Arthouse film – the new event cinema?

Posted on March 7, 2014

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urlThe concern that arthouse film is being pushed out of its natural home in the cinema continues to grow. 

Far too many films are being made for the available cinema screen space – the number of films produced in Europe has risen by more than 70% over the last decade.

And remakes, adaptations and sequels are increasingly dominating the box office, making up 66% of the top-50 international films in 2013 (compared with 32% in 2000).

Meanwhile Hollywood has recently acquired a taste for films skewing towards independent cinema’s core older demographic.

Senior cinemagoers which have also been driving the rapid growth of so-called ‘event cinema’. Opera – beamed live by satellite to cinema screens – has been particularly popular, often attracting big audiences at premium ticket prices.

After being blithely dismissed as mere ‘alternative content’ – until people started going – the film industry has come to see opera more as an oversized cuckoo in an already crowded nest.

But in recent months, a different and more optimistic view is emerging. To borrow the politically-incorrect phrase, the ‘fat lady singing’ doesn’t mark the end of an era but the opening of a new one.

In short, a number of projects are beginning to test the idea that the best option for arthouse film is to take a leaf from the libretto of opera.

IFFR Live! was launched at the International Film Festival Rotterdam earlier this year. It aims to take at least five films from the 2015 edition of the festival and to release them simultaneously through cinemas, Pay-TV and VOD. Festival screenings are, of course, the pre-eminent “event cinema”and have been so for many years.

The idea of transferring that sense of event to international territories and homes is one that looks promising. One could imagine a one-off screening of Cannes competition films around the world, for example, as something akin to the World Cup of cinema.

The issue for IFFR Live!, as with so many of the current day-and-date experiments, is the choice of films. Experimentation tends to be with films that are deemed to have little chance of conventional success.

An exception to the rule has been Curzon Film World in the UK, which has a VOD service alongside its  exhibition and distribution business. It recently staged a “one-night-stand” event screening of both parts of Lars von Trier’s Nymphomaniac, ahead of a day-and-date multiplatform release a week later.

Interestingly, the single event was supported by some cinemas, including multiplex chains, who would normally have boycotted any film playing with release windows.

Nymphomaniac might help answer the question is whether such a one-off event at premium ticket price, could earn the kind of revenues that might be expected from a week’s run in a cinema – and whether the buzz created could knock on into the multiplatform release.

An interesting second factor is whether the audiences at event cinema are different to those who might normally attend a standard screening, or whether it might encourage existing enthusiasts to go more often.

SampoMedia is currently undertaking in-depth research into the impact of the launch, supported  by the British Film Institute, and the results will be released free. What can be mentioned at this early stage is that audience exit polls suggest a very positive response from cinemagoers, who appreciated the ‘special’ status of the screening.

The ‘event cinema’ approach to arthouse film was also supported by speakers at an industry talk at the  Rendez-vous Du Cinema Quebecois in Montreal (chaired by SampoMedia’s Michael Gubbins).

Mark Allenby, of the UK’s Picturehouse Entertainment, said there were clear lessons for film from the success of event cinema. (Picturehouse is a distributor and exhibitor which has been among the pioneers of event cinema).

A significant point, he suggested, was that audiences behaved differently for one-off events in cinemas – more akin, in fact, to concerts and theatres. Experience has shown much stronger advance sales for events than for traditional cinema, and he pointed to some evidence that ‘event film’ could follow the same trajectory as ‘alternative content.’

He said 50% of the box office for Shane Meadow’s film Made Of Stone, about cult 90s band The Stone Roses, came from the premiere at the group’s home city of Manchester; while 80% of tickets for the one-off screening of Slavoj Zizek’s The Pervert’s Guide To Ideology were booked in advance.

An even more direct link with audiences is suggested through ‘Cinema On Demand’ (CoD), in which audiences actively choose the films they would like to see enjoying a special screening. Speaking in Montreal, Marieke Jonker, of Dutch CoD company We Want Cinema, suggested that the appetite for one-off consumer-programmed events was growing, revealing what she believed was “latent demand.”

The idea of untapped potential is appealing. It emphasises a still critical role for cinema at the centre of the film ‘experience’, while acting as a driver for attention, and revenues, on VOD platforms.

The current wave of experimentation will act as a useful test for that theory, and perhaps it will achieve that rarity of having the whole industry singing from the same song sheet.