The cinema is being redefined by alternative content - screenings of opera, theatre, sport and rock concerts to bring in new audiences. And with digital expansion, it is an area set for further growth.

Alternative programming is undergoing a transformation. What was once regarded by exhibitors as a novelty is now seen as an increasingly important revenue stream. Live theatre, live opera, gaming, sports and rock concerts are all part of the cinema diet. With 35mm seemingly in decline and with continued digital conversion, the opportunities look bound to grow.

Exhibitors who have paid to equip their screens with digital 3D technology want to squeeze out as much value as possible, and programming alternative content is one obvious way to use screens during off-peak hours.

There is growing evidence that alternative programming can reach audiences who would not normally visit the cinema. London-based More2Screen supplies alternative content, including opera, ballet and sport, to cinemas throughout the world. Last December, it beamed a production of Carmen from La Scala in Milan to selected British and Irish cinemas, posting an occupancy rate of more than 85% in most of the venues. Mature cinema-goers who might not be able to afford the huge prices charged by opera houses and who do not want to watch teen movies can be lured out in significant numbers.

“It makes sense to keep drawing in a regular audience,” says Christine Costello, co-founder along with Penny Nagle of More2Screen, of alternative content’s attraction. With astute programming, she says, it is possible for imaginative exhibitors to accommodate alternative fare without eating into the mainstream audience.

Jason Wood, director of programming at London arthouse chain Curzon Cinemas, points out that live operas, transmitted by satellite, regularly sell out large venues such as the 300-seat Curzon Mayfair and 700-seat Curzon Chelsea. The admission price is around $29 (£20). “People are happy to pay it. From the first event we did, they were popular. They sell out way in advance.”

Rob Arthur, managing director of the UK’s Apollo Cinemas, suggests that in the future, multiplexes may well have dedicated screens for alternative programming. “We may have dedicated 3D screens, dedicated arthouse or independent screens… and also dedicated alternative content screens so we’re not impacting or diluting one against the other,” he says

Alternative programming is not just about entertainment: cinemas are increasingly being used for business and educational presentations. One example sees medical students watching a live digital presentation of a surgeon performing an operation on the big screen (Belgian outfit Kinepolis is especially active in working with universities and the medical sector). Religious groups are also looking to take advantage of cinema auditoria. The Jubilee Church has its Sunday morning services at the Cineworld site in Enfield, London.

‘Four-walling’ and one-off private hires which see individuals or companies rent screens and show films are also becoming more commonplace.

“The role of the cinema has arguably changed,” says Wood. “We want to make sure cinemas can function as multi-purpose venues. We also want to make sure the alternative content isn’t at the expense of good cinema content.”

Alternative programming has been hampered up until now because cinemas have not converted to digital as quickly as was anticipated. “The biggest problem right now with alternative programming is that you need digital projectors. It’s in competition with other 3D and digital presentations,” suggests Vue Entertainment CEO Tim Richards.

With a 3D digital revolution underway, however, the scope for experimentation with programming will increase.

The FIFA World Cup this month provides both a daunting challenge - many potential cinema-goers will be more interested in football than in summer tentpole movies - and an opportunity. FIFA is licensing 3D coverage of World Cup games to cinemas around the world. Whatever the success of the tournament as cinema spectacle, similar -initiatives are bound to follow.

“As the [digital] penetration continues, you’re going to see a lot more alternative programming. By the time the Olympics come around, I’d be very disappointed if we aren’t screening all the games in 3D in our cinemas,” Richards says.