James Franco helps 'event cinema' come of age with 'Of Mice and Men' from Broadway

A new James Franco flick hits movie theaters this week with all the stuff you want in a gripping drama — a pretty girl, some scary dudes, a murder or two and Franco holding a gun.

But hold onto your popcorn: It's not really a movie. It's actually a play. Well, to be more precise, it's a play acting like a movie.

A high-definition broadcast of Franco starring on Broadway in John Steinbeck's "Of Mice and Men" — the $3.8 million, record-earning show at the Longacre Theatre — will compete with the movies "Interstellar" and "Nightcrawler" at the box office, and it marks an important milestone.

While a few Broadway shows have been broadcast — including "Memphis" and the Orlando Bloom-led "Romeo and Juliet" — this is the first time the National Theatre Live series, the gold standard, has chosen a Broadway show to beam into over 900 venues across the U.S. and Canada. U.K. dates will be announced later.

Franco himself pushed for the honor, saying he wanted a way to recognize a great group of actors and creators, and to get the play seen by many more than those who could afford Broadway prices. The broadcast will cost about $20, or six times less than the average stage ticket.

"Even though it will never have 100 percent of the live feeling, it will still have energy," he said. "I'm glad that it exists in what I think is the absolute best we could do at capturing a live performance."

The landmark broadcast on Thursday comes at a time when so-called event cinema has exploded. When once there was just the Metropolitan Opera at the movie theater, now there's the Bolshoi Ballet, concerts from One Direction and a steady stream of English plays.

Other brands jumping in include The Royal Ballet, the Royal Shakespeare Company, Monty Python and the Big Apple Circus. Movie patrons can even enjoy museum exhibitions, like one on Pompeii from the British Museum.

"I think the demand for the content has always been there. But technology — in terms of the theaters and how to get the content to the theaters and how to serve mass and niche audiences — is making it easier for us to serve more diverse audiences," said John Rubey, the CEO of Fathom Events, an industry leader.

The segment is a small but growing part of the overall movie business. The Event Cinema Association predicts broadcasts will grow to 5 percent of the overall global cinema box office by 2015 and pull in $1 billion by 2017. Some movie theaters already say that event cinema is responsible for as much as 18 percent of their box-office revenue.

Since its launch in 2009, National Theatre broadcasts from England have included "Frankenstein" with Benedict Cumberbatch and Jonny Lee Miller, Sam Mendes' "King Lear" and "A Streetcar Named Desire" with Gillian Anderson. In five years, it has grown from 250 screens worldwide to 1,500 in the U.S., United Kingdom, Australia and Europe.

David Sabel, head of digital at the National, said from London that his team was looking for the right Broadway show and "Of Mice and Men" fit the bill. It had stars — in addition to Franco, the play had Chris O'Dowd and Leighton Meester — and it is a classic American story by a classic American author.

"We always thought it would be exciting to do something from the U.S. because there's great theater there that we'd like audiences in the U.K. to be able to see, and also because we have a loyal and growing audience in the American market," Sabel said.

Sabel said some of National Theatre Live's offerings break even, some come out ahead and some make "a healthy profit," particularly "War Horse" and "The Audience" with Helen Mirren. "For what it is — and compared to independent film — it does rather well," he added.

The cost of making a broadcast is small compared with the show being captured. In the U.K., it costs between 250,000-300,000 pounds ($400,000-$480,000) to record a typical show, though it runs higher in America due to increased union costs. Tickets prices are usually $15-$25 and encore screenings only add to the bottom line.

Many people took notice this September when two special broadcasts of "Billy Elliot" outdid every other film in Britain over the Friday-to-Sunday period, including multiple showings of the Denzel Washington action thriller "The Equalizer."

"Of Mice and Men" producer David Binder, whose credits include "Frost/Nixon" and "Hedwig and the Angry Inch," admits he was initially skeptical about the idea of capturing live, ephemeral, 3D events on 2D film.

"My opinion — along with so other people's — has really evolved," he said. "It can have another life: It's a calling card. It's a cast album. It's a record. And it lets us get it out there to many, many more people who couldn't make it to see it."


Online: http://ntlive.nationaltheatre.org.uk


Mark Kennedy is at http://twitter.com/KennedyTwits