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One night only

It’s hot outside. As a tourist town, the majority of our attractions are outside activities. Hell, our biggest attraction is the ocean, but the sand is blistering and how much of the brine can you take before you’re waterlogged? What’s there to do, when you’ve had enough of the beach or when the sun goes down? We recently stumbled upon a trend that seems to be a publicity secret for some reason.

Our local theaters are quietly diversifying their options and we’re not talking those artsy-fartsy films that get all of the Oscar nominations. Rather, several theaters are experimenting with pay-per-view boxing and Mixed Martial Arts events, live concert films and music documentaries, special movie and TV features and ballets and operas. A few of these events coming down the red carpet in the next couple of weeks include two newly re-mastered versions of “Star Trek: The Next Generation” on Monday (July 23) as well as two music events – “The Who: Quadrophenia - Can You See The Real Me? The Story Behind the Album” on Tuesday (July 24) and “A Birthday Celebration: The Grateful Dead Movie Event” in honor of Jerry Garcia’s birthday on Aug. 1. All three are screening as one-night-only events at Cinemark at Coastal Grand Mall.

On July 12, we went to find out for ourselves what all the whispering is about. We attended the one-night-only experience of “TCM Presents: Singin’ in the Rain - 60th Anniversary Event” at Cinemark at Coastal Grand. We initially thought the affair might be a sparse crowd of senior citizens. We asked one of the ushers how many people came out for the event and he gave a headcount of 85. A quarter of them were elderly. There were a few families with younger kids and a few groups of teenage girls. But the overall consensus of the crowd was date-night couples. We took the opportunity to trawl the audience to see what brought them out.

Gary Pace and Brenda Pace from Henderson, N.C., brought their 12-year-old granddaughter along for the event. Gary Pace says, “We heard about it while we were watching the Turner Classic Movie channel. Then we read about it in the newspaper. But it was still hard to find.” Brenda Pace adds, “We wanted our granddaughter to see it on the big screen. This is what movies should be.”

But this wasn’t just a passing of the torch from generation to generation. Kayla Finley is a 24-year-old from Ashland, Ky. She came with a group of men and women, all young adults. “I saw a preview for this at another theater back home. I’ve seen it on TV many times but I wanted to see it in a theater. We’re here on vacation and saw it was playing here too, so we came,” says Finley.

When we asked the group why they’d pay to see a 60-year-old movie, 26 year-old Brittany Bryant says, “Old movies are the best, the dancing is the best. There’s just more romance.”

Connie Pruitt, 24, and Matt Alley, 23, are from Spartanburg and of all the things they could do with two hours of their vacation at the beach, the couple chose this event for a Thursday night. Pruitt says, “This is one of my favorites, all the talent. It’s a fantastic classic.” When Alley is asked what made him decide to come, he says, “I’m with her.”

The night would’ve proved to be a roaring success if it wasn’t for a technical difficulty. As Gene Kelly has his umbrella in hand, beginning to hum the title songthe screen freezes and the actual scene where Kelly is dancing and singing in the rain was missing due to a digital steaming error. The theater erupted in a collective bellow, “No!” The movie resumed in the middle of the next scene but the disappointment was palpable. How can you present “Singin’ in the Rain” without any singing in the rain?

Digital delivery

This mishap proves even the most seamless technology has flaws. It becomes more than a simple error. It becomes the ruining of a classic.

But let’s face it, this is a new digital age and that “Singin’ in the Rain” scene can be viewed on Youtube anytime, by anyone with a computer or smart phone and an Internet connection. The point is the digital media format has changed everything in entertainment. It allows endless forms of media to be easily streamed or downloaded.

People lounge on their couches and recliners and let the movies fall right in their lap. Adding to that, the pirates and bootleggers are raiding the digital shores, causing movie studios to cry broke. Video stores are going out of business and movie theaters are shaking in their popcorn-filled boots. Those not streaming or downloading their movies illegally wait for them to be released on DVD and get them delivered by mail or grab it from a box retailer for a buck. Brad Tuttle at Time Magazine reports, “Last year saw the fewest movie tickets sold since 1995, with overall revenues dropping by 4.5 percent compared to 2010 – despite the fact that theaters were receiving the highest-ever amount per moviegoer.”

So what are theaters to do to keep afloat in the sea of soda? It’s true, this year the superheroes may save the day in ticket sales. But what happens during the slow weeks? What about the future? When the market changes, theaters must change with the times – so what’s the plan?

USA Today reports, “Instead of just showing the latest Hollywood blockbusters, multiplexes equipped with digital projection increasingly are providing patrons with a night at the ballet or the fights. And jeans-wearing opera lovers can enjoy a show at the same place they’d see a romantic comedy or an action movie.”

Theaters are taking creative angles to coax people into their seats and the events they’re showcasing range in themes. For the highbrow patrons who live in a town without an arts theater (i.e. Myrtle Beach), they can see The New York City Ballet performing “The Nutcracker” on a screen, three-stories high. For fight fans, you could’ve seen Manny Pacquiao get robbed on the big screen or even watch an Ultimate Fighting Championship in 3-D. There are comedy shows such as “Mystery Science Theater 3000,” where you can sit in the theater while they riff live via satellite on some awesomely bad flicks. There are drum-core marching band events. There are anniversary showings of classic films for the film-buffs who long for the golden age of the silver screen. There’s opera at the Met. There’s Glenn Beck live, oh my!

Why Do it?

The question should be, why would we need to have four theaters showing “Madagascar 8?” Sure the theaters are tied to the movie studios and by contract they’re obligated to have a required amount of space and time devoted to the cash-cows that keep the studios and theaters sailing the seas of nacho cheese. But what harm is a one-night-only event in the grand scheme of things? The Marketing Director of Cinemark USA, Bryan Jeffries says, “Most theaters are looking for alternative forms of entertainment to play during the slower times at the theater. It makes good business sense to offer a one-night performance of a Hollywood classic film, instead of the seventh week of a film that might have four or five people buying a ticket to see it that night.”

This should be a welcome occurrence here on the Grand Strand. We live in an area with an up-and-coming college and the college scene that goes along with it. No, we’re not talking about frat parties and keg stands. Those are fine, too, but we’re talking about a community of young arts majors who have an appreciation for the humanities. There are also the visitors of the beach who are looking for something new to do. Then, there are the hordes of ordinary folks who yearn for alternatives in their art and entertainment offerings. And throw in the retirees who live and visit the Grand Strand who have a love of film classics and live theater. “For the most part, it’s a welcome surprise for the customer as well. Some may never get to see the Metropolitan Opera or a world class ballet any other way than in the movie theatre,” says Jefferies.

It makes good sense – when the pickings get slim, bring in some variety. The Carmike Cinemas at Broadway at the Beach and Myrtle Beach Mall are getting into the mix – they recently had an encore event for the Bolshoi Ballet and they’re offering two operas in the near future, one in July and one in August, at the Carmike 12 at Myrtle Beach Mall and Carmike’s Broadway 16.

But when we started to research this story and began delving into the Web sites of the theaters along the Strand, we were surprised to see that Cinemark and the Carmike Cinemas were the only ones offering such a diverse banquet of selections over the dog days of summer when people want to be out of the heat and in an air conditioned room with big comfy seats and a fistful of popcorn. (Granted, several local theaters are offering a slate of kids’ movies during summertime - but that’s another animal.)

The one unifying event that every theater in town will participate in is a tried and true moneymaker. They all will be showing a Batman Marathon as a one night only event tonight at 6 with “Batman Begins” followed by “The Dark Knight,” before heading into to the midnight premier of “The Dark Knight Rises.” If you do the math, it’s almost nine-hours of straight up and in-your-face Christian Bale – guaranteed audiences will leave with a numb ass, whispering, “I’m Batman.”

The new kid on the Strand, Frank Theaters at Inlet Square Mall lets the blockbuster films do the talking on the screen but its amenities outside the theater are immense. The revamped venue offers an arcade, a full bar, a cafe and bowling alleys with bowling leagues starting up in August with a $10,000 prize fund. We asked Kali Karellas, Frank’s on-site Sales and Promotions Manager, about one-night-only events and she explains, “We have done this in the past however I won’t know what they may bring in until a few weeks in advance. At this time we don’t have anything.”

This leads us to our next question

Who Is In Charge?

From the looks of things, it seems that every theater group has its own affiliation with companies in charge of these special events. The specific events and the scheduling are done on a national level, or as Jeffries puts it in regards to Cinemark, “The company that is producing and distributing these events is called Fathom Events. They are a division of National Cine Media. National Cine Media is the company that creates the content for the 20 minute ‘pre-show’ in most theaters.”

Fathom Events is a digital broadcast network or DBN. It is in charge of providing and scheduling more than 700 locations throughout the country. Locally, Cinemark at Coastal Grand is its only theater. The next closest theater is Swamp Fox Stadium 14 in Florence.

Carmike works with another DBN, known as Emerging Pictures, which has the ability to broadcast an almost endless stream of alternative entertainment. This company has both local Carmike theaters and Cinemark is listed in its network on its Web site. Emerging Pictures not only provides the opera and ballets we are beginning to see on big screens in our market, it also has a diverse catalog of special events, including classic and cult films along with the cultural theatrical arts provided. For example, this partnership could make it possible for the affiliate theaters to present a Bruce Springsteen Concert on Friday, an Alfred Hitchcock Marathon on Saturday, and Sunday could finish off the weekend with Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet” performed at the Globe Theater in London.

These companies compile a bunch of cool stuff – concerts, music documentaries, contracts for sports events and on and on. Then, they broadcast them digitally to local theaters. No muss, no fuss. But if it’s that easy, why are we missing out on so many offerings that other cities and towns get? For instance, Cinemark has a Classic Series which showcases genre-defining films, on a one-night-only basis – films like “The Exorcist,” “Citizen Kane,” John Wayne’s “The Searchers” and “A Clockwork Orange” are being offered around the country to audiences who embrace movie excellence. Other people just want to see some of their favorite films digitally remastered and on the screens they were made to be shown on.

Since this is a possibility, why limit these events to narrow locales and regions? Why not pump out this alternative entertainment like popcorn butter, splattering as many applicable theaters across the U.S. as possible? Do the powers that be think of us here on the Grand Strand as uncultured sand dwellers? Do they reserve this entertainment for the nation’s artsy villages and metropolises? One of the theaters playing Cinemark’s Classic Series is way down in the Lowcountry - Bluffton, a town of roughly 13,000. Come on, Bluffton?

Jeffries tries to dissuade our conspiracy theories when he tells us, “The events are being programmed nationwide. At this point they aren’t regionalizing the content. The reason we haven’t done the Ballet or the Classic Film Series is because both events were being introduced as a trial run this summer. We wanted to get a feel for how each event performs and then expand it into the rest of the chain after we see the results. So far, we’ve been very happy with both. Hopefully we can add Myrtle Beach in the fall.”

We asked Gary Green, Carmike’s Director of Alternative Contents, who decides which market gets what offerings? “We like to think that we do, although the content owner or distributor can change our minds for us. We are limited by the available screen time during our normal operations. We won’t cancel our normal offerings on weekends and only do so on weekdays when it makes sense to do so. Outside our normal operating hours we are limited by only the remaining hours in the day,” he said.

And indeed, Jeffries is right. By the time we were finalizing this article, ballet had been listed on the upcoming schedule for Myrtle Beach. This bodes hope for our future, being able to watch the best performers of the arts beamed directly to our local screens.

How Are We Supposed To Know?

If there was a one-night-only event every night at local theaters, how would we know? How is the word being spread? “One way the public finds out about these events is through our Web site,” says Jeffries. “We also have posters and flyers in the lobby of our theatres and we play video announcements of each event before the movies in every auditorium. Occasionally, we will get radio support for events that fit that radio station’s format.” Fathom Events does send out press releases to promote upcoming events but the efforts are far from a media blitz. But it’s a start.

It may help to advertise these specific events in outlets that will resonate with target demographics. It seems that TCM got the point when airing commercials about the “Singin’ in the Rain” anniversary event. But what kind of crowd would’ve turned out if a street team were assigned to beating the boulevards, getting flyers out to dance studios and colleges? How many asses would’ve been in the seats if ads were placed in local papers, alternative guides, art periodicals and theater employees were signing people up for e-mail newsletters?

Carmike’s Green added: “We make heavy use of the social and mobile media options available to us. As much as can be accomplished with these outlets targeting is used, but Facebook and the like is pretty much there. For our Rewards Members and arts partners the e-mail blasts can be far more targeted. We do press releases for nearly all our Alternative Content.”

Then he made the most salient point: “As most of these events are a single show event, the revenue stream is too limited to allow for more traditional media purchases like radio or TV,” he said.

After a week of correspondence via e-mail with Fathom Events, a week of being passed from one employee to another, we finally got to Samuel Threadgill, the Manager or Public Relations & Communications. Just when we prepared ourselves to have our questions answered, he told us that he was, “unquotable.”

Meanwhile, Duane Farmer of Stone Theaters at The Market Common on the former Myrtle Beach Air Force Base echoed the frustration on the subject. He told us his multi-plex has no special events scheduled and the last time it had something scheduled it was a debacle, “It was the lost Beatles’ concerts but there was a screw-up between the producers and Screenvision and it was yanked at the last minute. No one ever pursued it.”

Farmer is referring to the two-night event, "The Beatles: The Lost Concert," scheduled in mid-to-late May. The documentary shows the band during its first-ever U.S. concert and the footage hadn’t been shown in its entirety for 47 years. The show was delayed from the first week of May until the aforementioned mid-May dates but a week before it was set to premier, it was cancelled. Screenvision released a statement at the time and expressed regret and made plans for a later release during the summer but it’s now mid-July and no new dates have been set.

Screenvision is one of the behemoths in cinema advertising companies and alternative content providers. Cinemark’s National CineMedia is the biggest but Screenvision falls into a close second. In addition to ad sales and providing alternative content, Screenvision is into media management, production services, digital network installation, digital entertainment preshow production and other associated products and services. Maybe Screenvision has its hands in too many pies.

Or maybe it’s the public that’s having a hard time accepting theaters offering more than the basics. Or maybe the giants of the industry rely on marketing campaigns that chug along like little engines – working uphill, picking up passengers one by one and carrying them into the new world of theater entertainment without a lot of fanfare.

What’s Next?

As long as there is time to work out the cogs in the machine, there’s no real reason to worry about the future of theaters. Not as long as the decision-makers can learn to return an e-mail and keep attempting to balance the big-budget blockbusters and smaller artsy-fartsy films with other alternative events.

But as always, it will boil down to the bottom line. We ask Jefferies if these one-nighters are economically viable. “Over time, we have success in almost every theater we play these events,” he says. “Attendance will always vary based on the popularity of each event. Some people might only want to see an MMA fight. Other people might only come for the concerts.”

When we inquire about which type of event has been the most successful, Jeffries says, “Overall, the opera is still the one event that gets the highest attendance week in and week out.”

This is a step forward for theaters – and a step back in many ways, retracing roots to the Vaudeville theaters of yore. Vaudevillian acts ranged from classical dancers and singers to comedians, modern musicians, magicians and hundreds of other variations of entertainment. This gives theaters the flexibility to move toward becoming a digital Vaudeville. This move may be a motivation for some estranged audiences to return to the theaters that had come to be thought of as monsters of repetition and excess. If nothing else, it will give people with similar interests a chance to mingle before and after the lights go down – whether these interests are seeing someone get knocked out in a boxing ring or watching a 60-year-old musical or playing air-drums to Keith Moon or enjoying a comedy show or practicing to be the next Pavarotti or...all of the above.