First it was a rock concert by Korn. Then came the Metropolitan Opera. And now boxing and live radio are being shown in cinemas across the United States.
Since 2002, movie theaters and chains have been screening or live simulcasting "alternative content" such as Grateful Dead concerts, Ira Glass' "This American Life" radio show, one-time screenings of film classics including "Casablanca" and the past six seasons of the Metropolitan Opera.
The screenings are delivered to theaters via satellite and shown on digital projectors.
Most have been well attended. That fact has not been lost on exhibitors who welcome the increased revenue while avoiding the hassle of relying on truck delivery of 35 mm prints for content.
"Digital cinema trans- mission is removing the barrier to entry to most movie theaters," said Patrick Corcoran, director of media & research for the national Association of Theater Owners. "Essentially, anything that can be broadcast can be sent to a movie theater, at this point."
In Sacramento, operas typically are screened at 10 a.m. to correspond with 1 p.m. curtain times in New York, and they've quickly sold out at some cineplexes.
In the United States, more than 27,000 screens now accept digital content more than two-thirds of its total screens.
When it comes to the distribution of digital alternate content, no company is dominating the market more than National Cine Media and its NCM Fathom Events division. NCM Fathom sends content to more than 700 theaters nationwide in a cinema chain network that includes Cinemark, Regal and AMC movie houses.
"We started this with a handful of theaters in 2006 that were technically equipped and a lot of research," said Dan Diamond, senior vice president of NCM Fathom Events. "What we found was that response was overwhelmingly positive."
The first such event was a 2002 concert by Korn. Soon after, 98 theaters came onboard. The screenings did not make their mark until 2006 and it came not from rock concerts but from the screening of a seemingly arcane art form: opera. It was in December 2006 that the first live HD simulcast from the Metropolitan Opera was shown with a production of Mozart's "The Magic Flute."
The simulcasts were the brainchild of Metropolitan Opera head Peter Gelb, who brought cross-platforming ideas with him when he migrated from Sony Classical to the company in 2005.
A month later the opera "I Puritani," with uber- popular opera diva Anna Netrebko, was simulcast.
Though expensive to produce, the screenings are now turning a tidy profit for the opera company, and theater operators are selling tickets and popcorn before noon.
Gelb said the screenings have elevated the art form and created a desire for regional opera.
That hasn't been the case locally, said Rod Gideons, general director of the Sacramento Opera.
"We can trace no increase in sales or attendance based on the HD broadcasts," he said.
Actually, he said, the broadcasts could have hurt the Sacramento company's attendance.
It also remains to be seen whether such screenings are a benefit to independent movie houses like the Varsity in Davis, which has screened San Francisco Opera productions as well as those from La Scala and other opera houses in Europe on Saturday mornings.
"Attendance was kind of borderline, at best," said Varsity owner Sinisa Novakovic.
Novakovic continues to make use of typically dormant times at the Varsity with recent events such as a ceramics conference and the screening of the indie documentary "Bicycle Dreams."
Although opera has been the most successful series for Fathom, interest is growing in other areas including musicals and sporting events.
Last year, Fathom presented 104 entertainment and sports events the most since it began the screenings a 41 percent jump over 2010.
Patrons flocked to see Andrew Lloyd Webber's "Phantom of the Opera" last year. Diamond expects robust crowds for its reshowing on May 21 and the screening of its sequel "Love Never Dies" on May 23, both of which will play on some Sacramento screens. (See details in accompanying box.)
"Weber has expressed significant interest in wanting to bring his shows from Broadway and London's West End to our theaters," said Diamond.
Another growth area is the screening of sports events, some in 3-D, such as last Saturday's live simulcast of "Ring Kings: Mayweather vs. Cotto" boxing match. That event was sent via satellite to 500 screens. The event signals Fathom's first partnering with HBO, which is offering it as a pay-per-view event.
"We are breaking new ground together," said Diamond.
At the root of all these screenings?
Money and lots of it. Not only do cinema houses and Fathom bring in revenue from what has been, typically, dormant times at cineplexes they also make money from advertising that is screened before each showing.
It was within the advertising model that the alternative-content idea was born.
"Back in 2002, we wanted to replace the trivia slides and dancing hot dogs that were being shown before films," said Diamond. "We wanted something more entertaining that would make audiences get to theaters more early and allow for incremental revenue generation."
The advertising revenue is no small matter. Cinema advertising is now shown on more than 18,000 screens in the U.S. The idea of advertising before film screenings is no longer new. Its use is growing in 2002 revenue from cinema advertising was $186 million. In 2010 it brought in $658 million.
UPCOMING FATHOM CINEMA EVENTS:
"Die Walküre: Met Opera Ring Cycle Encore"
6:30 p.m., Monday
"Phantom of the Opera"
Andrew Lloyd Webber
7:30 p.m., May 21
"Love Never Dies"
Andrew Lloyd Webber
7:30 p.m., May 23
Regal El Dorado Stadium Hills 14
2101 Vine St., El Dorado Hills (800) 326-3264
Century Folsom 14
261 Iron Point Road, Folsom (800) 326-3264
Century Laguna 16
9349 Big Horn Blvd., Elk Grove (800) 326-3264
Regal Natomas Marketplace
3561 Truxel Road, Sacramento (916) 419-0200
Century Roseville 14
1555 Eureka Road, Roseville (800) 326-3264
Sacramento Century Downtown Plaza 7
445 Downtown Plaza, Sacramento (800) 326-3264
Sacramento Century Greenback 16
6233 Garfield Ave., Sacramento (800) 326-3264
Sacramento Stadium 14
1590 Ethan Way, Sacramento, (800) 326-3264