The rising number of 3D screens is giving exhibitors the opportunity to do much more than just show films. Tim Richards is excited by the prospects of alternative content.

We’re well into 2009 and it’s shaping up to be another year of strong growth for the UK cinema industry. Box office is up, thanks to a great schedule of movies, and this is also the first year that 3D has really arrived on the market - Monsters Vs Aliens,Ice Age 3: Dawn Of The Dinosaurs and The Final Destination have been well received by customers.

“A live broadcast of a concert by pop group Take That had 100% occupancy at 50 sites”

Looking forward, there are a number of strong releases still to come, including Up, A Christmas Carol and Avatar this year and an equally strong line up of 3D movies in 2010. Even with traditional cinema enjoying real growth, there are still opportunities for screening alternative content to fill programming gaps and encourage new customers to the cinema experience.

With the number of digital projectors increasing in cinemas, the infrastructure is at least partly in place for many to show different content. Vue has been actively supporting the alternative use of cinema screens in the UK since 2007. We’ve offered our customers everything from live music, ballet and stand-up comedy tofootball and Formula One racing. Our corporate clients have used our cinemas for product launches, annual general meetings and training venues.

Such events can help fill the cinemas during quiet periods - a live broadcast of a concert by pop group Take That had 100% occupancy at 50 sites, Genesis live from Düsseldorf achieved occupancies of 70% for a Tuesday evening, and a programme of Monday matinee operas and ballets earlier this year reached sales of more than 80% at some sites.

And feedback shows customers are happy with events - the screening of rock band Muse’s Wembley concert achieving an average satisfaction score of 9.6 out of 10. It’s a great opportunity to drive loyalty among our existing clients while also attracting new ones. Why, then, is non-traditional programming not more widespread?

Alternative content has to take its place in the pecking order of our core business. The amount of alternative content available is still relatively small, and this combined with the effort required to plan and market alternative events compared with our core content means we choose carefully on what we focus.

The still limited availability of digital screens also means limited playing opportunities and a higher profit hurdle to clear, given we have to take something off a screen to play alternative content. Add to this the fact most alternative content is sporadic - customers do not have regular events around which they can plan (perhaps the only exceptions are the opera and ballet seasons which can be promoted together).

As more screens are digitised, the opportunity to play more content will increase dramatically. As the number of screens grows, so will the potential revenue. This will lead to more engagement from the content owners to deliver regular product and special events for cinema.

Overall, we remain excited about alternative content and the role it will play in changing customers’ perceptions of our cinemas from traditional movie houses to entertainment centres. Tim Richards is CEO of UK exhibitor Vue. He will be speaking at the Screen International Film Summit on October 13.

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