Move over, movies.
Some of the best entertainment at your local cinema wasn't shot in Hollywood, nor would it be eligible for Academy Awards.
Thanks to the growing concept of "event cinema," everyone from Benedict Cumberbatch to Pope Francis can be a star on the big screen.
Stage plays, sports and news events such as the canonizations next Sunday of two newly minted saints at St. Peter's Basilica in Vatican City -- in 3-D and ultrahigh definition, no less -- are being streamed around the world to patrons watching from their local movie house.
The advent of all-digital capability, not to mention satellite dishes at most major movie houses, has made all of this possible. Not only is far-flung fare brought to the local movie house, seats are much cheaper than attending the actual events.
"The audience has pretty much always been there, but it was difficult to deliver [the content]," said John Rubey, CEO of Fathom Events, a leading digital content producer based in Centennial, Colo. "In the early days, I think 2000, I remember we had to bring up satellite trucks to one event."
Pitcairn native Don Roy King has won Emmy Awards for directing "Saturday Night Live" on television. But he's also deeply invested in the concept of stage-to-big-screen, live-event projects. He was one of the first to work on event cinema in the U.S. (with the musical "Tin Types" in the late 1990s) and his most recent challenge was capturing the Broadway production of "Romeo and Juliet," starring Orlando Bloom.
"It's sort of like a sporting event," Mr. King said, comparing live to big screen. "Watching football on television is a different medium and each has its advantage, but they are both viable entertainment options."
"At home, you don't get that big field of green and the smell of the popcorn and the shake of the stands when the fans scream, but in the stands you don't get the instant replays and the different camera angles and the commentary of the color man."
Event cinema -- also known as alternate content -- is a rising trend, a chance for companies such as the National Theatre in London to grow their brand and for exhibitors such as Cinemark and Cleveland Cinemas to attract new audiences willing to pay premium prices.
"There are whole companies out there specifically targeting [the filming of] sports events or concerts," said David Huffman, director of marketing for Cleveland Cinemas, which operates the SouthSide Works Cinema here. "Everybody carves out a little niche as to what sort of specialty programming they want to pursue."
It's specialty, all right: an eclectic array of events have included a stand-up comedy concert by the French performer Florence Foresti; a tour of the National Gallery's "Leonardo da Vinci: Painter at the Court of Milan"; the Wimbledon men's and women's tennis finals in 3-D; a live 50th anniversary broadcast of BBC cult hit "Doctor Who: Day of the Doctor"; Broadway's "Memphis"; Aerosmith's "Rock for the Rising Sun" concert in Japan; and George Romero's "Night of the Living Dead" in spade-wielding 3-D.
Recently, a group of friends who live in Mercer County made the 70-mile trip to the SouthSide Works to see an encore broadcast of the National Theatre's stage hit featuring life-size puppets, "War Horse."
"I had read an article about it in Time magazine and it got an excellent review, especially about the horses. I thought, 'This is fascinating. I want to see this,' " said Sue Long of Sharpsville.
Sitting nearby in the theater were Louanne Salaga, also of Sharpsville, and Cynthia Alexander of Hermitage.
"I saw the movie but didn't see it on stage, so I thought this would be a cheap way to do it," said Ms. Alexander, noting that a stage tour of "War Horse" previously played at the Benedum Center, Downtown.
The modern-day commercial movie theater experience has become unpleasantly wedded to the practice of preceding the feature with 20 minutes of commercials and film trailers. In contrast, live event cinema is often preceded by extras such as a red carpet arrival for the Los Angeles premiere of "Abduction," a 2011 movie filmed in Pittsburgh.
In between acts of some live events, such as the Metropolitan Opera, there might be cameras backstage to catch the singers as they dash for a drink or costume change.
"I think it's a wonderful new asset. It's a very powerful tool, being able to lift the curtain and see the magic behind it," said Christopher Hahn, general director of the Pittsburgh Opera.
Point Park University alumnus Rob Ashford and Kenneth Branagh co-directed a Manchester (England) International Festival production of "Macbeth" last year. Through NT Live, the Scottish play was brought to life in a dazzling screen version starring Sir Kenneth.
The film version played in Pittsburgh months later and was preceded by a behind-the-scenes look at the production that included an interview with Mr. Ashford.
While access to specialized content comes at a higher price -- typically $15 to $24, compared with the mainstream 2-D film price of $7.75 to $10.75 -- it's still far cheaper than seeing the real thing.
For example, the Peabody Award-winning "The Met: Live in HD" series is in its eighth season. It premieres opera live on Saturday afternoons, and encore performances generally are broadcast the following Wednesday evenings. For the April 30 "Cosi fan tutte" by Mozart, tickets are going for $16 to $24 at Cinemark Robinson Township and Cinemark 17 Pittsburgh Mills.
Single-seat tickets for "Cosi fan tutte" are listed on the Met's online ticket page for its production in New York City, ranging from $781 to $25 for standing room. The tour of "War Horse," which soon will be playing onstage in Austin, Texas, is selling for up to $115 for a Saturday night orchestra seat. High balcony seats are available for $35.
Box office balancing act
Oakmont's independent Oaks Theater was one of the first in this area to embrace event cinema, but manager Adam Morgan said it's becoming increasingly difficult to secure big-name broadcasts. Generally, only one exhibitor in a given location is granted "The Met: Live in HD" or National Theatre blockbusters such as 2011's "Frankenstein," with Britain's Mr. Cumberbatch and Jonny Lee Miller.
"There's a lot of content, partly through Fathom Events, that we would love to do but we can't because we cannot get the rights," Mr. Morgan said.
The Oaks presented "Frankenstein" three years ago -- before Mr. Cumberbatch became a well-known actor in the U.S. -- but it has since played at SouthSide Works on Halloween.
Theaters often pay a monthly rental fee to access content on a digital server. In The Oaks' case, it's New York-based Emerging Pictures. Fathom Events bills itself as the nation's largest distributor of alternate content, supplying a national network of more than 1,500 theaters.
Fathom is owned by three major movie theater players: AMC Entertainment, Cinemark Holdings and Regal Entertainment Group. It is partnering with Omniverse Vision to film and present the West End version of a new musical, "From Here to Eternity."
Like "Macbeth" and "The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time," "From Here to Eternity" is scheduled one day to play across the pond on Broadway. The National Theatre has honed its process for filming and producing event cinema, which is why it's possible to cinecast -- a term used to describe the streaming of event cinema -- Helen Mirren in "The Audience" or Simon Russell Beale in "King Lear" with little fuss.
Broadway is a different story.
"In some cases where you have a legacy production, you can have seven to 10 rights holders. And if you can't get all of them to agree, you can't do anything," said Fathom's Mr. Rubey. "Nothing is impossible, but by the same token, it's more of a challenge."
Broadway banks on big shows' ability to tour, something that might be undercut if it chose to widely cinecast fare. In addition, Hollywood often casts its net toward what's popular; a movie version of the long-running hit, "Jersey Boys" is due out in June.
As for the Met, which has experienced soft ticket sales for three years, general manager Peter Gelb suggested to The New York Times that the live cinema events has led, possibly, to a mild "cannibalization" of its audience.
The Pittsburgh Opera's Mr. Hahn said that has not been the case here.
"A lot of people say, 'Well, I loved this or that, but I love this one [live at the Benedum] more.' And not just because it's live, but it's that experience of being in an audience with 2,000 people and experiencing the movement and the sound of everything there."
Maria Sciullo: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1478 or @MariaSciulloPG.