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Highlights - 21/01/2011
Alternative content: the great invasion?
The growth of digital projection has been accompanied these recent years by the development of the “alternative" content offer. Here we take a look at these new practices from the point of view of a Czech distributor and a Slovak Network member cinema.
The success of the opera broadcasts from the MET is emblematic of the rise of “alternative” content on offer to movie theatres. Now broadcasted on over 1,000 screens in some forty countries, these seasons have led to other proposals by, among others, the Bolshoi or the Paris Opera. Beyond opera and ballet, cinemas now offer live music or sporting events, and even comedy shows or circus.
New companies have been launched on the market, such as CielEcran in France or Arts Alliance Media in the United Kingdom, and some exhibition companies have launched their own offer, such as Folkets Hus in Sweden or CGR with Côté Diffusion in France. The distributor Aerofilms (see our interview) is another notable example.
Live broadcasts of this content (now also available in 3D) require a significant financial investment, and it is mostly multiplexes that programme them on a large scale. It is not uncommon, however, to see arthouse cinemas also offering these transmissions. Within the Europa Cinemas Network, this is particularly true in the UK and in Czech Republic.
“Major commercial cinemas are very positive about the benefits of alternative content in terms of revenues and audience development, but many small, traditional, independent cinemas see it as a distraction from their core business, which is film,” says Catharine Des Forges, Director of the Independent Cinema Office*.
For the cinema, Alternative Content has the advantage of generating additional income (the ticket price is higher) and attracting new audiences, who may come back to watch films. They also improve the occupancy rate and, according to some, play an important role in giving a wider audience access to cultural content.
But they are not necessarily viewed in a favourable light by distributors. In France, the trade association DIRE which represents independent distributors, issued a statement pointing to the reduction in the number of screenings for films, despite distributors financing a share of the digital equipment via the VPF. The FNCF (National Federation of French Cinemas) tried to placate them by arguing that these events only represent a few screenings. This statement is confirmed by Europa Cinemas Network statistics: in 2009, 59 Network cinemas broadcasted alternative content, which constituted a very small share of their screenings. This debate, in France, was partly settled in January 2011 by new legislation on the broadcasting of performing arts.
According to Screen Digest, in 2009 alternative content accounted for 0.5% of the U.S. box office. Due to their advanced digital equipment, US cinemas represented two-thirds of this market. This proportion is likely to diminish in the coming years, with the U.S. market set to represent 48% of this new market in 2014.
Czech Republic – Interview with Ivo Andrle, Aerofilms, Prague
Aerofilms wears several caps. It starting in 1998 running the Aero, a cult cinema in Prague (and the first Czech member cinema in our Network), Aerofilms then took over the cinema Svetozor, also in Prague, and started programming various cinemas, as well as becoming a leading Czech independent distributor. The company has invested heavily in the development of digital expertise and participates in working groups at a national and European level. Aerofilms recently launched itself into the distribution of alternative content, not only in the Czech Republic but also in Poland, Slovakia, Slovenia, Hungary and Romania. They distribute the MET operas, the Ballet de l'Opera de Paris, the Russian Ballets, the Simply Red concert, etc.
How do you choose the alternative content you distribute?
At the moment, the offer is not so wide. There are currently only a few projects running and it is not very difficult to choose between them. But this is just the very beginning. We believe that, in the near future, the number of various projects and contents offered for live broadcast is going to increase rapidly. For us it is important to be present on this market from an early stage, in order to gradually build a functional network of cooperating cinemas and gain experiences with promotional, technical and financial sides of delivering alternative content to the audiences in various territories and circumstances. In the future, we would like to choose and focus on content that maintains the very high artistic and technical standards set by the MET in HD and other current successful projects. Also, it is always important to make sure that we can see the target audiences for each individual project clearly.
On what basis do you work with cinemas? Do you have criteria for selecting venues (technical or otherwise)?
Yes, the technical level of the cinema is important. Also, we like to choose cinemas that have been doing good job on local promotion of the regular films and therefore we believe that the management of the cinema is active and capable of organizing promotion for the alternative content as well. Sometimes, we cooperate with establishments that are not "cinemas" - drama theatres, symphonic halls, culture houses etc. This is usually in places when we are not able to find good local cinema with required technical equipment in a city. Another thing is the fixed costs for the cinemas (like satellite and technical fees etc.) that are usually related to each broadcasts - we do not want our cooperating cinemas to lose money, that is why we do not accept every cinema - sometimes we need to be careful about the strength of the local demand and not put too many screens in game in the same town or area.
Our relationship with the cinemas is usually based on sub-licensing terms and conditions - we are the local representative of the content broadcaster and our role is to make sure that the cinemas get full information on the deal, help them with the translation, publicity materials and marketing, as well as organizing the financial transactions between the cinema and the original content owner. For this, we usually take a small share from the box office of each cinema.
Do you think this content bring new audiences into the theatres?
Definitely, we started with the MET more than three years ago and since those days it has been a great surprise for us to see that the audiences are in more than 75 percent newcomers to the cinemas. They are people interested in opera, who are not necessarily cinemagoers. This is great news in terms of new possibilities for the cinemas to broaden their audiences.
How do you combine your role as an independent film distributor and that of a new content distribution business?
Actually, these past years it has been more and more difficult for us to successfully distribute films of "small or medium European arthouse style". Alternative content brings another type of activity that helps us to balance the whole company financially and to not lose our role in the market. Of course, at the same time, we are trying to find some new ways and strategies for releasing arthouse films. We definitely do not want to give this up, we just learned that the classic method of promoting and releasing these films doesn't work anymore and we need to redefine it.
In your opinion, what are the prospects of this market?
As I say above - I am sure that the alternative content market for cinemas, especially with regard to live broadcasts (when there is the special sensation of sharing the same moment with many people in cinemas around the world) is going to grow. It doesn't automatically means that future contents are all going to be of a high quality standard and/or financially successful, but I am sure that many cultural, sport and social event promoters will be tempted to try this and follow up the success of the first ones. And thinking in the long term, one should just accept the fact that various alternative content events are going to be fully incorporated into the regular programming of the majority of the cinemas around the world.
For now, we talk mostly operas, concerts, etc... Do you think that "alternative" content is a form that could also include more cinephile content which is more closely linked to the cinema business’ core activity, i.e. film?
I am not sure. I don't see that majority of the cinemas are going to focus on alternative content as the most important part of their programming. I think that the "regular" film content (especially if we include 3D content) is going to remain at the core of cinemas programming, also in the future. But, if we take a brief look at one of our cinema's programming for next Sunday, say: 5pm Live Ballet from Moscow, 10pm Live Simply Red show from London. All we need to do is switch the satellite dish direction on the roof in-between the two shows :)
Slovakia - Focus on the cinema Kultura in Ružomberok
With our interview with Aerofilms, we presented the point of view of an alternative content distributor. Here we take a look at a Slovak cinema of the Network, which receives alternative content from Aerofilms.
Kultura is a 204-seat, single-screen cinema located in a cultural centre in Ruzomberok, a town of 30,000 inhabitants in northern Slovakia. Thanks to the municipality’s engagement, it is the country’s first independent cinema to have been equipped with a 2K digital (and 3D) projector since 2009. With regard to feature films, the equipment is primarily used to screen American films, and public demand for 3D is strong. The cinema sees approx. 47 000 admissions per year (nearly half for 3D), which is a good figure for a single screen.
On 22 June, 2010, the cinema screened its first live alternative content transmission: the broadcast of the hard-rock concert The Big Four (Metallica, Slayer, Megadeth, Anthrax), which only attracted 66 spectators. Many potential viewers seemed to have preferred to see the concert in real life, when it took place in neighbouring Czech Republic. The live transmission of an opera from the MET, however, drew 103 spectators, some of whom came to the cinema for the first time. After the MET Opera screening, the management wanted to show a sporting event, which attracted a different audience. The result: the fans requested alcohol and cigarettes, which are forbidden in the cinema... Today the goal is to offer more modern music and to work on the promotion of these events.
Ticket prices are set by the supplier between 12 and 16 euros, and the cinema ends up getting between 30 - 40% of the box office. But even if these special events have more to do with entertainment than with film, the reservation is still made with cinema, and not through an online booking service.
Live Cinema Events
Folkets Hus och Parker
Arts Alliance Media
Nathalie Baranger, Emily Boldy, Markéta Colin-Hodouskova, Jb Selliez - December 2010 - January 2011
Images: Kino Aero, Kino Svetozor, Ruzomberok, The Big Four