Are Fathom Events Really Working?

A new advertisement has jostled its way onto our pre-movie screens alongside Coke ads, all-too easy trivia, and offers for Friday night specials at the Mexican place next door. Fathom Events! One night only! Exclusive! Live!

Those events are a surprising scatter shot of variety, ranging from live performances of the Metropolitan Opera, Celine Dion concerts, and anime movies. They also offer the odd classic, as they did last weekend when they paired up with AMC to offer a big-screen replay of Casablanca. In the past, they've done screenings of new classics such as Poltergeist, Lord of the Rings, The Wizard of Oz, Back to the Future, Nightmare on Elm Street, and Ghostbusters. They have a knack for picking the kind of titles that a 21st century film geek finds particularly mouthwatering. If you haven't already gone to a Fathom event, you've probably contemplated going and seeing a beloved film playing on the big screen once more ... or perhaps for the first time.

But Fathom has a bad rap among the more sophisticated cineastes. What the advertisements don't make clear is that Fathom – a division of National CineMedia – isn't screening prints of these beloved films. They're merely streaming them digitally from a DVD, and projecting them onto the big screen, making it only a marginally better (if that) experience than you could have at home. That this was not clear – and was a crushing blow -- is evident from the online reaction to Fathom's 2007 screening of Poltergeist.   People were furious.  Not only did they not get a print, as many were led to believe, but the sound and picture quality was off for many an audience member.   So, while screenings of classic films at theaters such as the Alamo Drafthouse and the New Beverly receive national attention (I don't even live in LA, and I know what's playing at the New Bev), Fathom Events are coolly ignored by the movie sites, blogs, and press at large.

Does this mean Fathom Events are a bomb? I certainly don't know anyone who regularly attends them (but know many who would kill to see an original print of just about any movie, ever), but someone must if they're dusting off Casablanca, right?

Despite their relatively low profile, Fathom Events are working.  They're not huge, but they are quietly profitable. According to USA Today, Fathom was offering only 24 live concert events in 2006, but broadcast 80 in 2011. According to CineMedia's financials (of which Fathom brings in about 10%), Fathom brought in $8.0 million in 2010, an increase of 8.1% from the year before, when they drew in only $7.4 million.

What's unclear from those numbers is what events draw the most numbers, or how much revenue these individual screenings bring in.  No number crunchers – like our beloved Box Office Mojo – collect the numbers on what Fathom makes on those individual classic film broadcasts or Met opera screenings. CineMedia reports that approximately 2,100,000 patrons attended Fathom Events in 2011, an increase of 11% from 2010, but there doesn't appear to be a breakdown as to what those patrons attended. (I would have happily emailed the company to see if I could get this information, but a family emergency prevented it.   Maybe a sequel will be in order.)  Recent comments from the Casablanca screenings in San Francisco and Los Angeles, respectively, suggest they don't do enormous numbers as the theaters were ½ to ¾ full.  The one and only time I went (I was one of those who plunked down for Poltergeist), there were probably only ten people in attendance. It was a sharp contrast to the classic film events I've seen staged at Red Rocks which are usually overflowing with enthusiastic attendees. (The location probably helps!)

By CineMedia's own admission, their most popular event are the broadcasts from the Metropolitan Opera. Their 2011 revenue increased 21.6% due to the additional encore series, and from offering more and more concerts such as February's Chemical Brothers concert. Judging from what Google turns up, the Met screenings have a pretty fervent fan following, and it's no wonder. Enthusiasts from all over the United States can go and then congregate on a forum to debate the performance, which is something they could never do before. Even if they all lived in New York and could attend the Met live, they would likely never meet one another, so it's easy to see how this flourishes. (And probably will continue to. I enjoy opera, but somehow never find the time to go. Someday! Especially if they offer more encores...) It's also the kind of event that makes financial sense. Buying a ticket to a live broadcast – which you're not going to be able to see anywhere else – makes sense, and any flubs in the digital presentation can be shrugged off.  It's an entirely different thing than buying a ticket to a digital projection of Casablanca with so-so sound.

Given the relatively low cost of projecting something digitally, it's clear Fathom is quietly and moderately successful. However, it's tough to argue that their movie screenings are really working on the scale they probably should be given the thirst for recognizable and nostalgic entertainment.  I wouldn't be surprised if Fathom quietly does fewer and fewer movie screenings (cheap as they are) and focused more on broadcasting ballet, opera, and Broadway concerts. With more energy and resources directed at marketing those, they could be a specialty behemoth, and keep those arts flourishing. That's a Fathom -- as opposed to the one pretending that Scarface print is some kind of original or remastered bit of amazing -- that film fans can root for, isn't it?