Event Cinema Could Save the Movie Theater

December 2, 2014 Updated: December 4, 2014

If “Dumber and Dumber To,” “Interstellar,” and “Big Hero 6” didn’t get you to the movies last week, you weren’t alone: just before Thanksgiving, Box Office Mojo put year-to-date gross receipts at almost $9 billion.

This substantial sum is actually not–so-good news for the movie business, since it represents a decline of almost 4 percent compared to 2013—which also saw a box office sales decrease from 2012.

Is the future of public movie going in jeopardy? What might be its salvation?

Almost every Main Street had a cinema until mall-based, multiscreen cineplexes forced many local marquees to go dark. Then home video and cable television came along. Theater owners responded by investing in bigger screens and better projection and versioning (2-D, 3-D, 70mm, and IMAX), which kept the box office booming through 2012.

But now the movie theater business has approached what appears to be a tipping point, where annual box office increases are no longer guaranteed. Affordable home entertainment systems, handheld devices with brilliant displays, and on-demand access to almost any movie ever made—many of them free—pose escalating challenges for theater owners.

Movie theaters still have an appeal. One is better technology. A pristine 35mm print of “Interstellar” or an IMAX 3-D Experience of “Big Hero 6” cannot be delivered anywhere except on a big screen. Another is novelty. Many theaters have dressed up their operations, offering full food and drink service in lieu of sticky sodas and buttery popcorn. Watching “Dumb and Dumber To” inside Showcase Cinemas’ Lux Level while eating “succulent steaks” and choosing from a “world-class wine list” might be a tempting experience for adults.

Baymax, voiced by Scott Adsit, gives Hiro Hamada, voiced by Ryan Potter, a hug in
Baymax, voiced by Scott Adsit, gives Hiro Hamada, voiced by Ryan Potter, a hug in “Big Hero 6.” (AP Photo/Disney)

But novelties wear off, and audiences need additional incentives before spending their entertainment dollars. After all, why go to the movies when the same shows can be enjoyed—privately and much more conveniently—for less?

Enter The Vatican—featuring Popes Francis and Benedict XVI—and something called “event cinema.” Its arrival happened not a moment too soon for theater owners in need of new content to attract general audiences.

Last April, in Rome, two of the most iconic popes in history, Popes John XXIII and John Paul II, were jointly canonized. These dual ceremonies are widely considered to be among the highest-profile public events in Vatican history. To mark the historic occasion, the Vatican embarked on a mission to create a landmark movie and television event as part of the Vatican’s new technological initiative. Sister Susan Wolf, a digital media consultant for religious services in the United States, explained the initiative on catholicwebsolutions.com:

“It is very important for those of us in ministry to learn and adapt to this new digital world, realizing that digital technology is not just a means to an end, but it is creating a new environment.”

For the first time an official papal ceremony could be experienced in theaters worldwide in an immersive, 3-D environment. Thirty-three cameras were deployed: 13 in 3-D, 15 in high definition and 5 in the UltraHD 4K format.

Of the approximately 500 theaters showcasing the event, Italy led with more than 120, closely followed by the Unites States, where more than 100 opted in. Latin America followed with 29. The canonization was shown exclusively in 3-D in Colombia, Germany, Ireland, Croatia, and the U.K. Half of the theaters in Italy offered 3-D showings, while none of the American did. There was no admission charge and attendance exceeded owners’ expectations in the United States.

The screening of the canonization was so successful that it has already spawned a theatrical release and a sequel.

Meanwhile, Sony, which broadcast last summer’s World Cup in 4K in select theaters across England, announced it is installing upgraded 3-D and 4K systems in 400 theaters across the U.K., with other countries soon to follow.

According to a knowledgeable industry source, at least one Major League Baseball franchise tested 4K transmission of a simulated game in a ballpark setting this fall, launching speculation that the team may begin offering games in UltraHD in theatrical settings. Not only could this attract a global fan base and create new revenue streams, but theater lobbies worldwide—which currently contain little more than ticket takers and concession stands—could also morph into sports bars and betting parlors. Depending on what’s playing, paying audiences will no longer have to be so courteous and quiet during the show.

This image released by Polk & Co. shows James Franco, right, and Chris O'Dowd in a scene from "Of Mice and Men," in New York.  A high-definition broadcast of Franco starring on Broadway this summer in John Steinbeck's "Of Mice and Men" will compete with the movies "Nightcrawler" and "Gone Girl" at the box office, and it marks an important milestone. While a few Broadway shows have been broadcast, this is the first time the National Theatre Live series, the gold standard, has chosen a Broadway show to beam into over 900 venues across the U.S. and Canada.  (AP Photo/Polk & Co., Richard Phibbs)
This image released by Polk & Co. shows James Franco, right, and Chris O’Dowd in a scene from “Of Mice and Men,” in New York. (AP Photo/Polk & Co., Richard Phibbs)

Two weeks ago, an HD broadcast of the current Broadway smash hit “Of Mice and Men,” starring James Franco, was beamed to 900 theaters across the United States and Canada, the first time the esteemed “National Theater Live” series chose an American play for its popular theatrical distribution. The ticket price? $20, or about one-sixth of its live-show equivalent.

As the Associated Press recently reported, the landmark broadcast comes at a time when so-called event cinema has exploded:

“When once there was just the Metropolitan Opera at the movie theater, now there’s the Bolshoi Ballet, concerts from One Direction, and a steady stream of English plays. Other brands jumping in include The Royal Ballet, the Royal Shakespeare Company, Monty Python, and the Big Apple Circus. Movie patrons can even enjoy museum exhibitions, like one on Pompeii from the British Museum.”

“Content is King,” goes the time-honored Hollywood adage. And American theater owners are wisely moving beyond Hollywood royalty by including singers, Broadway stars, world-renowned athletes—and even saints—in their repertoire, hoping that event cinema may ultimately be their theaters’ salvation.

Ted Bogosian is an instructor and visiting filmmaker at Duke University. This article was originally published in The Conversation.