As multiscreen stadium-seating theaters with huge parking lots, endless rows of seats, anonymous lobbies, $12 popcorn, and annoying pre-movie ads have sprouted throughout the country, the act of going to the movies has become homogenized. In an objective sense, the sound, picture, concessions stands, and selection of films are better than they were in the “sticky-floor sixes” buried in most 1970s shopping malls, or even in the movie palaces of the 1920s. But
the experience, the vibe, and the entertainment onscreen are all the same, whether one is in Manhattan or Boise.
But that’s all changing. And one company has, largely by accident, produced the quirkiest and most potentially disruptive forces to strike moviegoing in a long time: the ability to bring real “events” to movie theaters.
The company is called Fathom Events, and it produces multi-media versions of performing arts, concerts, and sporting events, bringing them to cinema settings. Fathom is a division of NCM Media Networks, the company founded by the major theater chains that’s responsible for the -overwhelming majority of ubiquitous pre-movie advertising. Fathom’s technology, a modified and improved version of the hardware used to deliver advertising to theaters, has now made its way onto about 1,500 of the nation’s 39,000 movie screens, although a typical event would appear on only a third of them. With Fathom’s service, NCM has figured out a way to extract more revenue from parts of this existing advertising network by providing events that draw people into theaters during weekdays, afternoons, and other off-peak hours. Ticket prices are higher than those for movies, but lower than those for performing arts and sporting events.
Fathom’s programming covers a wide range of tastes. Its mainstay—advertised heavily in the lobbies of theaters in the wealthier parts of metropolitan areas like Washington, Chicago, and Boston—is higher-brow-than-thou Metropolitan Opera performances. But it also ventures into the middlebrow (Andrew Lloyd Webber musicals and Prairie Home Companion special events), lowbrow (Ultimate Fighting), and plain old geeky (Star Trek: The Next Generation episodes and a satirical showing of the notoriously bad movie Manos: The Hands of Fate). Fathom appeals to niche groups, and a majority of its events are one-time-only. Outside of its own webpage, the company itself is virtually invisible: Only people with the most diverse cultural tastes would possibly be interested in more than a fraction of what streams across its network.
Nonetheless, the technology generally works well. Live broadcasts from the Met, where Fathom has a lot of experience, truly hold your attention on the big screen thanks to creative camera angles and excellent you-are-there sound quality. The relatively simple blocking and lush costumes also help operas, in particular, to come alive in a movie theater. There are dozens of Internet message-board discussions devoted to every Fathom opera production; one got more than a thousand posts within 24 hours of the performance.
To be sure, not everything the company tries works this well. A production last year of Stephen Sondheim’s Company, staring Neil Patrick Harris, used too many static long shots and left parts of the audience snoozing. On the other hand, a carefully recorded version of an Australian production of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Love Never Dies worked much better, perhaps because of its gaudy pyrotechnics and lavish production values. Plain old classic movies and television episodes aren’t always successful, either, because the digital technology Fathom uses tends to degrade image quality or reveal difficult-to-see flaws in master prints. Fathom’s experiments with 3-D sporting events, such as Wimbledon, can induce dizziness, although more static boxing works better. Additionally, Fathom head Shelly Maxwell reports that events targeted towards children and their stay-at-home parents haven’t worked out for the company.
Overall, though, the technology, and Fathom itself, have to be considered a huge cultural gift: Bringing world-class opera to midsized cities on big screens works much better than showing it on TV, where it gets lost, even in high definition. Likewise, productions such as Love Never Dies—which arouse interest, but never actually get shown on stage in the United States—offer new cultural experiences to just about everyone. And while they aren’t high art, Star Trek episodes and so-bad-they’re-good movies certainly have their fans who couldn’t (or wouldn’t) be able to get together to watch them anywhere else.
But the real difference is that Fathom’s shows provide true diversity to the moviegoing experience. Older couples in the less-populated parts of North Carolina actually dress to the nines to attend opera performances at the movie theater, and people too young to remember Star Trek: The Next Generation on television wear surprisingly professional Starfleet uniforms to the showings.
But the sheer quirkiness of the enterprise may not last forever. NCM executive Dan Diamond confidently predicts that technology such as Fathom’s will soon supplant the hard drives and film spools that studios now ship to theaters. It is possible that, in time, Fathom’s network will be given over entirely to standard mass-market fare, and its decision to bring oddball entertainment to all corners of the country will be forgotten.
At least for now, however, a division of a big company best known for annoying moviegoers has brought variety to America’s increasingly homogenous moviegoing experience.
Eli Lehrer is president of R Street.