Quality of content, targeted marketing and the wider backing of exhibitors are keys to building alternative content into a $1 billion market, according to leading content owners, distributors and exhibitors attending CineEurope.

“This is a potentially huge market but we need a collective approach where every exhibitor does what they can,” said Drew Kaza, EVP, digital development, Odeon/UCI/Cinesa Cinemas, speaking on an alternative content panel at CineEurope this morning.

“This is a not a business based on exclusivity. Fewer screens is counter productive to what we can all achieve together.”

“Alternative content is a burgeoning market,” added exhibitor Graham Spurling, director at Ireland’s Movies@Cinemas. “I don’t think you can afford not to give it a chance.”

Alternative content, recently rebranded by trade body Event Cinema Association (ECA) as ‘event cinema’, is claimed as the only growth area in exhibition.

Estimated at $300m worldwide today, it is predicted to achieve $1bn by 2020 [IHS Screen Digest] and has already become a “viable revenue stream for exhibitors,” said ECA chairman, Melissa Keeping at the session ‘Event Cinema: New Frontiers in Alternative Content’ moderated by Screen International editor Wendy Mitchell.

“There is need for cohesive action around this growing market to communicate what alternative content is trying to achieve,” Keeping said.

Larry McCourt, SVP, marketing and sales, Cinedigm - one of the few distributors of both films and alternative content - said, “We believe there’s solid revenue out there. We also believe there are lots of audiences that are underserved. There are audiences for documentaries and we plan to experiment with genres including horror and family. The marketing model is one of narrowcasting, but we need exhibitors to help us locate and target audiences.”

Agreeing, Mariusz Spisz, sales and marketing director at Polish chain Multikino said: “It’s very important to build familiarity among audiences for alternative content but we also need content suppliers to support us in promotion from trailers to posters. We programme opera, sports and movie marathons on a frequent basis. Where other cinemas [in Poland] have tried one-off events they have failed, because audiences did not see their cinemas as an alternative content venue.”

Spurling added: “It’s not a one size fits all business. Opera is an easier sell in Ireland than ballet, but the reverse may be true in Russia. Because the product is not backed by huge marketing budgets you have to have focussed target marketing and be prepared to take a 12 month gamble to build the market.”

Pathé Live CEO Thierry Fontaine, struck a note of caution. “I have a hard time believing those figures [of $1bn],” he said. “It really depends on the quality of the content. We receive dozens of programmes each month and often the quality is very bad. In particular there is an awful lot of poor quality 3D content submitted to us. We also need to be selective…We programmed 38 shows last year. This year we will concentrate resources on 26.

“The key issues for me are quality and brand,” he continued. “Audiences can identify both in The Met Opera and the Bolshoi [which Pathé Live produces as well as distributes internationally]. Profitability is fragile. We invest Euros 400,000 per show producing the Bolshoi so it’s key for us to make a profit on each individual production. We cannot spend millions of euros on marketing, so it’s vital that we work with committed exhibitors who know what it takes to attract specific audiences.”

During last week’s live broadcast of Pompeii Live [pictured] to 280 UK cinemas from the British Museum [which attracted a remarkable 50,000 tickets customers and generated £450,000] Tim Plyming, the museum’s head of digital and online, said he’d received feedback from customers that the cinema sound was poor, the houselights took a while to be turned down or the satellite feed could be seen being tuned in on screen.

“I can control the links from the outside broadcast to the cinema but I can’t control the final link in the presentation. Standards are important to uphold the brand reputation of content owners and the efforts of the ECA are very important in this regard.”