High Notes in Hi-Def

The Met’s experiment in movie theaters is a surprising success

Live operas filmed in hi-def and fed to movie theaters have become surprisingly successful events, selling out in cities big and small nationwide.

In fact, performances by the New York Metropolitan Opera have been a more consistent draw in theaters than HD performances featuring pop icons Prince, The Who or Bon Jovi.

The lavishly staged productions bring together the spectacle of sight and sound, and an opera lover doesn’t need a second mortgage to buy a ticket.

This year, the Met offered a series of six hi-def telecasts in a deal with National CineMedia (NCM), the media and marketing arm of movie-theater companies AMC Entertainment, Cinemark USA and Regal Entertainment Group—and the results have been outstanding.

So far, the first four operas—The Magic Flute, I Puritani, The First Emperor, Eugene Onegin—have sold out 48 of 60 theaters, including venues in Los Angeles, Chicago, Boston, Miami and Washington, making the series movie theaters’ most successful HD effort so far. The Met in HD has also played Huntsville, Ala.; Pueblo, Colo.; Boise, Idaho; and Dayton, Ohio.

Two more operas are set for March and April: The Barber of Seville and ll Trittico, respectively. Next year, the Met has scheduled eight HD productions.

The attraction is one of scale, executives say. Consumers would rather see HD programming on 40-foot screens than on 40-inch screens in their homes. “People are responding to it because, in a sense, opera is larger than life,” says Peter Gelb, the Met’s new general manager, who brought the idea to NCM.

Movie theaters have been experimenting with many music acts for several years. But none has hit the revenue high notes that opera commands. Consumers pay $18 a ticket—versus the $10 or so for The Who or Bon Jovi.

The telecasts are run live on Saturday afternoons. In aggregate, among the 60 theaters, some 20,000-30,000 people have attended each airing—with Eugene Onegin attracting about 50,000, including in theaters in Canada and Europe. NCM has even rerun some of the operas.

“What this shows is that people will come to find product where there is real demand,” says an executive close to NCM, which is preparing a public offering. “This has been a product that has been underexposed.”

The Met’s Saturday-afternoon radio broadcasts have been a staple for decades. Seeing an opera televised has proved tougher. PBS used to air many Met telecasts, but that has dwindled to only one a year as union costs skyrocketed. Now, under a new profit-sharing plan, a new union deal has made PBS and the movie-theater exposure a cost-efficient venture.

PBS runs the operas 30 days after the movie-theater window. It loses exclusivity, but the theater showing “really just promotes and widens the awareness,” says Jim Wilson, PBS senior VP/chief TV programming executive.

Putting operas in movie theaters is one part of an effort to lower the Met’s demographics. “When I took the job last August,” Gelb says, “research said the average age was 65 and that, five years before that, it was 60.” Now the Met has its own channel on Sirius Satellite Radio and offers discounts for “open rehearsals” to woo new fans.

Gelb says 30% of all consumers have never been to an opera and 44% of those are under 30. He hopes these efforts will make opera more accessible to a new crowd.

“The opera doesn’t have the big numbers of a sporting event, but it has a very fiercely loyal audience,” Gelb says. It’s about the performance. “People want to see artists hit high notes like they want to see baseball players hit home runs.”