The loyal audience that arthouse cinemas rely on is the older moviegoer. And more and more, with the specialty market on the wane, theaters are reaching out to their local communities with alternative programs.
One sure way to reach them is via classic programming. Based on the success of past ad hoc screenings of studio anniversary restorations like “Roman Holiday” and “Home Alone” in theaters, Turner Classic Movies (TCM) and digital distributor Fathom Events are rolling out a new series of Big Screen Classics for 2016, in hopes of grabbing senior as well as younger cinephiles who many not have seen the classics on view.
This year’s expanded year-long TCM Big Screen Classics series brings more classic movies to theaters each month – presented in the original aspect ratio with digital projection. Launched in January with Paul Newman and Robert Redford in “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid,” Big Screen Classics follows up on February 21 and 24 with four showings of John Huston’s classic Warner Bros.1941 film noir “The Maltese Falcon,” starring Humphrey Bogart as Detective Sam Spade, Mary Astor, Sydney Greenstreet and Peter Lorre, celebrating its 75th anniversary.
The mystery of the jewel-encrusted “black bird” will hit more than 650 screens across the country with commentary from TCM host Ben Mankiewicz before and after each screening (2 p.m. and 7 p.m. local time each day). TCM gets a lot out of this partnership, beyond revenue and brand-polishing. “A huge reason we’re growing the series,” said Genevieve McGillicuddy, VP of partnerships and brand activation for TCM in a phone interview, “is that it gives us fantastic reach, not only for our hardcore fan base coming out to see films they’re excited to see in theaters, but bringing friends and family, people who are not familiar with the movies, which is a great introduction fro TCM. It’s a fantastic awareness opportunity.”
Owned by theater chains AMC, Cinemark and Regal, Fathom Events is run by CEO John Rubey, an expert in digital events and pay-per-view programming. He has been expanding alternative digital programming in theaters, from anime and faith-based films to the Metropolitan Opera and National Theatre Live, usually for short runs of less than five days, plus music, video-gaming and sporting events like boxing, hockey, soccer and basketball. The recent Grateful Dead last concert pay-per-view in Chicago was huge as fans flocked to theaters to dance together as they did in concerts over three decades. Fathom’s biggest one-night event ever was the 12-screen BBC “Dr. Who” Season 8 premiere in 2013. Sharing red carpet premieres is an another emerging business.
Fathom and TCM had been releasing the odd DVD restoration title classics since 2012. Fathom makes it possible to take an event and “scale it across all of our owners as well as affiliates, so we can put in on all screens at once,” Rubey told me in a phone interview, ranging from 490 theaters up to 650 screens in 180 markets—a lot more than the standard top 50. Fathom acts as distributor and go-between for TCM and theaters, coordinating their marketing groups. Fathom has its own digital broadcast network, but also uses live streaming via Digital Cinema Distribution Coalition (DCDC) and hard drive DCPs, depending on the title. “There is a multi-generational audience outside of New York and LA,” said McGillicuddy, who rarely get the opportunity to see these films.”
The key for TCM was to create a theater event with content you can’t get at home, via behind-the-scenes commentary on how the movies got made from popular TCM hosts Robert Osborne and Ben Mankiewicz, who provide fresh pre-taped intros and outros for the showings. “Many people in the audience have ‘Jaws’ or “The Breakfast Club’ at home on DVD or VHS,” said Rubey, “but everybody’s got to come out and see it together. A whole generation never saw it on the big screen, and now they can see it digitally restored on a 2 or 4K cinema screen. That makes it special.”
While the average TCM demo is over 35, “The Breakfast Club” drew millennials, while “Jaws” scooped up all ages, from grandparents to their grandchildren.
Fathom takes some of the labor-intensive work of mounting these movies on a one-off basis in theaters off the studios. The economics are strong: they provide cost-effective marketing and distribution for classic films to a national audience and help the studios monetize their libraries by stimulating sales of homevideo classic titles. Fathom runs trailers in front of the movies and promotes them on radio via promotions as well as on social media. You don’t reach a young audience via newspaper anymore. Fathom often works with Tugg and SpectiCast as digital ticketing partners on smaller-scale events. “I went to see the James Bond movie and saw an ad for ‘Roman Holiday,'” said McGillicuddy. “We’re getting awareness in front of audiences. Many people out there love movies who haven’t checked out TCM.”
Fathom has forged partnerships and master license agreements with most of the studios as well as TCM and the BBC, though not all the deals are closed. “We’re in the service business,” said Rubey.