It’s hard to believe but the Metropolitan Opera’s efforts to expand the profile of opera seems to be working. I’m kidding about the hard to believe thing, but not the results of two years of broadcasting high-definition signals of live Met performances into movie theaters around the country.

According to a new study by Opera America and National CineMedia, more than 920,000 people paid to see the special Saturday afternoon broadcasts in the 2007-2008 season. That’s more people than those who went to New York to see the opera firsthand. In one season alone, eight live broadcasts grossed $13.3 million in domestic theaters and $5 million overseas.

For a long time, people said that the problem with opera and classical music was that they were opera and classical music. They’d never gain wide acceptance the way that popular music has, because they are inherently exclusive — they require specialized knowledge beforehand to get any kind of enjoyment out of them. Solution? Crossover appeal. Dumb down the music to hit the coveted middle market.

With $18.3 million in gross revenue, it’s pretty clear that the product isn’t the problem. Distribution was the problem. That’s what critics like The New Yorker‘s Alex Ross have been saying for some time now. With this new means of getting the art into people’s live, the whole elite versus the masses paradigm falls apart. Another way of putting it, the whole niche market versus mass market paradigm falls apart. Why bother aiming to that coveted middle market when you can aim more precisely — getting the product to people who really want it, whether they are in Hollywood, Calif., or Hollywood, S.C.

When we look back at entertainment innovations of the 2000s, we’ll remember that it was opera that blazed the trail. Already big movie companies are looking at what the Met has done and saying they want a piece of that action. Why? People aren’t coming to movie theaters like they used to. Bad movies, stellar home entertainment, and pristine digital products make going to the movies seem like a hassle. So movie studios and theater companies are trying to find way of getting you back.

Regal’s NCM Fathom has been offering special one- or two-night-only broadcasts of anime, sports event, and even the original Rambo lately. These were at the Regal Charles Towne Square 18. Sony Pictures launched last month a division called Hot Ticket, which will offer a live broadcast of Rent when it ends its 12-year run on Broadway. You can expect these to hit Charleston in the fall.

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