious presentations of upscale shows had a certain cachet, they didn’t necessarily translate into similar audience attendance figures. But, surprisingly enough, the Met initiative has generated a major bump in sales. “It’s been huge for us,” says Pat Marshall, vice president of communications for Cineplex Entertainment, the Canuck theater chain that inked with the Met for exhibition north of the border.”It was more successful than we ever thought it would be.” (In addition to Cineplex, the Met’s exhib deal is with National CineMedia domestically and City Screen in the U.K., the World Opera Project in Norway and Folkets Hus och Parker in Sweden.) “Peter Gelb had a vision that we sensed would be successful,” adds Marshall, “because it married the latest technical innovations with the realities of our specific markets.” Even in markets like Kenosha, Wis.; Pearl, Miss.; or Saskatoon, Saskatchewan; theaters participating in the program have been averaging close to 91% attendance. The success challenges many of the traditional preconceptions of what constitutes the market for opera or how it might transfer to a conventional film venue. “The actual idea first occurred to me when I was still working at Sony before I came to the Met,” Gelb says. “I had been entering into development for a worldwide distribution deal with David Bowie, and it made me aware of how complex but potentially rewarding the whole international digital market could be.” Gelb admits that the more flexible policy of performing arts unions like Actors’ Equity on such broadcasts was a major factor in allowing this vision to move forward. “It’s totally a matter of the right content being available to the right people at the right time,” he says.
How did this offbeat offering become the surprise box office hit of the usually dismal winter season? “It was a strategic public relations initiative, rather than a piece of paid advertising,” Marshall says. “We just let people know that we were offering them something out of the ordinary.” That strategy included showing trailers during select films that had an arty sensibility or a more adult appeal, as well as prominent posters in exhib lobbies. One of the amusing ironies of this enterprise is that it’s the high profile of professional wrestling that has enabled opera to become an added feature of contemporary moviegoing. “Five years ago, the WWE compelled us to put in the satellite equipment and digital broadcasting system that they needed for their shows,” Marshall says. “That’s exactly what’s made it technically possible for us to present the opera as well.” Simulcast screenings of major scale concerts from the likes of Bowie and Bon Jovi also have paved the way for Julie Taymor’s production of “The Magic Flute,” which began this series so successfully. “We’re creating a whole new model for how opera can connect to a wider audience,” Gelb says. “This is only the tip of the iceberg. “Never forget that it was 76 years ago when the Met pioneered the whole concept of broadcasting their operas on the radio. We’re just piggy-backing on that long-running success and taking it to another dimension.” There have been rumors about the success of this opera concept leading to Broadway shows, ballets, symphonies and other upscale cultural initiatives targeting movie theaters. Marshall admits that they’re open to all possibilities in the future. “Our theater complexes are becoming entertainment destinations,” she says. “Our goal is for you to arrive and see whatever content you want to see. Yes, our primary goal will always be film presentation, but we have these great pieces of real estate, so why not use them every way we can?”