Focus on the Experience

Films aren’t created to keep theaters in business any more than books are written to keep brick-and-mortar stores operating. However . . . Past practices of some theaters and stores run in the opposite direction.

A recent example comes via the release of the film Veronica Mars, which was released in theaters and via video on demand (for sale and for renting) the same day last week.

“Theater chains are dead set on screening with exclusive window,” said director Rob Thomas in a Variety interview. “It’s why Warner’s is renting out AMC theaters.”

Afraid that their ticket sales will be “cannibalized” by same-day non-theatrical and theatrical releases, theater owners have pushed for those exclusive windows, meaning no digital, DVD or other types of releases for a specific time frame. Theatrical only. According to TechHive, “Competing chains such as Regal Entertainment and Cinemark declined to screen [Veronica Mars] at all.”

That model benefits the theaters, not the artists. One argument is that strong theatrical runs will drive digital and DVD releases to follow, hence theaters come first, rather than providing access options to a wider group of potential viewers at one time. However . . .

Late last year, fans of Dr. Who blew that argument out of the water, providing an example of a theatrical release being driven by an earlier non-theatrical release. According to Entertainment Weekly:

A special nationwide 3D screening of the Doctor Who 50th anniversary TV special “Day of the Doctor” grossed a stunning $4.8 million at the U.S. box office.

What makes this particularly impressive: That’s from one night. The 75-minute “Day of the Doctor” screened in 660 theaters as a one-night-only special event [November 25] and averaged $7,155 per location, with 320,000 tickets sold. Granted, the tix were $15 a pop, so that certainly helped. . . .

And don’t forget: This screening was two days after the episode had already premiered on BBC America, so most fans had already seen it.

While studios and independents have had to accept theater owners’ terms in the past — or pay to rent screen time as Warner did with Veronica Mars — they don’t have to accept those terms in the future. They don’t need the theaters.

The direct-connect offered by digital allows viewers to skip theaters just as it has offered book readers and music lovers to skip brick-and-mortar stores.

Yes, download “glitches” still exist, and studios (and publishers) have lots of room for improvement when it comes to digital distribution (another example provided via Veronica Mars), but . . . As systems improve and less-tech-savvy consumers find comfort with the ease of downloading, the same-day option for films will grow, just as it has for books and albums.

Rather than fighting to control distribution, theater owners might take a cue from what happened to the now-shuttered book and music chains that used to surround them.

Instead of dictating self-serving (and ultimately self-destroying) exclusive first rights, they might work with artists and/or studios/publishers and fight for the experience.

What’s the experience?

Ask a die-hard moviegoer why he or she will attend a big-screen showing rather than (or in addition to) watching a film on TV or the computer, and you’ll hear about the experience. I remember friends picking out the best theater for screening the 1993 release of Jurassic Park as if it happened yesterday. They were in it for the special effects, ready to be rocked by the experience that couldn’t be provided in their dens at home.

You’ll hear the same thing from booklovers when it comes to bookstores. It’s the experience. There’s something about getting lost in the shelves, the feel of the books, the smell.

And yes, same for those music fans, too, standing for hours flipping through albums. Experience involved.

What does the experience look like?

Jurassic Park of years ago comes to mind, when theaters offered a sound system that couldn’t be replicated (and special effects that couldn’t be appreciated) at home. It’s that experience that drove those Dr. Who fans to pay $15 to watch an episode on the big screen, though it aired (and many had already watched it) two days earlier on TV. There was something about seeing it in a theater . . . Same for Veronica Mars. The film was a long-time coming, following a Kickstarter campaign that gave new life to a cancelled, cult favorite TV series.

Comments from Veronica Mars fans indicate that more would have attended a screening instead of, and/or in addition to, downloading the film if there had been screenings in their locations.

As is, Jeff Goldstein, Warner’s executive vice president of theatrical distribution, was quoted by Entertainment Weekly, reporting that fan events brought in $260,000. “You add that together with our weekend for a total of $2 million from 291 theaters? That’s pretty significant.”

According to EW, “The per theater average was about $6,945.”  According to Tech Hive, “Only Wes Anderson’s slow-releasing Grand Budapest Hotel did better per-screen.” Another comparison: The Monuments Men, one of 2014’s top films according to Box Office Mojo, which has a $7,137 per theater average (in 3,083 theaters) as I type this, and which benefited from a larger production and marketing budget attached to it, as well as more house-hold names and a best-selling book.

While some have criticized the Veronica Mars film itself, the reality is that its distribution model, with its tech malfunctions and all, is a viable option for the future.

We saw what happened when book and music stores clung to old models. The same is in the future for theaters.

For as much as many of us want and love physical stores and theaters, we don’t need them to access books and films as was the case in the past.

What we need them for is the experience.

Stop dictating the terms of out-dated (and often dysfunctional) relationships. Instead . . . Focus on the experience.

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  1. Frances Schagen on March 21, 2014 at 6:41 am

    I see 2 reasons to go to the theatre – the theatre experience and the community. I suspect that Veronica Mars is a case of community. Dr Who – a bit of both.

    When we’re making that decision we ask ourselves is this movie big screen worthy? Do we need the big screen to enjoy the movie more?

    For us, Harry Potters, Lord of the Rings and Hobbits (and Dr Who if it had been here) are as much about community as big screen worthiness. Being one of the first to watch those at home isn’t nearly as impactful as being one of the ones in a theatre opening week.

  2. Mary Doyle on March 21, 2014 at 6:52 am

    I have to confess that I’m not a big fan of the movie theatre anymore. The “experience” has paled for me over the last decade: fewer movies that interest me, sound systems that blast you out of your seat during the endless previews, and moviegoers who continue to text and talk on their cell phones. Still, some movies are best experienced on the big screen. “Lincoln” comes to mind as a movie I really wanted to see in the theatre and it was memorable – the audience applauded at the end, and there was the definite sense of a shared community experience. But unless I’m particularly eager to see something as soon as it is released or believe it’s a “big screen” movie, I’ll wait for the DVD or streaming version and watch it at home.

  3. David Y.B. Kaufmann on March 21, 2014 at 7:11 am

    Seth Goding talks about this a lot. I agree with Frances Schagen’s addition: the experience includes, or is about (also) community.

    I think one of the key words, Callie, is “self-serving.” Because it’s not about the distributors or editors or publishers or producers. It’s about the audience, and the audience wants to connect with the artist. In the past, perhaps the task of the gatekeepers was to exclude the unworthy (the unworthy artist from leaving the castle of Art and the unworthy audience from receiving it). Today, because distribution and curation are no longer secretive nor exclusive, the gatekeeper’s task is to facilitate access and be the hub of networking.

    A far different focus and a better experience.

  4. Donn McAfee on March 21, 2014 at 9:15 am

    Robert McKee stated, in his recent Story seminar in LA, that there are more movie theaters in LA than the entire country of Italy, where he also lectures. He followed by stating the obvious: Europeans prefer to wait for the digital releases so they can watch in the privacy of their homes. Obviously US audiences demand more of ‘the experience’. But european markets are contributing more and more revenue to Hollywood.

    Thanks for the insightful blog, Callie. Very interesting.

  5. Joel D Canfield on March 21, 2014 at 9:41 am

    If our local theater had a showing of The Maltese Falcon, which I’ve had on DVD since the day I bought my first DVD player and have watched 50 times, I would pay full price, even a premium price, to see it on the big screen.

    I’d love to create a book nook where folks paid an entrance fee to peruse the physical books before they bought them from Amazon. Provide ONLY the experience, not the product.

    • Nancy Darling on March 21, 2014 at 1:46 pm

      It’s called a Library! and it’s FREE!

  6. Pamela Seley on March 22, 2014 at 11:31 am

    The theater experience today is not so great in my opinion. Being shoved in a long narrow room that reminds me of a cardboard shoe box is not worth $10 to watch a movie I can watch in the comfort of my home on my computer with superior sound. It’s not important to me that I see a movie when it first comes out. I recall it being said it is the non-artists who discuss movies and books at the water cooler, and it is artists who discuss politics and finance. It is the bankers and lawyers who can afford to go to the movies, and starving artists usually can’t afford to as often, so the movie better be damn good.

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