ECA conference: Event cinema: Live & lively

The ECA’s conference drew an international crowd to Leicester Square last month — Alastair Balmain reports on the energy that’s helping live cinema’s sector to flourish


Who here thinks event cinema could hit $1bn globally at the box office by 2019?” Industry grandee John Rubey opened last month’s Event Cinema Association conference with challenging words. His was a provocative start to the event at the Vue Leicester Square, in London — few hands shot up in air — but as the day’s proceedings and the international turnout demonstrated, the sector is alive with dynamism and a creative spirit. Whether event cinema hits that figure next year or at some point in the future, it won’t be for lack of trying.

With a global membership in excess of 200 companies, the ECA’s conference has fast-established itself as an essential date for professionals in the sector. With a strong emphasis on distribution and technical providers — the event’s major sponsors included Gofilex, Encompass, CinemaNext and Motion Picture Solutions — the introductory session illustrated why the best event cinema is a symbiosis of content and technical delivery.

Led by James Dobbin, director of event cinema at National Amusements, Alice de Rosa, from Trafalgar Releasing; Vue’s Johnny Carr; and Odeon’s Karen Liu reflected on the past decade and gave predictions for event cinema’s future direction. As Karen Liu noted, the unfavourable comparison between last year’s box office figures and 2015 and 2016 was, to an extent dependent on titles: “Those years had some really great titles, such as Sherlock, Take That and so on — to thrive event cinema needs bigger titles to come through.” It was a comment echoed by James Dobbin, who called for more theatrical hits such as Wicked to make it to the event cinema screen.

Away from more mainstream content, innovative programming to niche audiences was identified by Johnny Carr as central to Vue’s success — last year the chain’s revenue was up 25% for event cinema. He explained: “That was through recognising opportunities beyond the standard event cinema programming given to us.” Targeting audiences such as pre-school children and parents, they are reaching a previously untapped market with lower ticket prices and an earlier slot in the day.

The importance of live

One of the most telling statistics to be discussed was from a recent IPSOS/MORIsurvey of National Theatre audiences — 47% said that they didn’t attend live performances because it was “inconvenient”, illustrating that there is opportunity for programmers to schedule encores beyond the live date, however, as Karen Liu highlighted: “The live broadcast creates the urgency — marketing is focused around it. For smaller titles we chase the live date to ensure bookings, with bigger titles, such as Warhorse and Hamlet, there is the desire to see the production which warrants encores.” Johnny Carr reinforced that point, noting that one in four Vue customers that saw Hamlet then booked to see an encore. Trafalgar’s Alice de Rosa emphasised that, when marketing events, dialogue with exhibition is critical. “It’s fundamental to be on sale as far ahead as you can be before the event night,” she explained, “There needs to be capacity for screenings, but also an element of scarcity in the programming to ensure the audience is engaged.”

Capturing audiences beyond the cinema market was raised as a potential area for improvement, as Alice de Rosa explained, “The next step should be to think about how we present the event cinema industry internationally. Wouldn’t it be great if The Stage magazine were here at this conference, or MusicWeek? In the music industry, in particular, there is a worrying perception about the commercial viability and technical standards of cinema presentation. We work hard to cement our reputation with content owners, but as an industry we could be presenting this better.”

A lot of territory covered

The conference was not exclusively focused on content, however. An entertaining and 

occasionally alarming presentation from Ben Rapp, of Managed Networks, highlighted the urgent need for exhibitors to take data security seriously, especially given the forthcoming GDPR regulations (see his article on the subject on page 61), while Joe Evea, from event cinema marketplace Cineplace, illustrated with the help of consultant Jan Runge, how audience data can be used by exhibitors to uncover actionable insights about the location and behaviour of specific interest groups.

Afternoon sessions saw global insights on how distributors and exhibitors are appealing to audiences in locations as disparate as Australia, where the Event Cinema chain’s Claire Gandy explained delayed live and encore content has a strong appeal due to inconvenient European/US performance start times, and Canada where ECA board member Brad La Douceur, the Cineplex chain’s vice president of event cinema, highlighted that the company has been busy turning screens in several of its multiplexes into “event only” screens, resulting in a 38% increase in like-for-like revenue against standard screens.

All these findings were enhanced by extensive networking, supported by a long list of generous sponsorship partners (including welcome prosecco popsicles from Pops, and gin-laced ice cream from Speakeasy…).

Ten years ago live broadcasts in cinemas brought a new dimension to an industry that seemingly had thrived for decades on a turgidly consistent business model. The inventive approach adopted by the event sector illustrates that it is possible to bring fresh thinking, fresh audiences and ground-breaking experiences to screens around the world.