Along with improved food offerings, bigger screens and 3-D projections, theaters nationwide are programming more alternative content like boxing matches, operas and even parenting seminars.
It's an effort to reverse long-term declines in attendance and comes as the nation's top theater chains partner to create a larger digital network to expand the offerings.
"If you have a 16-screen theater and there are four or five screens that don't have people in them, and you can fill one of those screens up with alternative content, then you're way ahead of the game," said Kurt Hall, chief executive of National CineMedia, which operates NCM Fathom and the nation's largest cinema advertising network.
Traditionally, movies have been physically shipped to theaters in the form of film prints or, as technology advanced, hard drives. However, about two-thirds of the nearly 40,000 screens in the United States now are digital. Studios are expected to stop using 35mm film prints by next year.
The digital conversion has cleared the way for movies to be delivered electronically via satellite and downloaded to servers at theaters. NCM Fathom's current satellite network distributes alternative content to about 1,000 screens in the country.
During the next two years, though, 2,000 theaters with a combined 15,000 screens will be connected to a new satellite distribution network being developed by the nation's top three movie theater circuits — Regal Entertainment Group, Cinemark USA and AMC. The group recently formed a coalition with Warner Bros. and NBCUniversal to finance and launch the satellite network in the fall.
The ability to beam movies directly into theaters without having to deliver film prints or hard drives has long been the goal of studios. That would significantly cut distribution costs, and theaters owners could receive movies much quicker. The new network also will make it easier for theaters to broadcast live events, especially those in 3-D.
"With the technology we're putting into place, we will have a high-quality digital delivery system that can support both live entertainment and theatrical exhibition," said Darcy Antonellis, chief technology officer for Warner Bros. "It's the natural evolution of digital cinema."
NCM is the largest among a handful of companies that acquire the rights to events, market them and distribute the feeds to theaters via satellite. Tickets generally run $20 to $25. The companies split box-office revenue with theaters.
Whether they are prerecorded, live or shown in 3-D, alternative programs share the same goal: to fill theaters during slow times when they are mostly empty and to draw new customers willing to pay for a premium ticket.
Fathom programmed 104 events in 2011, Hall said, up 41 percent from 2010. The company's most successful alternative content production to date was a live show in March, hosted by actor Kirk Cameron, to promote Monumental, a documentary that explores the origins of America. Monumental grossed $1.25 million from nearly 600 screens.
Until recently, theater chains haven't made much money from alternative entertainment, which accounts for less than 2 percent of the $10 billion in annual domestic box-office revenue. But executives see potential for a much larger business.
For example, 400 theaters that screened the Floyd Mayweather Jr.-Miguel Cotto boxing match in May sold out at $25 a ticket.
Many people think a larger satellite system will be more appealing to TV networks and sports leagues because it will give them the ability to reach a wider audience for live award shows and games.