The helicopter hung on the edge of the Daily Planet building, menacing the crowd below and threatening the passengers inside. We knew everything would be fine—well, maybe not all of us. Sitting in the theater next to me at his first non-animated movie, my four-year-old son—mouth agape and swimming in the theater’s stadium-style seat—was ensnared in suspense as Lois Lane screamed in terror. It didn’t take long for Clark Kent to run through a revolving door and emerge as Superman, leaping into the night sky of Metropolis to save the day. The packed house took the Man of Steel’s heroics all in stride. That is, until my son yelled “Wow!,” prompting the audience to erupt into laughter and cheers.
This is what movie magic is all about, I thought while pinching a few of my kid’s M&Ms. “You’ll believe a man can fly,” was the 1978 superhero film’s tagline. But in late 2018, after we punched our tickets for that Sunday matinee showing of Superman: The Movie, it became clear as Supes’ x-ray vision that the catchphrase was more about the “you” than the “flying.” Putting it bluntly, special effects and surround sound are nice, but a great moviegoing experience is all about the crowd, whether you’re with friends or strangers, and even if you’ve already seen the film more times than you can count.
That’s essentially the big selling point behind Fathom Events’ business of screening classic movies in modern theaters, and moviegoers are gobbling it up like buttered popcorn. Case in point is Fathom’s current box office offering, The Wizard of Oz, which is in the middle of three days of screenings in honor of the Judy Garland joint’s 80th anniversary. Though it has been shown on television for more than 60 years, the MGM musical pulled in $1.2 million at the box office on Sunday, despite playing on fewer than 700 screens. Those numbers were good enough to turn Dorothy’s yellow brick road run into the #8 domestic movie of the day, while blowing away the per screen average of #1 title Glass (which showed in 3,844 auditoriums) by at least $340 per screen. To be sure, it was a record-setting Sunday for Oz, making it Fathom’s highest-grossing, single-day, classic film release to date. The film’s current box office success prompted Fathom Events to add two more dates to Oz’s screenings on Feb. 3 and 5.
And there’s been plenty of competition for this top slot. Owned by Regal, AMC, and Cinemark, Fathom distributes around 25 classic films a year to theaters worldwide in a partnership with Turner Classic Movies (TCM) and on its own under its “Spotlight” banner. Last February, a four-day run of the 1982 cult classic Jim Henson live action fantasy film The Dark Crystal netted $1 million at the box office. Two months later, a 40th anniversary re-release of Grease pulled in $1.2 million, selling more than 100,000 tickets. And it wasn’t just Grease fans who packed the movie houses; it was super-fans, says Ray Nutt, the CEO of Fathom Events. “People were dressed in costume and they were singing away,” Nutt says. “There was no bouncing ball (displaying the lyrics) or anything—they just had a blast.”
For Fathom, the term ‘classic’ doesn’t simply mean ‘old.’ Sure they’ve shown Rebel Without a Cause and White Christmas, but they’ve also distributed Die Hard, Dirty Dancing, and even Twilight, filling theaters with short-run smashes that print money for Fathom, the film’s owner, and theaters alike. Perhaps the most brilliant part of Fathom’s model is that it generally doesn’t pay for the titles that it distributes, says Nutt. “What we do is barter out about a hundred million dollars worth of inventory each year,” he says.
For example, that might include the advertising slots before the new movies like Aquaman, which would be a natural place to promote the 40th anniversary Superman Blu-Ray disc. “It’s a very, very different model in terms of just writing a check to acquire content,” says Nutt.
“Fathom is a huge part of our catalog business,” says Spencer Klein, 20th Century Fox’s executive vice president of domestic film distribution. Fox works with Fathom more than anyone else, he says, because Fathom has the biggest network of movie theaters, the strongest outreach, in-theater marketing opportunities, and a deal with TCM that also includes on-television marketing for Fox’s films.
But these are no mere second-run, dollar ticket movie showings. In filling seats in off-peak hours—like Oz’s current Sunday, Tuesday, and Wednesday run—high-end, digital projection movie theaters are very happy with what Fathom brings to the table, too. “For some consumers, especially for an older audience and young families, Saturday morning is prime time,” says Elizabeth Frank, AMC’s chief content officer. “If it’s attractive to moviegoers, and people value an out-of-home entertainment experience, then we exist as exhibitors to serve them the entertainment that they are most excited about.”
That entertainment includes Fathom’s other verticals, which includes distributing live events to theaters (hence the ‘Events’ in Fathom’s name) like performances of the Metropolitan Opera, boxing matches, and even music concerts. The highest-grossing music event in Fathom’s 13-year history was a One Direction concert that brought in several million dollars, says Nutt. “The variety and diversity of content is really what makes Fathom special,” he says.
Each movie executive interviewed for this piece denied that services like Netflix are Fathom’s biggest competition, but its hard to deny the impact that streaming video has had on movies. That said, run a search on the titles mentioned above, and you’ll be unlikely to find them included in the catalog a subscription service. That’s likely not a coincidence, as Hollywood has made a concerted effort to put Netflix’s genie back in the bottle. Not only is the commoditization of content bad for business, but it makes for poorer viewing experiences.
“Most consumers, when they’re engaged in entertainment in the home, they’re half-engaged in it. They’ve got their phone in front of them, they’re cooking or they’re doing laundry.” says Frank. “The movie-going experience, it’s just that—100%, in a dark room where the only thing you have to do is focus on what’s on the screen.”
Still, complacency and cost being what they are, it will be hard to argue with bing-watchers who think there’s no place like home. Sorry Dorothy, but Fathom begs to differ—and it has the box office receipts to back it up.