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Giving the time of day to targeted audiences

Distributor Bigger Picture has hit on a way to fill theater seats at off hours: Offer niche films such as kids' cartoons.

June 18, 2007|Josh Friedman | Times Staff Writer

The indie music act the Polyphonic Spree isn't entertainment for the masses. Neither is the cartoon heroine Holly Hobbie, nor the anime fantasy "Fullmetal Alchemist."

That's fine with Jonathan Dern and Greg Rutkowski, co-presidents of digital movie distributor Bigger Picture in Woodland Hills. They figure theaters don't make money when seats are empty during off hours such as mornings or, say, early Monday afternoons. So maybe they can offer such niche fare then to entice people into the multiplexes.

The two are taking advantage of the growing conversion of theaters to digital cinema, which eliminates cumbersome film and enables movies to be delivered on hard drives or via satellite transmission at a fraction of the roughly $1,500 a print costs.

The technology also enables theaters to easily switch what's being shown in a theater, opening venues up to specialized shows so they can sell tickets and popcorn when they aren't showing Hollywood's latest blockbusters. Although major studio movies attract big crowds on weekends, Dern said that over the course of a typical week auditoriums are often filled to only 10% to 15% of capacity.

"If we can move the dial 1%, that's a big number," Dern said.

Bigger Picture started three years ago, when Dern and Rutkowski came up with the "Kidtoons" animation programs. A typical program might include a G-rated feature, such as this spring's "Strawberry Shortcake: Berry Blossom Festival," plus cartoon shorts, music videos and singalongs.

"The light bulb went on," Dern said. "We said, 'When else are there very few people in theaters? When else could we put people in seats?' "

At the Terra Vista 6 in Rancho Cucamonga, for example, "Kidtoons" screens every Saturday and Sunday at 10:30 a.m. for $2.50 a ticket. This month the feature is "Holly Hobbie and Friends: Best Friends Forever."

Partners such as Hasbro Inc. and American Greetings Corp. often produce and help market the films to promote their toys and characters. A media consultant and educator known as Dr. Donna reviews the films on the company's website, suggesting questions parents can ask their children afterward.

Dern, a former animation executive at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Inc., and Rutkowski, a theater industry veteran, now aim to develop 50 specialty programs over the next five years that theater owners can run when business is slow.

Anime fans, for instance, might find cult titles such as "Fullmetal Alchemist."

Working with Fox Home Entertainment, the distributor's Fox Faith lineup features religious-themed movies such as "The Ultimate Gift," and its Fox Rhythm lineup is geared toward African American women.

The Fox movies are screened regularly -- not just at off hours -- but they are targeted at geographic areas where the interest is highest, said Michele Martell, Bigger Picture's chief operating officer.

Shari Redstone, president of National Amusements Inc. in Dedham, Mass., said the distributor was building a following at theaters such as the Bridge in Los Angeles.

At 10 a.m. on a Saturday in March, she said, the chain's 24 theaters taking part in "Kidtoons" sold 1,200 tickets for "Strawberry Shortcake" -- a strong turnout at a time when business is typically slow or nonexistent.

"When I was a kid, we'd watch a horrible print of 'Gulliver's Travels' and buy stale popcorn," Redstone said. "This is a new and better experience for the whole family. And it's another way to ensure that a generation grows up knowing that when they want to be entertained, they can go to their local movie theater."

This year, Bigger Picture was bought by digital cinema systems provider Access Integrated Technologies Inc. for about $4 million. Access IT, which has joined with projector maker Christie Digital Systems Inc. to convert more than 2,500 U.S. movie screens from 35-millimeter film to the digital format, believes Bigger Picture's unusual programs are a selling point with exhibitors.

Even so, digital cinema is a costly business whose profit potential is unclear. Access IT's revenue is up sharply this year, but the company has been running net losses since it was launched in March 2000.

As for Bigger Picture, its top hit so far was this spring's spiritual drama "The Ultimate Gift," which grossed about $3.5 million, a fraction of a hit film's take. But Bud Mayo, Access IT's chief executive, called the unit a "small but profitable" division that within five to seven years would become the company's largest revenue source.

Mayo said Bigger Picture was borrowing the cable TV approach, focusing on audiences with distinct, passionate interests who might want to see in a theater programming that might otherwise never be released theatrically. The challenge will be to provide a reliable stream of films to satisfy those viewers.

Last week, Bigger Picture launched a South by Southwest music festival program featuring performances by Peter Bjorn and John, Polyphonic Spree, the Bravery and other bands filmed in March at the Austin event.

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