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CinemaCon: Exhibitors Search for Alt. Content to Fill Weeknight Seats

With 90% of the 40,000 movie screens in the U.S. now converted to digital and the worldwide rollout moving quickly, digital cinema might appear to be yesterday’s news.

But d-cinema is a hot topic again at CinemaCon 2014 because two major components of its ecosystem remain works in progress: alternative content to help exhibitors fill empty seats Monday through Thursday, and a robust, cost-effective electronic delivery system that can transmit content to theaters.

Alternative-content insiders say the market is in its infancy. “The future is vast and exciting to us,” says Shelly Maxwell, executive vice president of Fathom Events, which is co-owned by theater chains AMC, Regal Cinemas and Cinemark and cinema advertising firm NCM. “We’re just beginning to understand what works and what doesn’t.”

Understanding what works and why is vital for the search for the next big alternative-content hit. The handful of proven hits do offer hints about where content providers and exhibitors will look for future offerings.

One such hit in theaters is the Metropolitan Opera. Met Live in HD, is offered live on Saturdays, with recorded encore performances on Wednesdays — an unusual pattern for theatrical content. Fathom distributes Met Live, among other content, to 747 screens.

The Met has a long-standing, established fanbase around the country, thanks in part to radio broadcasts from the Met that date back to 1931 and TV/FM simulcasts that began in 1977. But the Met didn’t just have a fanbase, Fathom learned when it began working with the Metropolitan Opera in 2006; it had “an incredibly dedicated database of fans” nationwide, Maxwell says — and it knew how to reach them.

Maxwell says other drivers behind the Met’s success in movie theaters included the quality of the product and Fathom’s commitment to do a series of operas instead of just a one-off performance. Fathom also worked with the Met to give opera fans a look behind the scenes, with opera stars hosting the broadcasts and conducting backstage interviews and a pre-show audience address from Met general manager Peter Gelb.

Fathom’s biggest one-night event to date came from another long-running series with a built-in fanbase: a 3D broadcast of “Doctor Who: The Day of the Doctor,” the 50th-anniversary special of the BBC’s science-fiction franchise. “Day of the Doctor” sold some 320,000 tickets across 600 theaters and grossed $4.77 million on Nov. 25, 2013. The event included specially shot introductions and a behind-the-scenes featurette offering interviews with series actors Matt Smith, David Tennant and John Hurt.

In general, Fathom has had success with a variety of genres, both live and recorded (the current mix is 60% live/40% recorded) including concerts, documentaries on enthusiast sports like marathon running and cycling, as well as financial and political documentaries. Live sports such as simulcasts of HBO boxing matches have done well.

Alternative content requires targeting a new audience of senior citizens, singles and empty-nesters, who typically shun theaters on Friday and Saturday nights but are receptive to visiting the rest of the week if the right content is offered.

“You have to learn to be a marketer, which is not something that comes easily to exhibitors,” says Bud Mayo, chairman and CEO of Digiplex Destination. Mayo speaks about alternative content March 25 at CinemaCon. “Affinity groups” are also key, says Mayo, citing a recent documentary on nurses that drew a big turnout.

The other still-developing side of d-cinema, digital delivery, is also linked to alternative content. Feature films are shipped to most theaters on hard drives, much as film reels were shipped in the celluloid era, and that system doesn’t work for live content.

One new delivery network that might bring more such conent to theaters is the Digital Cinema Distribution Coalition (DCDC), a partnership of AMC, Cinemark and Regal and studios Warner Bros. and Universal Pictures that aims to use satellite bandwidth and high-performance “catch servers” installed at theaters to deliver films electronically. (Where satellite delivery isn’t feasible either due to venue or content issues, it will still ship films via hard drives or via fiber). The coalition has also signed Disney, Sony, Fox, Paramount and Lionsgate; exhibitors Southern Theatres and National Amusements are on board as customers.

The new equipment, which is being provided at no cost to exhibitors, launched at 1,200 venues representing 17,000 screens last fall. The coalition is “doing substantially better” with the rollout in 2014, says DCDC CEO Randy Blotky, who will appear on a CinemaCon panel to discuss such progress.

Delivering movies to theaters via satellite isn’t new. But Blotky says the DCDC server is unique for its storage capacity, redundancy and ability to seamlessly integrate with existing Theater Management Systems (TMS).

The server can simultaneously deliver four separate live HD streams to four separate movie screens and handle any kind of format including 3D and 4K. Blotky says the flexibility of the system could allow exhibitors to stage massively-multiplayer videogames across different screens, and even different sites.

“In terms of alternative content, you’re only limited by your own imagination,” Blotky says.

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