“If music be the food of love, play on”

The rise, rise and rise of music in event cinema

Words: Melissa Cogavin


In the 15 years or so since event cinema crept quietly onto our screens, music has been a constant, occasionally fluctuating, highlight on the calendar. Today’s steady stream of diverse and slickly executed music concerts, documentaries, live broadcasts, Q&As and artist-produced films show just how far the medium has developed and the industry has progressed. It also demonstrates that confidence is soaring and just how joined-up the thinking has become.

Cliff Richard Performs on Stage At The Old Royal Naval College, Greenwich, London on Sunday 2 July 2017 during his “Just Fabulous Rock ‘n’ Roll” Tour.

The evolution has not been totally smooth however; its trajectory has been characterised by ups and downs and most recently, a welcome and record-breaking resurgence. What has happened to enable acts as diverse as BTS, Coldplay, Take That, André Rieu and Cliff Richard — as well as a slew of other releases — achieve comfortable box office returns over the past 18 months? What does it tell us about the music industry’s attitude to event cinema releases?

It’s easy to forget that this accidental sector appeared unplanned in the mid-2000s, a solution to falling revenues at the Met Opera. Harnessing the arrival of satellite distribution. It was cutting edge. The Met Opera’s season of events is a large part of why it was so successful from the outset, and this model has been adapted well for ballet and theatre too.

Music events tried to emulate this — but no mechanism existed to market ‘an artist a month’ and it was fraught with difficulty. Labels at this point were risk-averse, having lost considerable face and money in the mid-1990s; the industry was in a slump after dismissing downloads as a viable business, only to see piracy strip its profits in the Napster debacle. Steve Jobs’ iTunes was the miracle cure the music industry needed, and it came along just in time. Cinema was far from its focus — and far from digital either, at the time.

Event cinema distributor Musicscreen was awake to the opportunity of cross-pollination back in 2013, announcing ambitious plans to produce music events in cinema on a regular basis, but the stars were so far from alignment at this early stage that despite a lot of cheerleading from the industry, it didn’t take off. It was years ahead of its time. Something like the Motown stable of artists might have been a good fit for this model — uniquely promoted en masse by label exec Berry Gordy — but Motown aside, artists signed to the same labels are generally competitors with significant branding and little inclination to promote each other. A name over the door for a collective of artists in the mid-2000s just didn’t exist. Joe Evea of CinEvents agrees. “With music, there was a huge focus on a specific strand of cinemagoers with opera and the arts — and it was successful. In addition, music never got there because there wasn’t sufficient consistent content in the market regularly.”

The exception,of course, is the phenomenon that is André Rieu, who has captured the imagination of adoring fans and turned gaudily into box office gold year after year, breaking records repeatedly; Take That comes a close second, but only because they haven’t been doing it so long. Models like this are the holy grail of music in event cinema terms.

The key here is the artist driving a theatrical release. John Travers of CinemaLive explained that Gary Barlow’s first question as a tour begins the planning stages is ‘Is it going to be in cinemas?’ “When they talk about a tour, Gary always asks that question. He believes in it, he wants it anyway, and the fans love it,” John smiled.

Such enthusiasm was rare. Music and cinema industries have seldom had much crossover, so a programme of education into what was possible was essential to inform labels about the benefit of theatrical releases. At the start few in distribution had music industry expertise, or vice versa. Few labels or artists understood what was necessary in terms of promotional support, and the most memorable gestures came from two artists who actually found fame in the same band: Robbie Williams and Gary Barlow. This duos instinctive, highly entertaining, unscripted pieces to camera during the live gig, aimed at cinemas watching, are reminiscent of the northern working men’s clubs they cut their teeth in as young men — and were exactly what’s required to make an outing in cinemas work well.

They’re not laughing now…

With no track record and every event a one-off, music in event cinema was a continual experiment. Graham Spurling of the Movies@ chain in Ireland said, “In the beginning people sniggered a bit because it was so new. But I always grabbed music events with both hands, if it worked it worked, if it didn’t, then chalk it up to experience. I was always waiting for the product to get better, and it has.”

It has become clear over time that there is a tightrope to be walked between current, highly successful artists and those who might be politely termed ‘heritage acts’. They need to be mainstream enough to have sold a good number of albums and have several hundred thousand Facebook followers, but not so over-exposed they are on the radio every 15 minutes, thus eliminating the need to leave the sofa at all. 

Ideally, acts need to be touring bands but not touring so frequently that a cinema release might cannibalise their market. They need to be sufficiently established so you know a good number of songs but fresh enough to make you want to see them live. Or, put another way, exciting enough to want to see them in concert but not challenged to the point that you’re subjected to a load of unfamiliar music. Basically, the halcyon space between Fleetwood Mac and Taylor Swift, which isn’t as broad as you might think — and that only covers American rock/pop. There are countless more genres over dozens of markets exporting music internationally. There is a science to it, and yet no formula.

As a result of this balancing act a number of distributors crashed and burned as the box office didn’t match up to their numbers, their marketing spend ate up any profit and engagement from the labels, distracted by an album launch and a world tour, didn’t happen as expected. Unrealistic minimum guarantees were a feature at the time; great for the artists but incredibly risky for the distribution middlemen. These mishaps affected confidence from investors to exhibitors, leading to a plateauing for several years. Those surviving distributors continued to produce successful events, notably Eagle Rock, CinEvents and More2Screen, whose model of vintage, back catalogue content and new documentaries with live Q&A and new content saw some excellent admission figures and won various awards and accolades, but none saw the record breakers from 2013-15.

Then, in the last quarter of 2018, BTS, Muse, Coldplay, Take That, Westlife and Cliff Richard all happened. The combined admissions alone are over 2.7million worldwide. The biggest impact on the rise of music in event cinema has been the power of social media. In the past, the allure of an artist was their remoteness; the more mysterious, the more mythical and legendary they became. An album here, a tour there, a slot on Wogan, that was about it. Michael Jackson, Prince and Madonna were experts at drip feeding their fans with nonsensical tidbits which ended up on the pages of teen magazines and eventually tacked onto bedroom walls the world over. Not so in 2019. Alison Deboo of Event Cinemas in Australia told me that event cinema “offers fans an intimate or personal experience, something that was not available previously beyond just buying the album online.”

Bethany Claypool from Fathom Events explained that “Millenials — who are now 30+, by the way, not kids any longer — have grown up with transparency their entire life. The notion of a star is very different as a result. Social media feeds fans hungry for detail; the more the artist gives the more the fans want. Event cinema feeds into that.” This is music to the ears of label executives. 

Many artists are still bypassing cinema for the lure of Netflix. The appeal of selling their content to streaming services is obvious for this generation now, but it could well be within 5-10 years that Beyonce’s fans are happier choosing the multiplex over the stadium for all kinds of accessibility and budgetary factors.

Evan Saxon of Abramorama sees a generation gap emerging and he’s probably right. Responsible for the worldwide smash feature K-12 by the American musician Melanie Martinez, the film is an example of an artist made famous by YouTube (8.75m followers) with no radio play whatsoever. Considering its selective release in the US a few months ago, her average box office was three times higher per screen than Metallica, taking anyone over 35 by complete surprise. Melanie Martinez is an online phenomenon like BTS. “What is interesting is that this is an artist who does not have any radio play and only two cinema execs had ever heard of her… and that’s because they have young daughters,” he said.

Martinez is a filmmaker more than a recording artist; so much of her output is on YouTube that the visual is a vital element (in contrast to the music video model which is in decline). Martinez has two more films in the pipeline. As a result of this shift record labels are increasingly thinking of themselves as content companies.

Peter Worsley of Eagle Rock, part of Universal Music, has a compelling perspective as the company straddles both event cinema and a huge music label. “Event cinema is becoming more important as we go on,” he told me. “For bigger projects we can’t rely so much on the other markets like DVD anymore, so we are implementing a hybrid model of traditional and event cinema release depending on the market.” He cited an example of a recent Miles Davis documentary, ‘Birth Of The Cool’, distributed by Abramorama in the US. In some indie cinemas the film was released in a traditional style over a number weeks, in other markets as a one-night-only release. This evolution of the one-night only model will ensure event cinema endures as a concept. 


Is event cinema now driving studio content?

Mark Walukevich at Showcase Cinemas, and John Rubey, independent producer of event cinema content both told me that the past 18 months’ successful box office had much to do with the output of the studios, whether intentionally or otherwise. “Bohemian Rhapsody”, “Rocketman” and “Yesterday” were ideal vehicles to trailer music events ahead of the show and did much to spread the word to exactly the right demographic.


We could be seeing much more of this synergy in future as clearly everybody wins. Veteran exhibitor Kevin Markwick at the Picture House in Uckfield has a theory that the success of music in event cinema has had a direct impact on the kind of studio content being produced, so it is no surprise that “Bohemian Rhapsody” and “Rocketman” have emerged now. “People think it’s all about mainstream content influencing event cinema but it strikes me it’s the other way around now,” he added.


It is perhaps no coincidence that the current 1990s revival is being driven by decision makers in the media now in their mid- to late-40s and nostalgic for their youth. “Nostalgia is big,” Claypool agreed. “Going back in time, the throwback culture, we are seeing music is working again in cinemas. There is a huge fan base from a consumer perspective, the spending power massive.”


That would explain the success of Take That, Westlife, Roger Waters and Metallica certainly, and going back a little further, Cliff Richard, ZZ Top, Led Zeppelin, perhaps getting on in years and less inclined to take on a 60-date world tour, much like their fans.


It also explains why Kanye West, Taylor Swift etc. haven’t yet taken the plunge. Joe Evea felt that some younger artists have avoided an event cinema release even though their appeal is broad enough because they feel the sense of scarcity is more important to their brand, that they would rather fill stadiums exclusively and indefinitely. “Some modern artists can be very unrealistic about their value,” he added.



Challenges and opportunities

It is clear that the cinemas who work hard at eventising reap the benefits. Even those who refused to do anything did well when Melanie Martinez fanatics banged down their door, which Saxon found amazing. Imagine what would be possible with a bit of outreach, he told me. Social media’s connection to the artist plays into this. Closed Facebook groups are common among K-Pop fanbases, and once let in, Grand Cinema Digiplex in Bucharest soon earned the trust of the fans and sold 1,000 tickets in a day from a single post in a closed Facebook Group. The sector’s stability now has come from a buoyant music industry and plenty of case studies over the past 15 years, he told me. The best practice available means there is calculated risk to be taken, and if you want to push boundaries there are still lots to prove.


Marc Allenby, CEO at Trafalgar Releasing, says there is no room for complacency if the industry is to remain relevant; more content is being produced by the artists themselves, so it’s becoming more rich and diverse. The key is to celebrate that diversity while mitigating the risk, spreading it out across multiple platforms, something that Peter Worsley also champions. “It’s about a mixed economy,” he says. “A hybrid theatrical release, pay TV, digital platforms, potentially some level of home entertainment — a box set for example, but everything needs to be an event, whether it’s DVD, TV, theatrical or special packaging.” Regular content, a fanatical fanbase, exhibitor outreach, engaged labels/artists and opportunities to trailer content to a targeted audience is the ideal. Labels are now ‘content companies’ and cinemas ‘entertainment centres’. This is all encouraging. In 2019 expectations across the supply chain are being better managed; smarter choices are being made.


Challenges still remain. Tempting bands away from the easy win of Netflix, a continued education process in conversations with the music industry is another. Daren Miller of Fathom Events said, “Music licensing still persists as a substantive obstacle, depending on the ownership of rights, catalogue and publishing.” Lead times need work too, Claypool told me. There is often still not enough time to market the content to produce the best box office outcomes. Allenby believes growth in music demonstrates a democratisation of the film-making process; lower barrier to entry making more diverse, challenging content possible: “Cinemas should embrace that process.”

Alison Deboo agrees. What will the future look like? “Immersive! I believe music content is only going to thrive as consumers come to realise they’re getting the best possible sound and visual experience. With technological advances we are closer than ever before to our music idols and I look forward to a future, which is already underway, where we’re screening live in real time and having interactive conversations — all from the comfort of
my local cinema seat.”