As Netflix looks to fill theater seats, it could take a page from RiffTrax

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Netflix added another element to its same-day release strategy for its original content recently by announcing a deal with iPic, a luxury theater chain. The SVOD provider will screen its movies in iPic theaters on the same day that it releases those movies on its streaming service.

The deal appears to be something of a concession to major theater chains that vehemently argued against same-day release windows when Netflix first committed to them three years ago. But can Netflix fill those theaters? Odds seem to be against it – even with just 13 iPic cinemas to work with.

After all, who wants to go the movies, and pay movie-theater prices, just to watch a film that can be streamed in one’s living room at no extra cost?

For Netflix, putting its original content in movie theaters isn't likely to affect its bottom line very much. Netflix’s very first same-day movie release, Beasts of No Nation, was carried in 31 U.S. theaters last year and brought in only $50,699, or about $1,635 per theater, according to the Hollywood Reporter. While the SVOD provider shook off the low gross revenue amount, it still had some wondering if same-day release really has legs, and the vice president of the American Association of Theater Owners called the movie release nothing more than a PR stunt.

But don’t write the idea off just yet.

At least four times a year, fans of the long-canceled series Mystery Science Theater 3000 file into seats at hundreds of cinemas across the country. They bring their kids. They often wear costumes. They’re paying full price for their seats.

The online video company hosting this event is an organization called RiffTrax – and Netflix could take a page out of its playbook. While the bulk of RiffTrax revenue comes from its transactional video model, live events “are a key part of our revenue,” CEO David Martin told FierceOnlineVideo in an interview.

RiffTrax works with Fathom Events to simultaneously broadcast its live events to 600 other theaters. Martin said that theaters in major cities tend to sell out seats for the show, while smaller venues may only see a few people trickle in to watch the simulcast.

And while RiffTrax uses a range of promotional avenues to get people into the theater – social media announcements on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, trailers in theaters that are part of Fathom’s network, and more traditional radio advertising – the provider’s fans play a role in the success of the 21-plus events it has put on so far.

Martin said Netflix needs to do more than just put its movies into theaters, regardless of the luxury element that iPic theaters offer, and hope people will show up.

“I think it really needs to have an engaged community around it. Our fans love to come out -- where they may have been experiencing RiffTrax in home through the year, it’s so much fun to come and see other fans of something you love as well,” he said. “That communal bonding is as important to our live shows as what we’re putting up on screen.”

He added that “the energy around a live event – anything can happen, and usually does. … So anything [Netflix] can add to it that is enhanced by a live experience” could boost enthusiasm for its same-day theater releases.

Fathom Events CEO John Rubey concurred. “The goal is always to have full theaters and provide a communal experience for audiences, and that often happens with our passionate fan base,” he told FierceOnlineVideo in an email interview. Content with strong, built-in fan bases, like Doctor Who or the Grateful Dead, tends to be extremely popular for cinema events, he said. With that in mind, RiffTrax holds some of its most consistently popular events. “RiffTrax has loyal fans who come out in support of each event to consistently fill the theater seats.”

It strongest live series, however, is “The Met Live in HD,” which Rubey said ranks in the top ten at the box office on the days it comes out in movie theaters.

Rubey said Fathom would “welcome a conversation with Netflix” about building a strong theater audience around its releases – not a bad idea, perhaps, coming from a company that is owned by several large-scale theater chains including AMC, Regal and Cinemark.

Where Netflix takes its theater strategy, however, remains to be seen.

For more:
- see this WSJ article
- see this Quartz article
- see this Netflix release

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