Cinema as event: Insight Report

Posted on September 16, 2014

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Poster for Lars von Trier's NymphomaniacSampoMedia has been suggesting for some time that cinema should be studying how to adapt to an emerging Experience Economy. Our latest report, supported by the BFI New Models fund, looks at one release that has explicitly built a sense of event into its business model.

Curzon Film World first released both parts of Lars Von Trier’s Nymphomaniaas a one-off special screening with Q&As, heavily influenced by the success of so-called Event Cinema screenings of live opera and theatre.

The films were then released the following week day-and-date to cinemas and on-demand platforms, offering useful lessons about industry practice and consumer demand. Curzon is convinced that reducing the gap between screenings in cinemas and on other platforms makes economic sense in terms of reduced marketing costs and overall revenues.

SampoMedia has reported on a number of releases testing that hypothesis, including A Field In England, A Late Quartet, What Maisie Knew and Borrowed Time.

The full Insight Report is available as a free download and offers clear analysis of audience response and economic performance.

Here, we offer the conclusions of our study:

NYMPHOMANIAC: OVERALL CONCLUSIONS

There are obvious dangers in drawing general conclusions from one film and trying to apply it to all. There are a number of unique factors in the Nymphomaniac release that will not easily be replicated.

The first of those is the participation of Curzon Film World itself. Ownership of a cinema chain is clearly a major advantage and six Curzon venues accounted for nearly a quarter of all revenues from the event screening (23%).

Curzon also has its own on-demand platform, which creates a business incentive to experiment with release windows and other new models. The film itself also had unique aspects that made it a strong candidate for the event release.

  1. A controversial director with an existing following
  2. The opportunity to screen both parts of a two-part film at the same time
  3. The much-hyped sexual content
  4. The social media buzz generated by controversy around the film
  5. A strong ensemble cast

These positive aspects and the strong following for the director, will not be easily replicated in most independent releases.

Curzon also used the event approach to turn potential negatives into positives. In particular, it turned the length of the film into a virtue and negated the weaker response to the second volume by packaging it with the first part as a single event.

In von Trier’s native Denmark, the two volumes of the film were released together and they struggled at the box office, taking less than a tenth of the admissions of the director’s 1996 breakthrough Breaking The Waves.

Danish distributor Nordisk Film Biografdistribution said the length of the two films had ‘frightened’ audiences but Curzon’s addition of event elements, including cast interviews, created a unique buzz, as did the decision that the event screening would be the only chance to see the whole of the work at a single sitting.

The strategy then worked for this particular film but the same conditions would not necessarily apply to other independent work.

ECONOMIC BENEFITS

Curzon makes the case that the event screening and simultaneous multi-platform release maximized the revenues from a film that proved a tough sell in most countries.

Its claim that its day-and-date VOD and theatrical net revenues were equivalent to a conventional cinema box office of £560,000 is impossible to prove, or disprove. How far the changed windows merely cannibalised revenues requires a lot of counterfactual speculation.

Nonetheless, Curzon is convinced that Nymphomaniac represents a breakthrough with a commercially logical proposition for distributors, which can be achieved without undermining exhibitor relationships. One economic factor that may prove significant in the long run is pricing.

Curzon was able to successfully introduce premium pricing into its model, both in the initial event screening and then in the Premium VOD (day and date) model. Differential pricing could become a critical element of viable new models.

DEFINING AN EVENT SCREENING

The Nymphomaniac event made a potentially important breakthrough for future day-and-date releases.

With the exception of the Odeon chain, exhibitors were willing to host a one-off screening, even though it was due to be released on all platforms a week later. The idea that a one-off screening might be treated as a special case opens up a fresh approach for independent film committed to simultaneous multi-platform release

But copying the Nymphomaniac model is not as clear-cut as it may seem. Cinema operators, interviewed for this report, were not keen to offer on-the-record assurances of future policy, and certainly not to say that Nymphomaniac represented a firm precedent.

There was, however, a general consensus among those who did take the one-off screening, that a single evening event could be considered as something distinct from a general release.

Dr Who was quoted by one chain as an illustration: cinemas were willing to show a special anniversary episode of the popular BBC sci-fi series, screened simultaneously with the free television broadcast. They were rewarded with record-breaking revenues.

On the other hand, it is not clear at this stage what actually constitutes a single ‘event’ screening.

It is likely that such definitions may be arbitrary and inconsistent in the short term, perhaps based upon factors such as PR pressure and subject to the policies of individual managers. In short, there is no guarantee yet that a similar release strategy would get the same amount if support from the cinema operators.

The biggest hope for event screenings is that they will extend the reach of specialised films beyond an arthouse core. Event Cinema, such as live opera, has brought new people into cinemas and it is hoped that a proportion of the audience will be irregular cinemagoers attracted to the idea of a special event in a way that they would not for a normal screening.

More generally, Curzon Film World’s multi-platform release strategy for this and other films is based on the same hope that there is untapped demand for films. For Nymphomaniac, the exit polls suggest that the majority of the audience was already strongly cinephile.

In London, exit polls suggested a predominance of frequent cinemagoers and indeed Lars von Trier fans: 76% of the audience, and 80% of under-25 males, said the director was the biggest motivation in attending the screening.

The content of the film may have been a contributory factor in that relatively narrow make-up of the audience. For some, the controversy was a plus (39% citing it as a draw) but it may have been a negative influence on others.

Only 10% of the audience was over 45 and only 2% went with either a date, or a family member, for example. Nymphomaniac then had its own particular characteristics that were likely to appeal to committed cinephiles.

But while there is no evidence of a broadening of the audience, the polls do seem clear in suggesting that the special event screening was a motivation in ensuring that more people saw the film on a big screen.

And the multi-platform release ensured that there were a range of options for those who could not go to the cinema for whatever reason. What is not clear from this release is the potential that an event screening or a multi-platform release is able to reach those who might not generally be motivated to watch a film.

MULTIPLEX AND REGIONAL DIFFERENCES

The difference in performance between multiplexes and arthouse venues was not particularly marked. Vue and Cineworld cinemas made up 21% of all those cinemas screening the film and took 17% of total revenues. Four of the top-20 performing cinemas were multiplexes – three in London and one in Glasgow.

The willingness of those venues to host an event, and the box office return, perhaps indicates future potential, although there are some concerns for arthouse venues.

Exit polls from Cineworld West India Quay (the top performing multiplex) suggests that the core of the audience was made up of young cinephiles.

One of the success stories of Event Cinema is its ability to take London (and indeed New York and Moscow) shows to regional cinemas. The screening of live opera, theatre etc., clearly extends the audience reach of cultural institutions.

Film, however, is, by its nature, already a cultural form where the geographical limits are less clear- cut. It is certainly true that the breadth of films shown in the capital far exceeds those in any city. It would be hard, for example, to find anywhere in the UK where 77% of an audience for a film visited the cinema at least once a week.

Cinemas in London represented 34% of the venues but made up more than half (53.4%) of gross revenues. Those numbers are arguably better than many independent and arthouse film titles, which are often strongly reliant on London audiences.<

Clearly, the ease of access to a diverse range of venues is an important part of that fact but there is also an issue around the marketing, and what one might call the zeitgeist of would-be events.

From Tube advertisements to readership of critics, the conversation in London around film and the arts is often of a different order than the regions. The reach to the regions remains a challenge for independent film that may still require new kinds of marketing innovation.

FINAL CONCLUSIONS

The combination of a one-off theatrical event and a day-and-date release holds some promise on the basis of this release. There are critical factors that may become more apparent as the approach is tried further and refined.

This release, for example, offered promising signs that consumers were willing to pay a premium for both the event and for the early access to th film on VOD. The single biggest point is that the film must lend itself to some form of event that is recognised as such by both audience and industry.

The sense of event that the exit polls say was generated by Nymphomaniac will not be easily replicated. The elements that contributed to its performance ¬– a once-only screening of a two-part film, a name director, considerable hype ¬– are not easily replicated for the large majority of films.

And, while exhibitors were willing to treat the event screening as a separate release to the day-and-date multi-platform release in this case, there is no clear rule at this stage on what constitutes an event that might be treated in the same way.

(Curzon Film World has the considerable advantage of being distributor and exhibitor, and owning a VOD platform. Nonetheless, there is much promise for the future in the Nymphomaniac release.

It represents a genuine cross-media approach, combining the strength of the cinema ‘experience’ with the broader access of the multi-platform release.