Driven partly by digital upgrades, many Australian cinemas are morphing into venues where movies are just part of a varied programming menu.  
29 Mar 2012 - 10:56 AM  UPDATED 29 Mar 2012 - 10:56 AM

Suppose you're a diehard Cold Chisel fan, you don't live in Sydney and can't get tickets to the band's concert at the Hordern Pavilion on April 18. The alternative? Pop into one of the dozens of cinemas around Australia where the gig will be beamed live.

That's just one example of how the major circuits and some independents are broadening their offerings and reaching new audiences with a diverse menu of opera, pop music, theatre, sports and other events.

Known in the trade as alternate content, it's a small but rapidly growing segment of the exhibition business, capitalising on the proliferation of digital screens.

Among the most popular attractions of the past 12-18 months have been André Rieu Live in Maastricht, Leonardo Live, Les Misérables: The 25th Anniversary concert, A Tribute To Pavarotti, Phantom Of The Opera, Pearl Jam: PJ 20, Foo Fighters: Back and Forth and Nirvana's Live at the Paramount.

In a trial-and-error process, suppliers and exhibitors have found it harder to attract audiences for offerings such the Red Hot Chili Peppers' I'm With You: Captured Live Concert, Irish dancing, yodelling, and National Theatre Live: Travelling Light (a new play by Nicholas Wright starring Anthony Sher, directed by Nicholas Hytner).

“There is a lot of opportunity. We're making a long-term commitment to alternate content product,” David Seargeant, Managing Director of Event Cinemas' parent Amalgamated Holdings Limited, told SBS Film. “We're growing and broadening our whole audience base.”

Gino Munari, Village Cinemas General Manager – Programming, said, “The entire industry is feeling its way through the market and everyone is still learning. Moving forward, the market has huge upside, primarily with rock concerts and musicals.”

Hoyts recent launched an alternate programming strand branded Hoyts Plus across its circuit. “Cinemas provide a family friendly environment and compared to a live event [these shows] are extremely good value,” said Linda Hickey, Hoyts General Manager – Digital Content. “In our view the events are 'larger than live.'"

Sharmill Films founder Natalie Miller, who co-owns Melbourne's classy Cinema Nova, pioneered non-theatrical fare four years ago with the Metropolitan Opera, followed by the London's National Theatre Live and the State Academic Bolshoi Theatre of Russia.

Typically her events play on around 23 cinemas nationally. Leonardo Live, a satellite-delivered HD presentation of the Leonardo da Vinci: Painter at the Court of Milan exhibition at London's National Gallery screened in February, racking up more than $170,000.

“An extraordinary result,” declares Miller. “It was a bit of a punt to see whether an art exhibition would work. Hopefully there will be more.”

Miller is excited about Sondheim's Company (pictured), the New York Philharmonic concert production recorded in the US last year, starring Neil Patrick Harris, Christina Hendricks, Stephen Colbert, Jon Cryer, Patti LuPone and Martha Plimpton, which launches on March 31; and Swan Lake 3D, staged by Matthew Bourne's dance company New Adventures, which comes out in May.

CinemaLive, a division of Sydney-based The Shooting Star Picture Company, distributed André Rieu Live in Maastricht via satellite to cinemas worldwide. “Australia was just one small cog in the wheel of the success of Andre around the world,” said CinemaLive Joint Director Janelle Mason. “He has had a loyal and growing fan base in Europe, Australia, New Zealand and the US and Canada for a long time, but 2011 saw his star rise in the UK and South America in a huge way.”

That company also screened in Australia Nirvana's Live at the Paramount, a concert recorded on 16mm 20 years ago in Seattle which was remastered to celebrate the 20th anniversary of its album Nevermind, grossing an impressive $400,000 on one night.

CinemaLive has moved its headquarters to London, where the majority of content is generated and to facilitate worldwide distribution. The company is launching Opera Australia on April 24 to around 80 UK cinemas and then onwards to Europe. It has eight operas for 2012, including the spectacular Opera on Sydney Harbour – La Traviata.

Mason says, “We are likely to distribute André Rieu in Maastricht later in the year and we are in talks with some frontline music acts in the UK. We have also been distributing The Wiggles over the last four years throughout the world and hope we'll have a show for Christmas 2012.”

Ian Sutherland, who joined AHL as General Manager Alternate Content last October, said he expects to show 12-16 events annually. He predicts Ultimate Fighting Championship bouts staged in Australia will be big attractions in cinemas, with up to four such events each year.

Seargeant rates the popularity of opera in cinemas as the biggest surprise of the past year, observing, “They draw a lot of people who were experiencing opera for the first time and really liked it.”

He's also enthused about the potential of sports but notes it's very expensive for the free-to-air networks to capture events in 3D and thinks this programming will become more affordable with the rapidly growing take-up of 3D TV sets.

Indeed, the hefty cost of acquiring many live events is an issue which the industry has yet to resolve.

Munari notes, “The producers/suppliers need to work on a model that works for them and the exhibitor. In time, the delivery platform will become more efficient so the distribution costs will decrease. The combination of this plus an increasing appetite from the talent will work to deliver a more prolific catalogue of content to our screens and our consumers.”

Mason is similarly upbeat, declaring, “It is a steadily growing business and the growth will probably come from all sectors. With the success of live theatre, this has given many content owners/producers of theatre [the incentive] to tackle the sometimes difficult task of trying to make a deal work for everyone [i.e. generally unionised actors, theatre workers, technical and front line staff].”