This is a novel trend, and one that should see the maintenance of -- and perhaps the expansion of -- single-screen theaters in the future.
Rock Fans, Sit Back, Relax, Enjoy the Show
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By MARC WEINGARTEN - NY Times
Published: January 24, 2006
In this digital age of expanding leisure options, some old-school ideas still have staying power. Take the very 1970's concept of music fans' attending movie theaters to watch their favorite rock stars on the big screen. It's mounting something of a comeback, as illustrated by a one-night-only event in 115 theaters across the country: a showing tonight of "Coachella," a documentary highlighting six years of the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival in Indio, Calif.
Of course, there was a time when rock 'n' roll movies were a big deal. The three-hour film of the 1969 Woodstock music festival won the Academy Award for best documentary, and everyone from Pink Floyd (the 1972 "Live at Pompeii") to the Grateful Dead (the 1977 "Grateful Dead Movie") produced concert films for theatrical delectation in the pre-MTV 70's. For the price of a movie ticket, music fans could experience their favorite rock stars at the local multiplex much as they experienced Luke Skywalker. But the concert films in theaters more or less died with the advent of cable television in the late 70's, as well as the explosion of the video rental business.
Apparently you can't keep a good idea down for long. The exhibitor behind "Coachella" and other recent concert films, Big Screen Concerts, is seeking an elegant solution to a nagging problem: how to fill those thousands of theater seats that tend to collect dust during the dormant preweekend lull, especially with overall ticket sales down by more than 10 percent last year.
"The idea came from trying to figure out what types of content, other than movies, might bring people into the theater from Monday to Thursday," said Kurt Hall, chief executive of National CineMedia, a joint venture of the theater behemoths Regal Entertainment Group, AMC Entertainment and Cinemark USA that includes Big Screen Concerts among its divisions. "There is a 75 percent drop-off in movie attendance during the week, yet it seems that there's always an urge among people to get out of the house."
Especially grown-up music fans, Mr. Hall said, who are well past the age of jostling for position at the foot of the stage with other fans who tenuously cling to sloshing Styrofoam cups of beer. "Older folks don't want to deal with the hassle of rock concerts," Mr. Hall said. "Also, movie theaters provide a safe environment for parents to experience rock shows with their kids."
With access to more than 13,000 screens, Big Screen Concerts offers an enticing chance for music labels to reach tens of thousands of engaged fans with one big, surround-sound bang. The company uses a closed digital network to distribute via satellite its concert events, which thus far have either been live concerts or pretaped promotional events for upcoming DVD releases. Among the more notable over the last year were a DVD screening of a Bruce Springsteen concert from 1975 to coincide with the release of Mr. Springsteen's "Born to Run" 30th-anniversary box set; a live Bon Jovi concert in September transmitted from the Nokia Theater in Manhattan, which helped the New Jersey band sell more units of its album "Have a Nice Day" in its first week of release than any other album in the band's 23-year history. Big Screen Concerts also distributed the jam band Phish's final two shows at the Coventry festival in Vermont in April, beamed via live simulcast to 40,000 fans in theaters in 54 cities.
Fans pay $10 and up for the privilege of viewing the digital events, depending on the economics of the event. (Phish, at $20, has been the top-tier ticket thus far.)
For participating artists, the appeal of Big Screen Concerts isn't too hard to fathom. For one thing, a touring band can extend its reach beyond the cities that might be on its itinerary, or perhaps not even tour at all. But what's more important from a marketing standpoint is the lead-up to the event. "The key to the whole thing is not so much the viewing experience, but the promotion Big Screen Concerts can do on their 13,000 movie screens," said Doc McGhee, manager for Kiss, which put on the first Big Screen Concert event in 2003; he has entered into a business partnership with Big Screen Concerts for future events. "When your band is being shown along with the trailers for 20 minutes on all of those screens, you get that nice marketing kick."
Kiss fans responded to their two-dimensional idols much as they would at a live concert, with all of the attendant applause and lusty vocal support. For Mr. McGhee, that makes Big Screen Concert events a more attractive alternative to concerts beamed on the Web. "It's hard to get excited about a band when you're looking at them on your laptop," Mr. McGhee said. "You don't get that 5.1 surround sound, or the crowd participation."
In addition to music events, Big Screen Concerts is trying to figure out other novel ways to use empty theaters during their off-hours, leasing them out for big corporate confabs (or cine-meetings, as the company likes to call them) and possibly beaming sporting events too. Meanwhile, the lure of the venerable concert film remains strong. "We screened the old 'Grateful Dead Movie' last year," Mr. Hall said, "and it was one of our most popular events."