The October 2023 release of Taylor Swift: The Eras Tour became the biggest event cinema title of all time, taking more than $261m worldwide, and more than £12m ($15.2m) at the UK-Ireland box office for distributor Trafalgar Releasing.
Other strong titles throughout the year in the UK and Ireland included Renaissance: A Film By Beyoncé (£1.5m/$1.9m), Vermeer: The Greatest Exhibition (£1.3m/$1.6m) and comedian Kevin Bridges’ stand-up show Kevin Bridges: The Overdue Catch Up, which was the biggest event cinema comedy release post-pandemic, taking close to £400,000 ($507,000), and the third-best performing event cinema comedy release of all time (behind Monty Python and Billy Connolly).
André Rieu’s White Christmas, by the Dutch violinist and conductor, grossed £1.2m ($1.5m) for Piece of Magic Entertainment, while the filmed performance of theatre production A Little Life, starring James Norton and released by Trafalgar, was 2023’s third-best performing event title with £1.5m ($1.9m). Good, starring David Tennant, brought in £1.3m ($1.6m) for National Theatre Live.
“A successful event cinema title in the UK was [previously] one that would go over £1m [$1.3m] in terms of box office, with 2019 being the pinnacle year for event cinema,” says Grainne Clarke, a member of the board of directors of the Event Cinema Association (ECA). “We were on an upward trajectory before the pandemic hit. We had 11 titles that went over £1m in 2019, and that’s from an average of 135 event cinema releases in a year.”
Pre-pandemic, many event cinema titles typically showed only ‘as live’, plus a series of encores, with each site playing the title an average of three times. But increasingly, event cinema titles are committing to longer runs. Prima Facie starring Jodie Comer grossed just shy of £5m ($6.3m) for National Theatre Live in 2022 and remains its best performing title, with a 12-week window, while The Eras Tour and Renaissance also played for several weeks.
Event cinema, which as well as cultural performances covers sports matches, anime and pre-school content, grossed £37.8m ($48m) in the UK and Ireland in 2023, a 191% increase on 2022. This does not match event cinema’s record-breaking year of 2019, which hit £53m ($67.1m) but “we’re definitely back on our pre-pandemic trajectory”, says Clarke.
Swift’s enormous fanbase and the rapidity with which tickets sold out to see her concert in-person are clear indicators as to why The Eras Tour performed so well in cinemas. The release also came at a time in which exhibitors were looking for more content, with key titles such as Dune: Part Two pushing their autumn release dates back due to the SAG-AFTRA strike.
It is also true the cost of a ticket to watch a concert or play in a local cinema is typically much cheaper than in a theatre or stadium, with savings also made on travel. “We always talk about [event] cinema being democratising and accessible,” says Marc Allenby, CEO of Trafalgar Releasing.
The 2024 UK/Ireland release calendar may be light on tentpole titles but ECA’s Clarke suggests cinemas need to be clever about how they exhibit event releases. “It’s about understanding where your audience gaps are, rather than shoehorning in content,” she says. “Are your gaps in the calendar month, or are there gaps in your audiences to help with your admissions?”
The filmed concerts of K-pop superstars BTS are an example of how to bring in new audiences. But cinemas must work to turn these into repeat customers.
The 2024 release schedule for event cinema titles includes Dear England and Vanya from National Theatre Live; Pet Shop Boys Dreamworld: The Greatest Hits Live At The Royal Arena Copenhagen and a Peppa Pig 20th anniversary cinema party from Trafalgar Releasing; Queen Rock Montreal from Pathé Live; Kinky Boots The Musical from CinemaLive; and Painting The Modern Garden: Monet To Matisse from Exhibition On Screen.
There is room to further widen the scope for event cinema’s reach. Some independent cinemas screened the finale of BBC reality game show The Traitors. Owing to rights issues, tickets at Birmingham’s Mockingbird Cinema cost just £1 ($1.30), with proceeds donated to the charity Children In Need. The Really Local Group, which includes Catford Mews, Ealing Project and Reading Biscuit Factory, screened the episode in the buildings’ foyers.
Historically, if UK cinemas have a TV licence they can broadcast TV content for free and make money from concessions. But Clarke is hopeful this may change if broadcasters see the benefit of a revenue-sharing model.
Sports offer an untapped market. “Sporting events have real opportunity, particularly for families,” says Clarke. “There are a lot of football fans or sports fans who don’t like the pub environment.”
Cinemas can presently apply for a licence from international football organisation Fifa to screen matches. But Clarke is not a fan of the model: “The cost of recuperating that is quite challenging.”
What works best differs around the world. Opera and rock concerts perform well in Germany. In the US, distributor Fathom has found large audiences for faith-based content. In France there is also an appetite for faith-based content as well as streamed self-help conventions and anime.
Trafalgar Releasing — which distributes in 120 countries worldwide — sees Asia as a big market for K-pop concert releases, and is excited about opportunities in Latin America. The UK’s Royal Opera House, which distributes ballet and opera in more than 50 countries worldwide, says its most popular territories are the UK and Ireland, Germany, Spain, France and Japan.
Gaming events, in which a distributor streams video-gaming competitions into cinema, are most popular in Spain and Germany. “In 2024, the League of Legends World Championship will be in London, and we believe we will see a big uptake in cinema interest for it next year,” notes Caspar Nadaud, CEO and founder of Piece of Magic.
The best performing cinemas in the UK-Ireland for André Rieu performances are Regent Cinema in Christchurch, followed by the Stellar cinema in the Rathmines suburb of Dublin, Woodhall Spa’s Kinema and the Showcase in Bluewater, Kent. Vue’s top five best performing sites in the UK and Ireland for André Rieu’s White Christmas were Plymouth, Longwell Green, Southport, Cleveleys and Bristol Cribbs. None of the top 10 are in London.
Trafalgar Releasing found in the UK-Ireland that Renaissance performed better in cities, with the Vue cinema chain reporting all 10 of its best performing cinemas for this title were metropolitan areas, and five of the top 10 in London. Its Westfield Stratford branch came out on top, followed by Manchester Printworks. Vue similarly found its top 10 best performers for The Eras Tour were dominated by cities, however only one of the top 10 was in London (West End), with the top five being Dublin, Glasgow Fort, Cheshire Oaks, Manchester Printworks and Plymouth.
The Eras Tour, Renaissance and André Rieu’s White Christmas were Vue’s best performing concert films of the year, with Vue Dublin the only site to be in the top 10 most popular venues for all three.
Independent cinemas perform particularly well in the UK and Ireland for event releases. Of the 10 highest-grossing cinemas in the UK-Ireland for André Rieu performances, Piece of Magic has found the top three are independent venues. The Royal Opera House also noted that its cinema broadcasts tend to attract larger audiences at independent cinemas, with ballets The Nutcracker, Cinderella and The Sleeping Beauty among its highest performers of 2023.
“Popularity can mean different things in the UK – whether it’s filling up a large city centre [venue] on a Thursday night, which we regularly do, or a tiny village hall which is the only venue within a 20-mile radius for local people, or a community film club that offers regular touchpoint for its members,” says Leo Jordan, head of marketing and distribution for National Theatre Live. “There’s even a lorry called the Screen Machine that drives around the Scottish Highlands and turns into a mobile cinema, that regularly fills up with NT Live audiences.”
Event cinema companies are good at pushing the boundaries of cinema’s typical format. “A good event cinema screening feels much more like you’re at a concert. There will be dancing down the aisles, in the seats, even in front of the screen,” says Allenby. “People are filming their entrance to the cinema going in, a bit like they would going into a gig. For [acts such as] Roger Waters or Metallica, the fan behaviour will be slightly different, it will be less social-media driven. But it’s the same thing — people wearing band T-shirts, having a drink, wanting to get into it as if they’re going to a stadium.
“We work with cinemas to help prepare them for that,” Allenby adds, “top tips about what might be coming from the fans and encourage them to allow that behaviour as best they can within the environment.”
This means having an interval, in the case of André Rieu, whose performances often stretch to three hours. During the pandemic, when cinemas were open but venues had to restrict movement, Rieu was adamant. “He said, ‘I demand that my people can go to the loo,’” reveals Piece of Magic’s Nadaud.
Traditional film distributors are watching and learning. ‘Eventising’ the release played a big part in the ‘Barbenheimer’ success for Warner Bros and Universal Pictures. But it is not a one-size fits all approach.
“Cinema is the best way to see anything, in terms of screen, sound, seating, communal experience,” says Allenby. “But they [cinemas] do need to remember that it’s about making it special for the customer, and that needn’t be a lot of noise and distraction.”
Piece of Magic uses social media to market as much to an older demographic as it does to a younger one, it just fine-tunes where and how. “Facebook is for the older demo. TikTok and Instagram we would do for gaming [event cinema releases],” says Naudad. “We are targeted via Facebook and that’s how we reach [Rieu’s] older audience, and via his own newsletters and channels.”
Local publicity is also crucial. “Grandma and grandpa read the local papers,” adds Nadaud. “The exhibitor is also very important — the exhibitor has a good feel for their local community.”
The lead times of an event cinema release can be an advantage. “Event cinema can go on sale about three months in advance. They can benefit from that promotional period,” says James Dobbins, director of event cinema, UK and international, at exhibitor and distributor National Amusements.
“Event cinema’s advantage is these are established IPs [intellectual properties], inbuilt audiences. It’s infinitely harder to do that with a theatrical feature film release that doesn’t come with anything existing,” he says. “It’s a very different discipline, and it’s maybe having that patience to find that audience, and build it.”