When Ray Nutt took the reins of Fathom Events as CEO in 2017, the first thing he decided to change was the nomenclature used to describe the titles that the company distributes to hundreds of theaters around the U.S.
“Alternative content” was the short-hand description used for the projects handled by the Denver-based distributor that is owned by the nation’s three largest exhibition chains: AMC Entertainment, Regal Cinemas and Cinemark. Nutt, a veteran exhibition and cable TV executive, explains in the latest episode of Variety‘s “Strictly Business” podcast that the wording was too vague, in his view.
“We started to transition into what we’re calling now ‘event cinema,’ ” Nutt says.
He points to developments in technology and production hardware that has lowered the barrier of entry to producing high-end content. But getting it distributed in multipexes around the country is still a high bar. Fathom Events offers one-stop-shopping for indie producers who have content that makes sense for the big screen but doesn’t warrant a massive wide release plan. Fathom’s overarching goal is to help exhibitors make better use of theater real estate during lower-traffic days, particularly Monday-Thursday. It can also target family audiences with kid-friendly screenings at earlier times of the day, including on weekends.
Fathom’s titles range from offbeat imports like the U.K.-produced “Winnie the Pooh: Blood and Honey” to live presentations of the Metropolitan Opera’s elaborate productions, enhanced with behind-the-scenes information and multiple camera angles that give viewers a unique window on how the opera is staged. The company also works with numerous producers on faith-based content, including movies that blur the lines of TV in running as multi-part series, such as “The Chosen” drama franchise about the life of Jesus.
“Right now the scope of the business isn’t giant, but it is an opportunistic, growing business right now,” Nutt says. “And it’s a great place to be. At a time when theaters and content providers are coming up with new content, exhibitors are hungry for additional content.”
Fathom at present handles about about 120 titles a year. Another big change on his watch was the company’s move away from a requirement that participating exhibitors — which include competitors of its parent firms — use the company’s proprietary projection technology.
In recent years, Fathom’s annual box office take has climbed from about $30 million in 2017 to about $80 million in 2019. Last year, Fathom took in about 86% of its 2019 box office tally, compared to an exhibition industry average of about 66%.
“That should send a message that this is viable in terms of the future of the business,” Nutt says. “Now, is that the Holy Grail that’s gonna save the (film) industry? Absolutely not. … But I can tell you that the kind of content that Fathom is distributing will play a a significant part of that moving forward.”