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August 1, 2011

Movie theaters screening digital alternatives

PABLO ROBLES Bow-Tie Cinemas in West Hartford offers specialty screenings of events such as Stephen Sondheim plays
Bloomfield 8 Cinemas offers alternatives such as weekend morning programming Kidtoons to attract patrons during the off-times of the movie theater business cycle.

Connecticut’s movie theaters have found alternative ways to make money.

Concerts, ballet, opera, Broadway shows, sporting events, video games, one-time screenings of specialty titles — the state’s theaters experiment with just about anything that can fill their many seats, particularly during traditionally slow times.

“We want to generate product that gets people out, particularly in the middle of the week,” said Bud Mayo, CEO of Digiplex Destinations, which operates the Bloomfield 8 Theater. “One of the ways to get them busier is to know the audience and play things other than Hollywood movies.”

The hole in the movie theater business model has long been weekday nights. Cinemas fill up on the weekends for Hollywood blockbusters; but on Mondays, Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays, screenings of the same movies bring far fewer people to the multi-plexes.

Instead of targeting the same crowd during the week and hoping a few stragglers buy enough tickets, popcorn and soda to generate a profit, Connecticut’s cinemas are enticing new groups of people by screening events they could only see otherwise by traveling to far-off places.

Colorado-based National Cinemedia Fathom offers a variety of alternative programming to theaters around the nation, including the Buckland Hills 18 IMAX in Manchester, the Branford 12 Stadium, the Connecticut Post 14 Cinema De Lux in Milford, and the North Haven 12.

The NCM Fathom programming has included the ballet “Giselle” streamed in 3-D from Russia, four William Shakespeare plays streamed from London’s Globe Theatre, an opera series including “Madame Butterfly” from the Metropolitan Opera in New York City, and live sporting events in 3-D such as soccer’s World Cup and the Wimbeldon tennis finals.

“It was a challenge to generate awareness for this type of programming,” said Michelle Portillo, NCM Fathom spokeswoman. “People are catching on finally.”

NCM first started offering alternative programming in 2002. By 2005, it was streaming 15 events per year. By 2010, that grew to 74 events in 600 theaters across the nation.

The movement has gained more momentum in the last couple of years after more and more movie screens have been converted to digital. More than half of all movie screens nationwide are now digital, said Patrick Corcoran, director of media and research for the National Association of Theatre Owners.

With 3-D and live streaming, theaters can screen events in new ways, Corcoran said. The ticket prices for these events tend to be higher than most movies — the Shakespeare showings cost $15 in Connecticut — but people get to watch events they otherwise couldn’t have seen.

“People are surprised they can see something for $18 that would cost them $60-70 to see in New York,” plus the travel cost, Corcoran said.

Because of digital streaming, movie theaters can screen anything that can be digitized, including live broadcasts of sporting events such as college football bowl games and concerts such as Foo Fighters and Phish. Cinemas no longer rely on the much more expensive process of shipping in reels of film and setting them up in a projector.

Niche programming — such as the “Tekken Blood Vengeance 3D” video game event on July 26 at Buckland Hills IMAX — doesn’t need to attract a huge crowd to be profittable, said Jeremy Devine, vice president of marketing for Rave Motion Pictures, which operates the Buckland Hills theater.

“The economics of running alternative content has gotten to the point where the concept is going to get a lot bigger,” Devine said. “It is beyond its infancy, and it has a lot of room to grow.”

The economic model of alternative programming gives theaters a lot more options to experiment, and slowly build audiences.

Bow-Tie Cinemas in West Hartford started offering live screenings of Stephen Sondheim plays. The theater also offers live concerts and specialty cinema events such as “Life in a Day,” which is a feature length documentary compiled from 80,000 YouTube users who shot video of what they did on July 24, 2010.

Alternative programming “basically takes times and days that you normally wouldn’t be busy,” said Joe Masher, chief operating officer for Bow-Tie, which has 18 locations in five states. “It is still a very small part of the business, but it is growing steadily.”

To reward Bow-Tie patrons, the company lowered all its ticket and concession prices by 10 percent for the summer running June 17 to Sept. 8. The reduction was meant more as a reward to loyal customers but is expected to increase attendance.

The Bloomfield 8 Cinemas drastically increased its alternative programming after Digiplex Destinations purchased the theater in March. In addition to opera and ballet, Bloomfield 8 started branching out to find other crowds, such as trying to create a comedy club atmosphere and offering Kidtoons, which is Saturday and Sunday morning programming catering to children.

The aggressive move to alternative program was inspired, in part, by Bloomfield 8’s recent success showing Bollywood movies, which are produced in India. The Bloomfield vicinity sports a large Indian population, and Bollywood screenings were popular years before Digiplex bought the facility, Mayo said. The Indian movies even generated cross-over appeal for the American crowd.

Bloomfield 8 is particularly searching for the older audience underserved by Hollywood movies. The theater started dedicating one screen for independent film and is finding new programming for that crowd, Mayo said.

To cater to this alternative crowd, theaters offer concessions beyond the normal fare. The snack counter features items such as coffee, espresso and biscotti.

For screenings of sporting events, Rave Motion Pictures offers food stands at its locations, much like the food carts at sports stadiums. The idea is to give fans the same experience as a game. Mayo wants to get permits to allow fans to tailgate outsideBloomfield 8.

Adding beer, wine and alcohol to the concession stands is trickier in Connecticut. The state’s liquor laws make it hard to get a license when there is another license holder nearby. Rave Motion Pictures isn’t pursuing a license for its concessions stands in Connecticut, but Mayo said he is looking into it for Bloomfield 8.

Whether alternative programming means a revival for the theater industry remains to be seen, Corcoran said. Building new theaters or re-opening older ones — such as the several closed down Showcase Cinemas around Greater Hartford — often depends on how well the other theaters in the area serve their customers.

The number of movie screens throughout the nation has remained stable while the number of theaters has decreased, Corcoran said.

Digiplex Destinations was founded in 2010 as Mayo saw an opportunity in the theater industry as the digital transition made for cheaper and more varied programming. The purchase of the Bloomfield 8 in March gave the fledging company three theaters and 19 screens. By the end of the year, Digiplex hopes to have a total of 11 theaters.

Digiplex’s goals call for 1,000 screens at 100 locations in the next three years, Mayo said. Staying ahead of the alternative programming curve will help the company become a market leader as more and more theaters realize the benefits of finding other ways to fill seats during down times.

“We are doing it as a tiny company with big plans,” Mayo said. “The industry should be catching up in a few years.”

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