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Movie Theater Metamorphosis

15 Jun, 2005 By: Holly J. Wagner

Much has been made of 2929 Entertainment's plans to release movies in theaters, on discs and on cable and satellite TV on the same day. Most people in this industry don't believe it will ever happen on a wide scale.

I don't know if it will or not. We do know box office has been sliding, and if you look at 2929 partner Mark Cuban's blog, a lot of folks — more than the one or two I cited in last week's column — would like the choice of watching in a theater or at home on the same day.

Theater owners, of course, are absolutely not in that group. But a comment from National Association of Theater Owners (NATO) president John Fithian really makes another point. I asked his opinion of super-releases and one part of his comment really stuck in my mind.

“As movie theatres have small margins, the impact on our industry would be profound. If all movies were released day-and-date in theaters and to the home, movie theaters would be forced to exhibit more ‘television-like' product and alternative product simply to stay in business,” he said. “Hollywood movies would become a lesser thing. The Academy Awards would lose their very special value.”

Not to pick on John, but is it possible that ship has already sailed? Some analysts say the quality of major studio releases has been less than stellar lately and that is keeping people out of theaters. Others have criticized targeting older audiences with increasingly violent fare. I hate awards shows, and too often the awards seem to me a popularity contest, not a comment on the quality of the work.

The Academy was in a tizzy in 2003 over a screener ban, because without screeners sent to their homes, even voting members would never see most of the films in theaters. So it's not just ordinary Joes and Jills who have eschewed the theater experience.

It's invariably the Old Guard that opposes new approaches. The four major music labels are still decrying peer-to-peer technology, even as independent artists applaud it for connecting them with an audience that might otherwise never have seen or heard their acts.

Now, I can understand why exhibitors would rather have a guaranteed box office draw than taking a chance on some independent fare. But that may not be true of fans. I wanted to see The Motorcycle Diaries in a theater, but I could never find it playing anywhere within 25 miles of my house when I wanted to go. And that's here in Southern California, undisputedly a major entertainment market. Meanwhile, the same big studio films were showing at dozens of screens, often two or three at the same multiplex. And I didn't want to see any of them.

I guess what I am asking is, what is the nature of arthouse? If a blockbuster shows in an “arthouse” theater and nobody goes to watch it, is it still a blockbuster? And conversely, is an independent film “arthouse” because of the content or because studios and exhibitors crowd it out of mainstream theaters and never get it in front of the audience?

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