Event Cinema Association chair Melissa Keeping looks at how and why the event cinema market is the fastest growing sector at the box office.

The world has moved on a lot since the first live broadcast to reach cinemas in the early 2000s. Back then Tony Blair and George W Bush were still in power.  9/11 had only just happened. Nokia and Blackberry dominated the mobile phone market; iPhones were years away. Everyone was in a flap about bird flu. 

The first live broadcast into cinemas was in September 2002 with Bon Jovi being broadcast to cinemas across Europe by Odeon. A year later David Bowie promoted his Reality album in a live broadcast to cinemas worldwide, created by Quantum Digital and the founders of By Experience, Robert and Julie Borchard-Young. In 2005 a live Robbie Williams concert was broadcast by More2Screen. Co-founder Penny Nagle said that at the time that “although the technology was new and clunky, everyone loved it”.  

In 2006 the Met Opera Live in HD Series, distributed by By Experience, blazed its way across the Atlantic into European cinemas with its ground-breaking live opera seasons, setting the standard for other content providers for some time to come and igniting the imaginations of content providers, producers and distributors in its wake.

Fast forward to 2013 and the event cinema market is now the fastest growing sector at the box office, accounting for up to 12% of the total box office in some cases - around 3% is the average but rising steadily and the consensus seems to be that by 2015, the sector will be worth an estimated $1bn. Digitised exhibitors all over Europe are gladly embracing the additional revenue and new/returning audiences that the huge variety of event cinema content brings their dark screens when studio content is not playing; distributors of event cinema are springing up all over the world; and it’s now becoming commonplace for content providers to consider a theatrical release to complement their latest world tour, new season, exhibition or cup final.

With any growth area. the infrastructure around it needs to be solid in order for it to continue to grow, gain credibility and attract investment. That began with the launch of the Event Cinema Association (ECA) a year ago and to date we have 35 members from 15 territories worldwide, a surprisingly neat cross section of content providers, exhibitors, distributors and technical partners all recognising the need for a community to engage in, network, learn from, inform and develop best practice.

The first ECA Networking Event takes place on October 15 in London and delegates from 17 territories including Argentina, Russia and the US will be in attendance to share experiences, debate hot topics such as marketing, ticket pricing, technical delivery and rights acquisition for the first time in a dedicated conference environment. But mainly they will be there to meet each other; until now this has been done on the fringes of other, larger trade shows, and networking will be the key motivation for many delegates, keen to reach out to others in the sector. Rather than offer the audience a death-by-PowerPoint experience, we have specifically asked that there be no presentations and the time is to be devoted to discussion and Q&A entirely. As the first of these annual events, the intention is that delegates will come away informed, educated, networked and entertained.

Recognising the need for infrastructure is Rentrak, who announced recently their box office reporting will now include event cinema releases, which has until now been a matter of guesswork and/or discretion. Now everyone can see the benefit of transparency and Rentrak have advised that a European rollout of event cinema reporting will follow the UK and Ireland very quickly over the next 6-12 months, in collaboration with the ECA and its members. Likewise IHS Screen Digest has also identified Event Cinema as an area of huge potential growth and earlier this year produced the first of what will be an annual report on the event cinema market, produced with data provided by ECA members. The larger the ECA membership grows, the more comprehensive their reports will be.

Meanwhile, the content itself seems limited only by the imaginations of the content providers. The BBC has just announced their 50th anniversary episode of Dr Who will be broadcast live and simultaneously into an extraordinary 75 territories worldwide including - wait for it - Myanmar and Botswana. The Royal Shakespeare Company will broadcast Richard II live next month for the first time. The British Museum’s Pompeii LIVE exhibition and the V&A’s David Bowie exhibition were both broadcast live into cinemas to delighted audiences, some of whom admitted they’d been to see the exhibition already. So, far from cannibalising the audience, an oft-repeated fear in the beginning, it seems to actually be duplicating it in some cases.

Of course, there are still issues to overcome; this industry isn’t even ten years old. Not every release works. Exclusivity clauses cause problems for exhibitors. The wealth of technical information is such that the ECA is producing a handbook for technical delivery which will be made freely available on our website, to help guide newcomers and demystify the process.

But the upside? Content providers are engaged and excited, distributors busier than ever, cinemas are selling tickets, and audiences are lapping it all up - sure there are wrinkles to iron out but the Event Cinema industry is striking out ever more confidently and united than ever before. Come and find out for yourself on October 15.

Melissa Keeping is chair of the Event Cinema Association

For more on ECA’s Oct 15 event, click here.