'Spirited Away: Live on Stage'

Source: GKIDS

‘Spirited Away: Live on Stage’

Delivering a company record box-office tally of $100m, 2023 was a big year for Fathom Events. And the success came as the payoff for a strategic evolution at the Denver-­based company, long known as the US exhibition sector’s big name in alternative content.

Now in its 20th year of operation as a joint venture between leading US exhibitors AMC, Regal Cinemas and Cinemark, Fathom began distributing what the industry initially called alternative content, and then rebranded as event cinema.

The model, under which Fathom staged as many as 150 one- or two-night events each year, got the joint venture through the pandemic, but 18 months ago “we decided that we needed to do something a little bit different to grow the company”, says CEO Ray Nutt. “And that evolved into specialty distribution.”

Though event cinema remains a significant part of Fathom’s business plan — the company had success in 2023 with a rerelease of animated feature Coraline (see below) and has 90 event releases set for this year — the plan now also encompasses special engagements, one- or two-week runs of new content that can be extended according to demand.

Both parts of the plan make use of Fathom’s North American distribution network, which reaches more than 2,000 cinemas owned by AMC, Regal and Cinemark, as well as hundreds of regional exhibitors. The company also distributes content — sometimes through a sub-­distributor or local exhibitor — to more than 45 countries outside North America.

For North American releases, exhibitors keep a percentage of box-office revenue — 25% for a weekday film or event, 35% for weekend releases — and Fathom shares the rest with the provider from which it licenses the content.

Ray Nutt

Source: Fathom

Ray Nutt

The special engagement strategy was launched last year with four extended-run releases, including faith-centred drama The Blind, which became Fathom’s highest-­grossing release ever, with a North American take of $17.3m. Twice as many extended runs are planned for this year.

Faith-based and inspirational content became an important part of Fathom’s slate a decade ago, when the company recognised the value of projects from faith-based film­makers who, says Nutt, “were basically shunned by Hollywood. We weren’t running from anybody and saw there were some really good films out there and an audience for this content.”

The popularity of the category has also been part of Fathom’s experimentation with the theatrical distribution of episodic streaming and television content. After previously releasing two Christmas specials and episodes from season three of Angel Studios’ The Chosen to its exhibition network, this February Fathom released all eight episodes from season four of the Christian historical drama series before the season was made available for streaming.

Nutt, who predicts the entire Chosen franchise will end up garnering $75m-$80m in theatrical takings, suggests the distribution model could work for other kinds of episodic content. “There’s a lot of streamers that would look at doing things with us,” he says. Beyond the faith-based and inspirational cate­gory, meanwhile, Fathom is now releasing a healthy diversity of content, some of it in ongoing branded series, some as individual titles.

A sizeable part of the slate consists of rereleases of classic movies, timed to hit anniversaries, explains Nutt, so that “the home-entertainment divisions of the studios will get behind them and market them”. Last year’s classic rereleases, most screened with recorded introductions by critic and historian Leonard Maltin, included The Lord Of The Rings: The Return Of The King on its 20th anniversary and Saving Private Ryan on its 25th. This year’s line-up includes South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut for a 25th anniversary sing­along, Rear Window on its 70th birthday and Mean Girls at 20.

Anime appeal

Anime accounts for another portion of the Fathom slate and last year the company repeated its annual collaboration with distributor GKids on a Studio Ghibli Fest, taking in 10 titles from the famous Japanese label plus filmed theatre production Spirited Away: Live On Stage. Marketing the titles — led by Hayao Miyazaki award-winners Spirited Away and Howl’s Moving Castle — as a package rather than individually produced a big increase on previous years’ takings for the collection, grossing $15.1m combined, reports Nutt.

Performing arts content, such as the opera stagings from New York that Fathom has offered for the past 18 years in its The Met: Live In HD series, remains a part of the slate too, though Nutt concedes the category was “impacted very negatively during the pandemic” and has been “a little slower to come back”.

In other genres, Fathom is also now providing its exhibitors with independent and even foreign-­language features. Last year, under a Fathom First banner, the company teamed with indie distributor Roadside Attractions to give documentary Beyond Utopia (which went on to be shortlisted for this year’s Oscar and nominated at Bafta) an awards-qualifying US cinema run. It also worked with Bleecker Street to give Golda a one-night screening — alongside an exclusive Q&A with star Helen Mirren — just before the biographical drama officially opened in the US.

Fathom announced a partnership with indie distributor Vertical to give a 500-theatre exclusive theatrical run in May to Jeanne Du Barry, Maïwenn’s French-language historical drama with Johnny Depp that opened last year’s Cannes Film Festival.

Companies like Vertical, says Nutt, “like the fact we can eventise a film, and they like our marketing assets. When you work with Fathom you don’t have $100m in p&a to pay for trailering and posters and other in-theatre assets to promote the release — that all comes along with what we do.” Content owners “love working with us because of the promotional value and the different angle on things”.

Moving forward, Fathom can expect some new competition in a market segment that appears set for growth. Nutt believes that “right now the biggest competitors we have are the major studios”. Even Fathom’s exhibitor co-owner AMC is reportedly eyeing the segment after turning distributor last autumn with the hugely successful concert film Taylor Swift: The Eras Tour.

But the Fathom CEO sees his company’s business accounting for a bigger piece of the overall box-office pie, with the writers and actors strikes of last year still affecting the studios’ line-ups of mainstream feature releases.

Last year, says Nutt, “the commercial product was delayed because of the strikes and we saw that opportunity and stepped in with content like The Blind [a biographical feature about reality TV personality Phil Robertson]. That showed the movie theatre is in a transformative phase right now.”

Nutt continues: “Regular movies are always going to be the bulk of the business, but I think it showed people there are other ways to utilise these theatres.”  

Three Fathom winners: Successes span a diversity of content

Coraline 2

Source: Laika Studios


The Blind
Based on the early life of Phil Robertson, the sometimes-controversial patriarch of the Louisiana family behind the Duck Dynasty reality TV series, this faith-based biographical feature was booked into cinemas for a two-week engagement last September but was extended for six weeks, over which time it became Fathom’s biggest box-office hit at $17.3m. Key to the success, says Fathom CEO Ray Nutt, was the film’s story of redemption and a marketing plan that was aimed at consumers of the Robertson family’s various series, books and video games, as well as shoppers at the Cabela’s hunting and fishing equipment retail chain. 

The Chosen (season four)
Selected episodes from Angel Studios’ ongoing and popular TV series about the life of Jesus Christ were distributed to cinemas by Fathom in 2021 and 2022. Season four, however, saw the company give the whole series an exclusive theatrical premiere before a streaming launch on Angel’s VoD platform, releasing the eight episodes in three separate chunks across February and March. As of mid-March, cumulative box office had reached $29.7m, with Fathom planning to bring the three blocks back to cinemas on successive days at the start of the Easter weekend.

Laika Studios’ Oscar-nominated stop-motion feature, directed by Henry Selick, was originally released by Focus Features in 2009. Fathom brought the family fantasy back to cinemas last August, in a remastered and upgraded version coupled with exclusive behind-the-scenes content on the making of the movie and previously unseen material from the Laika archives. Coraline took $5m over its planned two nights on release, so Fathom brought the film back for another Monday/Tuesday run, garnering an additional $2.2m. “There’s a lot of pleasant surprises in those one- or two-night events,” says Nutt. “If those do $700,000 or $800,000 or $1m, that’s good business for our theatre owners.”