Last month, in the Welsh town of Holyhead, the only cinema closed its doors after 80 years. People were still going to the movies but - thanks to the recent introduction of a UK smoking ban - not enough people were going to the cinema's bingo nights to keep the overall business solvent.
Alternative content is a matter of perspective. Anywhere in the world, in a major urban multiplex on a Friday or Saturday night, movie screens will feature a feature.
But increasingly, on Saturday matinees, or on Monday evenings, the digital surround sound is likely delivering the highs of a Mozart aria or the lows of a wrestler's grunt. Indeed, it is the much-maligned but highly lucrative pseudo-sport of professional wrestling that first elbowed its way onscreen in the 1980s; mainstream sports have followed.
The shift is due entirely to the uptake of digital delivery in cinemas. The fidelity of the digital picture has caught up with that of the sound.
Cineplex Entertainment, Canada's largest exhibitor with 1,300 screens, launched its Live in High Definition series with New York's Metropolitan Opera Company in 2006 featuring six live shows and so-called encore presentations in 24 cinemas. CEO Ellis Jacob says he is astonished by the popularity of the programming and the people he is seeing in his cinemas, of whom more than half are over 50; demographically, the persons least likely to attend a movie.
"People thought we were out of our minds," he says, of the decision to present live opera by closed circuit. "It's turned out to be our most successful alternative content in terms of volume." In 2007, Cineplex expanded the series to eight live presentations in 71 cinemas. Per capita, Cineplex is one of the most successful exhibitors of these performances for the Met. This past Christmas, Cineplex also presented The Nutcracker performed by the National Ballet of Canada.
It is not a question of cannibalising the movie audience. Far from it, says Drew Kaza, digital development manager at Odeon UCI, with 1,600 screens in the UK, Spain, Italy, Germany, Austria and Portugal, Europe's largest cinema chain.
"Alternative content expands the cinema-going audience," says Kaza, who once headed up internet and interactive media for BBC Worldwide, the commercial arm of the UK broadcaster. "With something like opera, you're drawing a demographic that is not a big cinema-going group. They might go to a film once a year. Now you're getting them in on a monthly basis potentially."
Similarly, cinemas compete with major sporting events: why not offer those same patrons an opportunity to watch the game in the cinema instead of the pub. For the same reason, bookers have to be flexible: the failure of the England football team to qualify for this summer's Euro 2008 tournament has nixed Odeon's plans to screen the event.
Loosely defined, alternative programming is anything other than a movie. Or, as Ted Mundorff, CEO of US circuit Landmark Theatres, puts it: "Presentations that are not regular theatrical showings." The spectrum varies from pre-recorded material to live presentations; from grey areas such as morning conferences where the screen is filled with PowerPoint presentations to popular singalong The Rocky Horror Picture Show. According to Mundorff, Landmark's Oriental Theatre in Milwaukee recently celebrated its 30th anniversary showing the cult film.
Certainly, the concert-film phenomenon is likely to catch fire following the huge success of Bruce Hendricks' Hannah Montana And Miley Cyrus: Best Of Both Worlds Concert Tour, which made $31m from just 683 screens to take the top spot in its opening weekend in the US and Canada earlier this month.
Musical offerings sometimes provide both pre-recorded and live content. Following a screening of music-themed title Once at one of its Los Angeles cinemas, Landmark presented a live performance by the film's musician leads. While in the UK last November, Odeon showed a concert film of rock band The Who, Amazing Journey: The Story Of The Who, followed by a live Q&A via satellite with frontmen Roger Daltrey and Pete Townshend that was delivered to several digitally equipped UK cinemas.
Other events have included a Robbie Williams show, projected to 21 screens, and a Genesis concert broadcast live from Dusseldorf in Germany to 40 Vue cinemas across the UK in June 2007.
Furthermore, as digital equipment allows any external source to be played on the big screen, it is also possible to connect games consoles for projection in the auditorium. This was demonstrated last year by the UK's Vue Cinemas when it held multi-player gaming events to mark the release of Walt Disney's Cars.
Among the suggestions of Landmark Theatres in its cinema rental offer is private home-movie screenings. "Old 8mm movies have now been transferred to DVD. The time is right to relive cherished memories with friends and family in a theatre atmosphere," says the exhibitor's website.
"The commonality to alternative content can be just about anything that can get an audience," says Odeon's Kaza. Or rather anything that pays for the space. Landmark goes so far as to suggest its properties as a dating venue: "Have the theatre all to yourselves... "
While digital projection offers bookers an unprecedented programming opportunity, there are inklings of how the technology could change the margins of the business. Last autumn, as part of Paramount's release of a box set of the original Star Trek TV series, Odeon presented a digital HD screening of the pilot episode in 20 UK cinemas. Of these, 15 sold out at a premium price, albeit with a discount coupon towards the price of the box set. "The Trekkies were delighted," says Kaza, who believes other such promotions are in the offing - especially since Odeon UCI's owners, private equity firm Terra Firma, recently purchased UK recording giant EMI.
The sky, however, is not the limit. "You do have to be careful about losing track of your purpose," says Cineplex's Jacob. "It's to fill a void when the cinema is not being used to its potential. But there is a built-in cap."
Jacob will not reveal what that cap might be, but he is convinced movies will always be the main event. What might change is how exhibitors leverage the audience. Cineplex's loyalty programme attracted 600,000 members in the six months since its launch - a business proposition in its own right (see Point of Sale, right).
Odeon's Kaza says alternative content will expand in pace with the roll-out of digital cinema in the UK, particularly as more exhibitors sign on to the UK Film Council's digital screen initiative. Odeon has fully converted two nine-screen cineplexes to digital, one in London's Docklands district and one in Hatfield, just north of the capital.
Ironically, bingo may be the next big thing in alternative content. Kaza says the company has been testing bingo games at a six-screen cineplex in Huddersfield, northern England. The pre-recorded presentation featured a local TV personality and attractive hostesses.
"The trial showed us you need a live host," says Kaza. "We had good take-up but it dropped off. As it was all video, the (players) would see it all over again."
Toronto-based interactive technology firm Time Play is working to tweak the presentation to include a real-time MC.
As for the smoking, says Kaza: "The ban has actually helped. Players figure if they can't play bingo and smoke, they may as well play in a nice cinema rather than some grungy bingo hall."