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Event cinema has come a long way since Bon Jovi broadcast a live gig from London’s Shepherd’s Bush Empire to 14 cinemas in the U.K. and Germany on Sept. 18, 2002 — the first of its kind. Today, opera, theater, ballet, classical and contemporary music, comedy, television events and even museum and gallery exhibitions are broadcast to cinemas around the world. People in rural Swedish communities with as few as 150 inhabitants flock to see the New York Metropolitan Opera.

Estimates from industry body the Event Cinema Assn. and research company IHS predict the sector will account for 5% of global box office by the end of 2015, and could reach $1 billion in 2017.

In July, Picturehouse Entertainment’s “Monty Python Live (Mostly),” the final show of the comedy troupe’s reunion show at London’s O2, played live in 29 countries. Including recorded “encore” shows, it drew a worldwide audience of over 330,000 in more than 2,000 cinemas across 52 nations, grossing better than £4 million ($6.6 million).

In March, France’s Pathe Live scored a French record with a concert by local singer Mylene Farmer in week with no major movie releases. “We played in 200 cinemas across 500 screens attracting 101,000 people at €14 ($19) a ticket,” says Thierry Fontaine, general manager of Pathe Live. “That’s ($1.9 million) from one Thursday-night show. We spent (less than $20,000) on marketing.”

And while Broadway and West End musicals have largely been absent from the event cinema scene, “Billy Elliot the Musical” will screen live globally from London on Sept. 28.

In a tough year for movie box office, some exhibitors say events, a byproduct of the digital conversion of cinemas, in that programming is beamed in remotely, have been the difference between survival and closure. John Lewis, chief executive of Letchworth Garden City Heritage Foundation, which runs independent venue the Broadway, notes that event screenings have accounted for 18.2% of the Broadway’s film income this financial year, up from 8.5% last year.

Picturehouse director of distribution Marc Allenby says a like percentage of his company’s box office comes from such programming. “What’s remarkable,” he adds, “is that that 18% comes from such a small proportion of screenings.”

In Sweden, not only has the sector been a boon to rural cinemas, which struggle to book new film releases day-and-date with big cities, it also has enabled exhibs to take advantage of new revenue streams.

“A court decision said that when a cinema is screening opera or theater, it automatically becomes an opera house or theater, so legally, we can serve alcohol,” says Rickard Gramfors of Folkets Hus och Parker, which operates 170 cinemas in the nation.

Worldwide, while revenue splits for programming are similar to those of movies, the big difference for exhibitors lies in ticket prices. Lewis says Letchworth charges $25 for live screenings, compared with $8.30 for a midweek movie. Mark Rupp, prexy and chief operating officer of Philadelphia-based SpectiCast Entertainment, adds that exhibitors get anywhere from 30%-50% of the proceeds for events, depending on whether a show is live or a recorded encore.

Being both producer and distributor also has advantages. Pathe Live distributes Met Opera in France, the second biggest territory for New York’s Metropolitan Opera events behind North America, worth approximately $2 million a year in France. The Met receives half of gross box office, and exhibitors keep 40%, leaving Pathe Live with 10%. In contrast, Pathe Live produces events of Russia’s Bolshoi Ballet, and retains 60% of revenues. With event programming doing so well, the question for exhibs is how to grow the biz. It’s a topic that will be high on the agenda at the ECA Conference in London on Oct. 16. With the arts well plumbed, one area being targeted is live music. “There is real opportunity for a cinema release to be built into an artist’s promotional plan alongside a single, album and tour,” says Melissa Cogavin, managing director of the ECA.

Recently launched London-based distributor ScreenLive is working with artists’ management to build event cinema strategies. “Contemporary music has barely touched what it can achieve,” says Elizabeth Draper, ScreenLive’s head of distribution. “One of the benefits of event cinema is that you can tailor the footprint to what an artist is seeking to achieve in a very cost effective way,” she adds.

Globally, Draper says that China, other parts of Asia and Latin America, hold promise for expansion.

Cogavin is even more inclusive. “Event cinema is still an emerging market,” she explains, “so at the moment, everywhere has potential.”