Bringing Concerts To The Big Screen

Pollstar spoke to David Pope, CEO of MusicScreen, a company producing live concert footage and distributing it to cinemas across the world.  

MusicScreen offers an end-to-end solution, from setting up the stage, recording the show and distributing the finished product to cinemas – on a hard drive or via satellite if it’s a live stream.

The company also collaborates with other producers. It for example worked with live concert video experts Eagle Rock when The Rolling Stones played their first ever concert in Cuba, March 25, 2016. That following September, the footage was shown in 1,500 cinemas in 30 countries, attracting an audience of 100,000 fans and generating box office revenues of $1 million on one night. Both companies also brought KISS’ 2014 residency in Las Vegas to 1,000 cinemas in May 2016.

With help from their management, McGhee Entertainment, the band made an effort to record the cinema trailer in different languages.

The idea is not new.

David Bowie was a pioneer in the field of cinema concerts. In 2003, he broadcast a live performance from Riverside Studios in Hammersmith, London, to 20 cinemas across Europe.

Pope was involved on the sound side back then. “We brought 5.1 surround sound to the broadcast, so that the audience in the cinema would feel like they were at the event,” Pope said. “I was at the Odeon in Leicester Square while it was happening, and I saw the audience not only clapping along with the on-screen audience, but even getting out of their seats and dancing.”

Bowie was communicating with the cinema audience the entire show, and that’s when Pope realized that the concept of the cinema gig had potential. However, back then, cinemas in general weren’t technically equipped enough to host live broadcasts of concerts.

It took another 10 years or so before the infrastructure supported it as a regular form of entertainment, when digital projectors gradually replaced 35mm film.

This didn’t just allow for higher-quality pictures but also the distribution of the video material on hard drives and via satellite.

David Pope
– David Pope
MusicScreen CEO

“The first company developing that business was the Metropolitan Opera in New York. They started doing live concerts hitting the UK screens at about 6 p.m. on a Saturday evening. Over the years it got a really great following within the theatre audience, who saw it as a great way of experiencing live show for a fraction of the costs,” Pope recalled.

MusicScreen was set up in 2013 with the idea of bringing the same concept to the rock and pop genres, “thinking that it was really going to be much easier than the niche theatre market. But in fact it is a bigger challenge because generally people don’t think about going to the cinema for rock and pop music.”

Which is why the concept currently works for artists with a Facebook following of 10 million-plus. If it falls below that, the numbers don’t add up.

“We’re finding that, at the moment, a ratio of 1 percent of the total Facebook following will try it out.” Pope believes this is down to the fact that the concept isn’t well known yet. He says the experience is “pretty close to being there,” based on feedback from cinema concertgoers. “You get people saying: well I actually think it’s better than being there. Nobody standing on your toes, waving cameras or spilling beer on you. We see each event that we do gathering more momentum. But there is a lot of work to do in getting out the actual concept of the cinema gig as a great form of entertainment.”

Even hardcore live enthusiasts might get something out of a cinematic production.

“The quality of the sound is in many, many cases better than you would get onsite, because it’s fed from the direct mics. Also, we’re developing a new system now where we actually mix it in the cinema to make sure it is absolutely optimized, so you get all the benefits of those amazing subwoofers.”

Prices for cinema gigs hardly differ from movie tickets, with a small premium added because the screening is usually a one-night event. Depending on the show – whether it’s a live broadcast via satellite or recorded footage – it’ll range from £10 to £15 – a fraction of the actual gig ticket.

According to Pope, “there’s a general understanding in the cinema industry not to push it too far. You could limit the number of screens and charge more. But I think the accessibility of it is one of the reasons people would go.”

Artists generally receive a cut of ticket sales, and in some cases an advance fee is paid. Pope says that a well-known artist can earn as much from a one-night cinema screening around the world as from doing another stadium show.

“So if an artist decides to limit the number of stadium shows for whatever reason, this can be a very interesting prospect for them, because it’s another way of extending the tour,” he said. If the established ticketing companies want to get on board, Pope can imagine cinemas selling blocks of seats to them. “When it gets to a certain size that’s going to possibly naturally happen. And maybe cinemas will be very happy to do that, because they’re going to be interested in anybody helping them to sell tickets.”