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Let's Mix It Up!

14 Dec, 2005 By: Holly J. Wagner

North American Theater Owners (NATO) president John Fithian is pretty ticked off at me for last week's column. For the record, John, and with apologies to Thomas Jefferson, I may not agree with your windows, but I will defend to the death your right to defend them.

It wasn't personal. And really, we're both in the trades — he's a trade-group president, and I'm a trade-magazine writer. Who can blame either of us for sticking up for our part of the industry?

I'm sticking to my guns. The same day that column ran, Kagan Research released an industry study that supported what I was saying, which is that theater owners are shooting themselves in the foot.

Frankly, if theaters would make the movies I want to see available, as a viewer I personally wouldn't care about release windows. But they don't. They cater to studio credentials and gore-soaked, hormone-steeped, video game-crazed teenagers.

Forget the common theatrical experience part of the argument for a moment. What Kagan found was that release windows vary by genre. Action/adventure flicks have the shortest windows (with the occasional stinkeroo exception) and documentaries have the longest. The reason Kagan cited: documentaries have spotty theatrical exhibition, so it takes a long time to blanket markets and exhaust the theatrical possibilities.

Which is exactly what I said. If you want to make real money at theatrical exhibition, you have to be patient, parse the screenings and pick up the incremental revenue from the customer who just wants to go to the movies and will pick what's behind Door No. 3 if the show they came for is sold out. For pity's sake, you make your real money on popcorn and Cokes anyway. Let's get some butts into the seats!

Kagan's research explains why Sin City crowded out The Motorcycle Diaries when I would have gone to see the latter, and forced me to stay home entirely and wait for the DVD. In fact, if I could have bought The Motorcycle Diaries on disc at a theater that wasn't showing it at all but was showing Sin City, Bewitched and the latest vapid teen sex comedy, I would have. Gladly.

Here's something I haven't heard anyone suggest before: How about an exclusive theatrical window that includes DVD sales for theatrical releases they aren't showing?

For my money, ThinkFilm has been putting out the best movies in the first three quarters this year — Born Into Brothels, Murderball, The Aristocrats. Sackman is on fire this year. Compare those movies' number of screens at widest release to the majors. And then compare their release windows. So what would happen if the theater owners cut output deals with the studios that let the exhibitors decide which films to put on screens and which ones to sell, during that theatrical window, in Amaray cases?

It could be a renewed rental window as well. Discs would be "rental-priced" during that window so rentailers could rent or sell them and theaters could sell them.

I think everybody could win. But everybody would have to change their business models a little to make it work.

So John, don't take it personally, but I see a bright line from Kagan's research to theatrical profits. If you want to make money showing movies, spread them around on your screens. Manufacture a shortage. It works for Wal-mart, Xbox, PlayStation and Nintendo.

Can't we all just get along?

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