Event cinema: a growing pot of gold

As more and more big movies falter at the box office, UK cinemas have found a very welcome fresh revenue stream in the likes of Fleabag and Hamilton.

There’s a lot of doom and gloom when it comes to conversations about the state of the UK cinema market. With few exceptions – 1917 the most obvious recent one – movies that aren’t animated, sequels, franchises, based on something pre-existing, or a combination of all of those are struggling to break even.

Film studios are reducing the number of films they’re willing to put into cinemas, because, simply, more of us are opting to watch anything but the biggest releases at home. It’s got to the point where a studio such as Paramount has now decided to co-produce Beverly Hills Cop 4 as a Netflix project, rather than aim for a big cinema release.

Yet beyond the headline figures, cinema exhibitors have been looking elsewhere for fresh ideas. And in the world of ‘event cinema’, they might just have found it.

The main events?

Event cinema is a broad umbrella term that covers watching productions beyond just a new release in a moviehouse. The highest profile event cinema has been the Secret Cinema line, where over the past few years you can pay around £50 to watch the likes of Back To The Future, Casino Royale, The Empire Strikes Back and most recently Stranger Things in an environment that recreates that of the film or show. You have an ‘experience’ of sorts, pay for some expensive drinks, then sit down to watch the movie. Ideally in costume.

A beamed-into-cinemas recording of a West End show is cheaper, a shorter commute, and you’ve got a better chance of getting a car parking space.

But fast growing, and lower profile for the minute, are the likes of live theatrical performances, beamed concerts, ballet productions, e-gaming competitions and even compilations of old episodes of Friends. Certainly in the world of theatre, event cinema has been driving accessibility. The cost of a theatre ticket for a West End show is prohibitive to many of us, let along being able to get a ticket when you want one in the first place. A beamed-into-cinemas recording of said show is cheaper, a shorter commute, and you’ve got a better chance of getting a car parking space.

As testament to the growth of event cinema, just this month it’s been announced that the global musical monolith Hamilton will be getting what’s likely to be the world’s biggest-ever event cinema release. In October 2021, a recording of the show featuring its original cast will be released into cinemas worldwide. Not a film adaptation: just a specially-filmed version of the show. Disney has reportedly paid $75m for the rights to be the ones to distribute it.

Fleabag

But perhaps that price tag isn’t a surprise in the context of how well event cinema has been doing in the UK alone. In 2019, its box office shot up 30% on 2018 numbers, with £53m of takings. The big hit was Fleabag, the cinema beam-back of the National Theatre production that was playing in London. In the back end of 2019, it became the biggest event cinema release of all time in the UK, grossing more than £4m at the British box office.

To put that into some kind of context, it’s double what the expensive reboot of the Hellboy franchise brought in. There’s a long list of Hollywood movies that it outgrossed last year, too.

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In all, the Event Cinema Association reported that 11 different releases grossed over £1m at the box office last year, including a one-night live event stream of Les Miserables: The Staged Concert in December, that took £2.3m in one day (and was thus repeated a week later, further boosting the coffers). Given that the productions involved don’t come with the cost of, well, making the thing in the first place (pretty much all event cinema pre-exists anyway in some form), for cinemas this is a profitable, good margin revenue stream.

But it’s the convenience for audiences too, something that’s being watched keenly as the scope of event cinema looks set to expand. This very month, Daniel Sloss’s stand-up show, X, will be beamed to Vue Cinemas around the UK. This too is a first, a recording of Sloss’s show that was made in Sydney. You can’t get many stand-up comedians on DVD anymore, thanks to the decimation of that market. There’s a sporting chance we may be seeing more of them in our multiplexes.

Coming attractions

2019 saw 130 ‘new releases’ in the world of event cinema, down from a peak of 135 in 2017. But the box office has soared, and is expected to do so again in the year ahead.

Already on the roster for 2020 are more ‘encore’ screenings (repeat showings of previously live beamback screenings, something that significantly boosted Fleabag’s box office), a David Attenborough: A Life On Our Planet event in April, concerts from the likes of Jonas Kaufmann, Michael Ball and Alfie Boe, and a 75thanniversary of VE day concert from the Royal Albert Hall. Expect more than 100 similar options throughout the year.

Of course, cinemas will still be offering a steady diet of comic book movies, sequels and blockbusters, amongst less-showy productions looking to try and break through. But increasingly, they’re going to find themselves battling for screen space with less traditional but steadily successful alternatives. And when the Hamilton release happens next year, who would bet against that becoming one of 2021’s biggest cinema releases?

Who’s seeing what?

According to figures from Comscore and the Event Cinema, theatre remains the most popular strand of event cinema, bringing in £16.8m of business in 2019. Next up is live concerts, which accounted for £9.5m, followed by dance and ballet productions, which drew in £4.3m.

The top ten ‘events’, not including Secret Cinema productions, were…

  1. Fleabag
  2. Les Miserables: The Staged Concert
  3. Take That: Greatest Hits Live
  4. Andre Rieu’s 2019 new year concert
  5. Andre Rieu’s 2019 Maastricht concert
  6. 42nd Street: The Musical
  7. One Man, Two Guvnors
  8. Present Laughter
  9. All About Eve
  10. All My Sons