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Are Movie Theaters an Essential Element in a Movie's Release?

Posted on Tuesday, June 19th, 2007 3:39 PM

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I was reading a conversation on a forum frequented by professionals in the movie theater industry, and a comment was made about the fact that movie theaters are currently the "engine that pulls the train" when it comes to movies being released in movie theaters vs. being released simultaneously on home video (often referred to as a "day and date" release). This implies that movies without theatrical releases are not regarded as "real" movies (e.g. made for video releases) and aren't regarded as highly as those that are released in movie theaters first and then released to home video.

Some studios have been floating the idea of "day and date" releases and others have actually done so. Since most theater chains boycott such releases because they fear that it will cut into their revenue and, most likely, create a dangerous precedent that they can't risk allowing, the only releases of note have been from 2929 Entertainment, HDNet Films, and Landmark Theatres. All three of these organizations have the same corporate parent, so they don't have much to lose from such an experiment.

I disagree with the blanket statement that the theatrical release is the "engine that pulls the train" simply because I don't think that it will always be true (even though it currently is) and that such a position on the part of a movie theater owner can create a level of apathy that can bring about the very demise that the theater owner fears in the first place.

Below is my response, which I thought was worthy of posting here. While it may seem odd for me to appear to be encouraging day and date releases, a careful review of my comments will show that I think that theaters have a unique opportunity to provide a high quality movie-going experience to their customers. One that is not able to be duplicated in the home.

Good movie theaters will realize how to leverage these advantages to serve their customers better. Bad movie theaters will continue to complain about the future and blame others for their problems. I want to encourage all movie theaters to provide the best movie-going experience possible, because I think that people still want to have that special experience that going to a movie theater can provide. Whether many theaters deliver that special experience on a regular basis is up for debate.

I agree that cinemas are currently the engine that pulls the train, that will only be true so long as cinemas continue to be granted the exclusive engagement that studios currently provide to them.

From a marketing standpoint, showing a movie in commercial theaters is still necessary for movie studios because of the credibility that the public (and the industry, such as AMPAS, which requires a theatrical run for qualification for the Oscars, if I recall correctly) holds for movies that appear first in movie theaters and then on home video.

I don't say this to be disrespectful to anyone here, but that exclusive engagement will end at some point, and theaters will lose the cachet of lending that credibility to movies in the eyes of the paying public.

All it will take is a successful launch by a studio of a movie that has a day-and-date release on home video, or a home-video-only release (no theatrical release at all). That will be the first fissure in the dam that will gradually widen and allow the floodwaters to rush through, quite possibly leveling many/most movie theaters in the process.

To date, we've seen only mediocre and/or limited releases done day-and-date. 2929 Entertainment is doing day-and-dates with Landmark Theatres, but since the movies that have been done haven't been blockbuster-scaled movies, a real test has yet to be done.

What would happen if, say, "Pirates of the Caribbean 3" were to have been released day-and-date? Same budget, same marketing push, same cast and storyline. For credibility sake, let's assume that it would have been available on both the iTunes Store and Amazon for immediate download on opening day or for purchase on DVD/HD DVD/Blu-ray with delivery guaranteed for opening day.

Bottom line: People that wanted to see the movie on opening day would have it available to them in their homes. People that wanted to see the movie on opening day in a movie theater would be able to do so (assuming that movie theaters would not boycott the release).

What kind of impact do you think that would have on the future of movie theaters as the "engine that pulls the train"? I think it would have a major impact!

It's a perception thing that succeeding generations are more than happy to adjust to. Those of us who grew up on the traditional release schedules will find it very odd, but I'd bet that many teenagers would have no issue whatsoever accepting a movie with a big-name cast and that delivered the entertainment they are expecting no matter what medium it was shown on.

Lest everyone think that I believe that movie theaters are doomed to extinction, I don't. Movie theaters still have the ability to provide an experience that cannot be matched in the home, no matter how much money has been poured into a home theater. There are aspects of going to a movie theater that cannot be replicated, and it's up to movie theaters to leverage those advantages.

The ability to show a 4K (or higher) resolution image is one of those advantages, if the source material is available. However, just as with home theater projection and digital cameras, resolution isn't the only qualitative factor affecting the picture quality of the movie. There are lots of factors involved.

Unfortunately, I think that far too many theaters lean on the exclusive release as a crutch to deliver mediocre presentations. There are excellent theaters out there, I'm sure, but from the feedback that I see on a regular basis, those excellent theaters are the exception, not the norm.

Home video is training people to become accustomed to no jump or weave at all. There are no such things as audio dropouts, bad film splices, or dust, dirt, and scratches. If someone comes to my home and pulls out a cell phone and starts talking, they would be shown the door pretty quickly as such behavior would be unacceptable.

People who are used to film have become so used to jump and weave and other film-related issues that such issues have become part of the experience. The same is true for people that haven't given up their vinyl LP's because they like the sound; pops, crackles, hiss, and all.

I was in a high-end audio shop the other day, and this guy was playing some music on a $1,000 turntable and comparing it to a CD that was in a very expensive CD transport. To him, the LP sounded better. To me, the LP had a chestiness to the sound that also had rolled-off highs. In comparison, the CD might have been a little bright, but it sounded much more pleasing to me. He was ready to plunk down the cash for the turntable, though.

While I do believe that it is possible for high quality LP's to sound better than the standard run-of-the-mill CD production, I think that this guy was much more affected by his sentimental attachment to the character of the LP than to the pure audio quality of the product. I think a parallel can be drawn to film and digital cinema.

Anyone getting angst-ridden about the fact that technology marches on and refusing to make the jump to digital cinema is ignoring the possible benefits that doing so can provide to their business.

Companies deal with technology obsolescence all the time, and you don't see office buildings tossing hundreds of PC's out the door just because some new Intel processor has been released. The oldest boxes get replaced as they need to be, and they bring new boxes in to serve their needs. (I have a client whose file server is 8 years old, ancient by technology standards!)

I think I might have lost my point along the line here, but I see digital cinema being a boon for theaters to streamline their operations and opening up new possibilities for content and revenue. There seems to be financial assistance available to do so, depending on the situation, so the cost impact might be able to be addressed as well.

Digital Cinema is the inevitable future. I think even its most ardent opponents will begrudgingly admit that fact. If I owned a theater, I'd be taking the classes that Mark has mentioned, and getting to know as much as possible about the products and what deals are available so that I could make an informed decision about when to take the plunge.

I wish that I had the ability to provide for user comments, because I am very curious to know if anyone agrees or disagrees with my position. Since I don't have the function running yet (it is in the plans), please use the Feedback Form and let me know what you think!

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