Cinematic For The People

Published in Billboard Magazine

 

By Lars Brandle

When the Rolling Stones roll into London, it is always a hot ticket. April 2 was no different. The great, the good and the ugly of British celebrity ranks, including Oasis frontman Liam Gallagher, posed in front of the venue for the paparazzi.

The room was whipped into a frenzy when the group strutted into view onstage. But there were no instruments in sight. Instead, for 90 minutes, the action was all onscreen. A riveted crowed watched the European premiere of the Stones’ concert film “Shine a Light,” directed by Martin Scorsese, which was beamed in high-definition (HD) and surround sound to 100-plus cinemas nationwide. 20th Century Fox chairman Jim Gianopoulos hailed it as “a bigger premiere than that for ?Star Wars’ and ?Titanic’ combined” based on butts-on-seats.
Audience applause in the film could hardly be distinguished from the cheers generated by the living, breathing movie theater crowd. “It felt like being at a Rolling Stones gig,” one satisfied guest said.

Welcome to the live experience that is cinecasting, where the potential for artists to connect with fans is seemingly limitless.

The Stones have joined a growing list of acts finding a new outlet for their music?in the comfortable seats of movie theaters. An increasing number of top-drawing acts are exploring the opportunities for extending the experience to fans who can’t, or won’t, make it to an actual concert.

Reunited prog rock act Genesis embraced the concept in June 2007. Through a partnership with European cinema chain Vue and Dolby, the band’s sold-out D?sseldorf, Germany, concert was beamed into more than 40 U.K. cinemas.

“It worked very well for us,” Genesis manager Tony Smith says. “It has huge potential, the more cinemas that get their digital setups right.” The D?sseldorf event happened as a result of the September 2005 launch of the Queen and Paul Rodgers DVD “Return of the Champions” (Hollywood Records). Vue played the DVD at a selection of its cinemas under the “Larger Than Live” banner.

“Once we’d decided there was an opportunity, I made a call to Tony Smith,” London-based Vue sales and marketing director Mark de Quervain says. “And we spent four to five months planning this live broadcast.” To further test the boundaries of the technology, Genesis’ high-quality digital vision and 5.1 surround sound audio was mixed live by the band’s producer, Nick Davis.

“We had no infrastructure. This was the first satellite broadcast we did,” de Quervain says. “So we installed satellite dishes on the cinemas, we engaged a satellite company, got all the decoders needed, then we had to train projectionists on how to synchronize sound with vision when it comes off the satellite. We tested the hell out of it, so when we did the live event it looked and sounded truly amazing.” Cinecasting, Smith says, is a great opportunity for acts that don’t want to play many live dates.

Attendance for Genesis’ U.K. cinema screenings topped 8,000, with venues ranging from 50% capacity to sellouts, according to Smith.

“In terms of a revenue earner, it wasn’t a factor for us. It was more a promotional value,” says Smith, who will use the knowledge gained from the D?sseldorf project when the band takes part in a cinecast Q&A at the end of May, in support of a DVD documenting the 2007 tour.

British alternative rock trio Muse used this kind of campaign in March to promote its CD/DVD package “HAARP” (Helium 3/Warner Bros). Footage from the band’s June 16-17, 2007, Wembley Stadium shows, documented on “HAARP,” was cinecast to 21 Vue theaters, attracting a near sellout across participating multiplexes.
“Fans want new experiences all the time, not just going to the concerts,” Muse manager Anthony Addis says. “This is one way of doing it. And it worked, which was a great plus for us.” True, the box-office revenue generated won’t cause anyone to drop their popcorn just yet. Tickets for the Muse screenings cost just ?10 ($20), comparable to the price of a movie in Britain, and a fraction of what the band would command for a live show?tickets for the actual Wembley gig cost ?37.50 ($74). But many cine-goers would have been reliving that live experience, and indications are that they will revisit. In addition, according to Vue’s survey of guests as they leave the theaters, many will also pay for other products.

“Our research shows that almost everyone who goes to these events will buy the DVD or the Blu-ray, and an album, even though they’ve seen it,” de Quervain says. “So we’re actually increasing the ancillary revenues.” Exposure from the premiere certainly seemed to help push the featured attraction: “HAARP” shot to a No. 2 opening on the Official U.K. Charts Co. (OCC) albums list, shipping silver (60,000) in the process. The Stones also made a No. 2 debut with its double-CD “Shine a Light” (Polydor/Universal) on the OCC’s April 13 chart, selling more than 23,000 copies.

“Because we’ve got a limited number of sites and seats at the moment, the money is [only] OK,” de Quervain says. “This is about exposure, outreach, marketing and giving people a great experience.” Without a template to work from, cinecast deals are struck on a case-by-case basis. With Muse, Vue took 100% of the box office, generating up to ?30,000 ($59,000) in revenue. Others, like the Genesis cinecast, saw revenue split 50/50 between the chain and the band.

“For Warners we estimated the media value to be in excess of ?100,000 [$200,000] for the cinema promotion alone, and in addition they received the use of our Leicester Square site for a premiere event,” Vue new business manager James Dobbin says.

“Warners didn’t have a big marketing budget so this was a clever way of achieving coverage for next to no cost. They were really happy with it and we’re talking to them about different artists from their portfolio.” Other marquee acts that have made the transition from the stage to silver screen for cinecast events include David Bowie, David Gilmour, Kylie Minogue and Take That. Many in the industry are confident cinecasting could have a golden future. EMI executive chairman Guy Hands?whose Terra Firma company owns Europe’s Odeon/UCI cinema chain?has already announced his intention to explore synergies between the two businesses.

Julie Borchard-Young has watched the evolution of cinecasting from up close.

A former Sony Music executive, she was involved in a promotional event built around Bowie’s “Reality” (ISO/Columbia) album in September 2003. Bowie’s concert at Riverside Studios in Hammersmith, West London, was digitally simulcast in 5.1 DTS digital surround sound into cinemas in the United Kingdom, Denmark, France, Germany, Italy, Norway, Poland, Sweden and Switzerland.

Borchard-Young and her husband Robert?co-executive producers on the Bowie project?have since tackled a slew of grand projects through their New York-based company BY Experience, including two Gilmour satellite-fed events from London in September 2007, which captured the range of cinecast possibilities: a live performance, Q&A session and playback of Gilmour’s “Remember That Night” DVD. BY Experience delivered the events live across Europe, the United States and Canada.

“What I recognized as a record company exec was, particularly [for] superstar artists, there’s a need to reach a number of markets around the globe but in limited time,” Borchard-Young says. “That’s where this event concept was born from. A special event?particularly the launch of a DVD, CD or tour?gives all the parties involved in making any of those pieces come to life, a rallying point around which to promote and market the artist.” This emerging business is crossing into other markets. In Britain, Vue is experimenting with stand-up comedy and sport cinecasts, while BY Experience, which oversees the distribution of the Metropolitan Opera live to theaters on both sides of the Atlantic, has achieved some jaw-dropping results with opera. Its “The Met: Live in HD” series is expanding from six transmissions last year to eight in 2008 (see story, page 29).

While the cinecast infrastructure is still in its infancy, the numbers in Europe are starting to stack up, with an estimated 150 venues equipped to handle satellite-fed, HD digital broadcasts.

The Vue chain’s 62 U.K. cinemas are fully equipped, with an average 240-seat capacity, meaning a total capacity of 14,880 seats. And with tickets ranging from ?10 to ?25 ($20-$45), a middle-priced stub has a potential gross income worth ?223,000 ($245,000), if all its cinemas participate and sell out. Put simply, one cinema chain in one market can handle an arena-sized spillover for people who can’t get to the gig.

The United States, meanwhile, is home to 4,600 digital screens that can provide the highest resolution for simulcast events, according to Patrick Corcoran, director of media and research with the National Alliance of Theater Owners, the lobbying organization for the major exhibitors. He also says that there are an additional 20,000 that could still show simulcast events, although not at the best resolution available.

“It will be taking off as there is more penetration of digital cinema,” he says, and “as it becomes more economic and more technically feasible.” Sometimes a cinecast reaps its rewards well after the actual event, via a digital-quality video recording. Widespread Panic beamed its sold-out May 9, 2006, concert at Atlanta’s Fox Theatre?in support of its “Earth to America” (Sanctuary) release?to 115 Regal/Edwards/United Artists cinemas nationwide, selling some 60,000 tickets.

“We did it for promotional reasons and got a video out of it,” says longtime Panic agent Buck Williams of Progressive Global Agency. The “Earth to Atlanta” two-disc DVD was released in November of that year. Asked if the cinecast was profitable, Williams replies, “We made money if you count the video sales.” In the States, performers ranging from Garth Brooks to Korn to Celine Dion have set up cinecast events. One of the leaders in the sector is NCM Fathom, a division of National CineMedia, which first cinecast Korn in 2002, handled the U.S. theatrical broadcast for Gilmour’s “Remember That Night” project and partnered on the Metropolitan Opera U.S. series.

VP Dan Diamond says all areas of the music industry approach his company to host events?everyone from the artists themselves to concert promoters and labels.

“It doesn’t replace the live experience, but it does complement it very well,” he says. “The sound is tremendous, and there’s not a bad seat in the house. [Cinecasting] ignites the community to go see the live performance.” Cinecasting also presents an opportunity for an act to market its wares to a mainstream audience. Cinecast trailers can run on conventional screens and any participating chain’s Web site.

With U.S. prices ranging from $10 to $25, seeing a performance in a movie theater is a way for a fan to connect with an artist without plunking down serious cash for a concert ticket.

“The Korn fan comes to movie theaters and brings their parents,” Diamond says. “And then with the Met, people bring their kids. We get an audience exposed to music that didn’t have a strong affinity towards it prior to seeing in the theater.” Cross-fertilization will play a role in cinecast, Corcoran says, adding that some movie studios have a music wing that needs promotion.

“Universal and Sony have music interests, and they’re going to be competing for some of that [screen time] with themselves,” he says. “There are going to be mixed feelings.” AEG Live CEO Randy Phillips says the attraction of cinecasting goes beyond theater box office.

“It is less about how many fans actually are able to see the broadcast itself,” he says, “than the two weeks of intensive in-theater advertising that [cinemas] trade for this unique programming on slow nights like Sunday, Monday or Tuesday.” In fact, Vue has immediate plans to create two music events each month. “We will always primarily be about movies,” de Quervain says. “But in the times when we’re less busy, music cinecasts really invigorate the market.” All the market needs now is a tipping point?a blockbuster event or artist who can make cinema gig-going a mainstream activity.

“The dream ticket last year would have certainly been Led [Zeppelin] live from the O2,” de Quervain says. “Every cinema company we work with from around the world had this as their dream ticket too. In one go, this would have sold 100,000-200,000 tickets in cinemas for a live show or delayed live. The event would have also helped to spur cinema companies into installing the technical infrastructures needed to take live music, so it would have jump-started the industry into quickly adding many more screens.” But, while the industry waits for such an event, others warn against moving too far, too fast.

“There’s bucks to be made, but you have to take care,” Borchard-Young says.

“It would be a mistake in digital cinema if everything is thrown out there.

Then it ceases to be special.”

— Additional reporting by Ann Donahue in Los Angeles and Ray Waddell in Nashville.