Tuesday, May 31, 2005

Special Edition Movie Screenings

Digital film revolution poised to start rolling
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"'A current 35-millimeter film projector costs about $30,000 and lasts 35 years,' says NATO head Fithian. "Digital costs upward of $100,000, and I doubt it will last 25 years. You're giving us something akin to the first generation of a cell phone or a laptop."

His organization took a tough negotiating stand in November. It passed a resolution insisting that all of the major studios — the companies expected to benefit most from digital — finance in some way all the costs to buy and install digital cinema equipment for any theater that wants it. In addition, theater owners want the right to decide what models of gear to take and then want to own the equipment when the financing period is up.

What's more, NATO wants studios to guarantee that they'll offer digital versions of their movies to any theater that has a digital projector."
This is a comparison, sadly, I'd never actually thought about. It is going to suck when the second and third generation projectors roll out at a quarter of the price and twice the quality 10 years down the line. There's a huge amount of capital involved and the theaters absolutely cannot afford to be early adopters in this case.

Of course, if they aren't, then there won't be any adopters. That's why it's such an apt analogy to pick this as a chicken and egg situation.


But now that Star Wars has gotten everyone excited about digital again (my newswire has been overflowing with articles in high profile publications detailing the exhibitors' transition to digital projection) here's something that I haven't actually heard anyone talking about. One thing that I found was really enjoyable about the film festivals I've attended has been the presence of the directors, writers and actors and their availability for questions. Everyone knows how much interacting with them can enrich a film, so booking the creative talent behind a film is usually a something lots of theaters would like to do (although few have the power to do so).

The digitization of movie houses, though, demolishes one of the primary barriers preventing filmmakers from doing Q&A sessions _everywhere_ a film plays.With all of the techological advances made in teleconferencing and long distance learning technology, Once there are digital projectors in all theaters, there is very little to stop a directors from holding a nationwide simultaneous press conference with every single one of the people viewing the film!

I mean, is anyone else excited about this?!

Everybody would win. People would connect to film makers and give them valuable feedback. The directors could open up their vision even beyond the potential flaws of the film. People could see what it means to other people in other parts of the world. Imagine a panel of the Spielberg, and Tom Cruise being beamed down onto a movie screen once the credits of War of the Worlds roll. Then people in theaters across the country can step in front of cameras and submit questions about the movie. The best, or most common ones could be shown in front of the whole country and the filmmakers could answer while behind the scenes footage or supplemental material played next to them while they answer the question.

All the talk is about alternative content like concerts and meetings. But why not make the alternative content about the real human connections long promised by telecommunications technology. The production and sales of special edition dvds have shown how hungry the public is for "special feature" content. If the movie exhibition industry is so threatened by the growth of the home viewing business, why not beat them out by providing an even richer experience while keeping amplifying the experience and spirit of communal viewing. Of course this stuff would be ready made for the dvd release, but how much more compelling would it be if _YOU_ could end up on the dvd.

And it'll finally reward all those people who sit in the theater until the final credits roll.

Sunday, May 15, 2005

A Balanced Perspective

Shhh! The Ads Are About to Start
Pre-Movie Commercial Creep Is Nothing New, but Some Folks Aren't Taking It Sitting Down

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"Not all venues are going the way of 'The 2wenty.'

Landmark Theatres, an art house chain with locations in the District and Bethesda, runs 10 to 12 minutes of commercials and trailers, but chooses spots -- like a series of independent shorts sponsored by Stella Artois beer -- that mirror the spirit of the indie and foreign films on the marquee. "We've had a lot of positive feedback because of showing the shorts," says Ray Price, Landmark's vice president in charge of marketing. "We actually had one patron who went in and watched the short, then tried to leave because he thought the movie was over."
Most of the coverage on this blog about Movie Theater Advertising (which is quickly becoming one of the hottest issues in this arena) has been one-sidedly negative. This article continues to point out many of those same negative sentiments and lots of interesting numbers about the market that the exhibitors are trying to capture and the magnitude of moviegoers response. But it also visits how to do it right.

Advertising is based on what I consider to be a extremely noble idea. You're connecting people who want to make and do things with people who want what they make and would like to support those people as their patrons. On top of that, I'm a fan of how advertising on TV and the internet support useful communication and entertainment media, more things that people want.

This sort of thing embodies both of those ideas and in doing so, succeeds (measured by people's positive response) where typical pre-show advertising fails.

Why should the kids have all the fun?

Beer and wine: Coming soon to a theater near you?
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"'This isn't a theater that's showing Disney movies and bringing in blockbuster-type stuff," she said. "It's an older crowd, and if an individual wants to see an independent show at the Plaza Frontenac and wants a glass of wine in there, I think that's perfectly fine.

As for the Tivoli Theatre, Resnick said no alcohol would be served during its midnight showings, which is when the theater receives the majority of its underage audience. Like restaurants and bars, theater staff would card individuals purchasing alcohol."
The idea of serving alcohol at movie theaters had fallen out of fashion (or at least off of my list of things that are really important in this business) with me because I viewed alcoholic beverages simply as higher margin concessions products. If you read the blog, you can probably get a sense for how I feel about building a movie theater on concession sales.

However, I spun off on a really interesting line of thought after I read this article regarding the movement to bring alcohol into select St. Louis area theaters . This quote recognizes a long understood segmentation of the movie going public into the family-oriented, and the adult. It always seemed a little strange to me that theaters and multiplexes all seemed to cater to the family oriented group considering how all of the buying power resided in the adult group. I eventually realized that "family films" were more often than not responsible for the highest attendance and thus the largest amounts of revenue.

But now I realize that I wasn't carrying out the reasoning far enough. One might presume that greater public response to family oriented films indicated that more people were interested in seeing them. But now it's not that at all. People aren't more interested in family oriented films (despite the sweeping conservative trends that call for "family values"). In the end, it would seem, that there's more money to be made in the family arena because the marketing dollar will be more effective when selling this films.

But here's the part that really bothers me. Who does the studio marketing machine feel it's important to target? Kids. And generally the younger population. Which begs the question, why would you target kids? Because they're the easiest to sell and don't know any better.

It may not seem like rocket science, but I think it's the really importantant observation. Basically, the Hollywood marketing strategy(and if I felt like more of an authority, I would say the American marketing strategy) is to proudly boast about the virtues of whatever they're selling until they start to see a response in sales. And even if they're lying or wrong, there's no one to call them on it because they call the ensuing response a "market" and use that as their justification.

They're banking on the fact that people will believe things are what they want them to be and buy them regardless, rather than evaluate them for what they are and exercise their discretion. And the people this works the best on is the young crowd who have the least experience distinguishing one thing from the other.

The reason this bothers me is that it's more effective than it's sinister exploitative surface seems to indicate. It would seem like the problem would only manifest itself in the occasional bad movie, or bad trailer that doesn't really describe what the feature is about. That the only negative outcomes would be a couple of moviegoers getting burned and learning their lesson the hard way that you can't believe everything a marketing campaign tells you. But it has shaped the face of the whole exhibition industry. The prevalence of the multi and megaplexes that cater to "family oriented" movie goers are around precisely because their ease of exploitation has trickled down into "smarter" business for the theaters.

And as a result, adults have nowhere to go for films.

Luckily, I think the trend is reversing itself. I see the industry-wide recognition of the earning potential of independent films (and hence the subsequent presence of an independent distribution branch at each major studio) as one signal that people are starting to realize that adults want to go to the movies. I think the rising trend of including alcohol on the list of things you can enjoy with a movie signals the same thing.

Movies are not just entertainment, and like literature and the printed media, there is a place for film and going to the movies in everyone's lives. It's the exhibitors' turn to start reacting. Just like the megaplex was a reaction increasing demand for blockbuster general appeal films, there needs to be a response to the huge potential for films that interest individual groups and even individual people.

Thursday, May 12, 2005

The Quiet Revolt

Lost Crusade
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"Last weekend's box office turned out to be significantly worse than the studios' original Sunday estimates -- which had been dismal enough in their own right. Twentieth Century Fox's Kingdom of Heaven, which is believed to have cost between $120 million and $185 million to produce, earned just $19.6 million domestically, according to final figures from Exhibitor Relations. Reporting on the downturn in theater attendance, which has produced 11 consecutive weeks of lower box-office results than last year, today's (Tuesday) New York Times asked, 'Are people turning away from lackluster movies, or turning their backs on the whole business of going to theaters?'"
I was telling Martha, the other day, that I had noticed recently that I was just not getting excited about the movies that were coming out. It used to be that every trailer for an epic or big budget action movie was a must see event for me. I couldn't stop myself for standing in line all day for the Armageddon's, the Mission Impossible's, the Desperado's and the like.

But these days, what I consider comparable fare just doesn't do it for me. I had little to no desire to see King Arthur, or Alexander. And I haven't exactly walked out of many Hollywood produced movies totally fired up like when I wanted to eradicate every alien I saw after ID4.

My first thought was that I must be starting to outgrow it. This was a terrible, gut wrenching thought. If there comes a point in people's lives when they're no longer moved by films, then everything I know is just wrong. So I avoided thinking about it and just kept looking for movies, (with a pronounced leaning toward the independently produced fare) that I could get excited about. And I was successful enough to keep my mind off of it.

But reading this box office report puts some things into focus for me. It's not just me. There seems to be a collective ambivalence about the movies available right now. The selection right now, is actually not bad, when you think about it. You've got a historical Ridley Scott epic, a fun horror thriller, a quirky cult following sci-fi film. Nicole Kidman is on screen, with Sean Penn, Sin City is still around. So why are the theaters so empty? The state of films is certainly not worse than when Titanic was the ONLY thing showing and people's repeat 3-hour viewings drove it to the top of the all time box office charts.

To answer the question posed by the New York Times, I think it's less about the lackluster films and more about people turning away from the business of going to movie theaters. Don't get me wrong, the lackluster films have everything to do with it (it's telling that every 'successful' film in the past few months has dropped 50% of its attendance the week after it premieres). But there is a lot more to it. I passionately believe that it's not because there's no place for moviegoing in today's culture. But people don't want to go to the movies right now. And why would they want. There are so many films to see. It's hard to tell what's good because all trailers have been reduced to using the same generic dramatic devices and marketing techniques. It's an expensive experiment to actually try to go to see what's good when going to a movie in San Francisco costs you 10.50. And you still have to sit through ads. And buy popcorn that is marked up 1000%. When you can just wait to buy the movie on dvd in 3 months for the price of two movie tickets. Or better yet get it on netflix. Or better yet, download the pirated version for free.

When the alternatives are this compelling it makes it virtually impossible to go to the movies . And this includes the film lovers. The generations of people who are raised on movies and can't ever get enough, can't stand to pay to see a film at their local multiplex.

And the various sections of the business point at all the places along the way. Exhibitors will tell you that shortening theatrical windows dilute their market. The studios say that piracy is threatening artists' ability to benefit from their craft. But these are trends that have been made possible by improved technology and new media. Stamping them out is the farthest thing from the answer. The whole problem is that people know what it can be like, and they're disgusted that the exhibition industry would ever try to sell them anything less.

Without even knowing it, the public has turned against the industry of going to the movies. And as shepherds of this industry, the studios are the ones that need to organize everyone and take action. And not with ridiculous campaigns to stop pirates. (As an aside, the only way to stop pirates is to make their work meaningless, to be better at their game than they are. People obviously want downloadable movie content fast. Why not make it available. Only the most shortsighted viewpoint will really believe that this will diminish box office performance). The studios and distributors have long held all the negotiating power that limits the way exhibitors are able to do business. Since the vast proportion of the benefit generated in the industry has fallen to them, so does the responsibility.

-Studios/Distributors need to do something to allow movie theaters to reverse the epidemic of skyrocketing ticket prices. Bring the movie ticket back down to the point where going to the movies doesn't feel like a major investment. People will demand less from their movies, enjoy them more, and be willing to experiment more.

-Theaters need to drop the ads and studios need to help. Subsidize film rentals that don't include preshow ads or flat out require that preshow ads not be shown with films

-For gods sake, stop the marketing blitzes. Nobody responds them any more, and any marginal benefit they create by driving people to the movies is totally lost in the production cost they escalated and the long term effects of escalating marketing costs (and in desensitizing the entire civilized public. People can tell when they're being manipulated and they don't like it. So even if it worked in the past, and still seems to work, it really doesn't.

-Divert the anti-piracy efforts to creating a legal means for downloadable movie content.

-Improve the quality of films! Most studios have caught on to the profitability potential of independently produced film making and all have independent distribution arms. If you're not going to make anything good, just don't make anything and please stop selling it. Just keep buying and distributing the films that people actually cared to make. It'll work. I promise

-Establish an identity for the exhibition portion of the film industry. And apply the necessary resources to laying it down in practice. People need to know why they should come back to the movies. And right now there's no practical reason to do so. But people want the movie theater experience. And that has to be delivered to them

This needs to happen. When the box office continues to plummet, the studios are going to have to make a decision. Do they continue with their short-sighted designs to nickel and dime everyone they do business with and squeeze out every opportunistic cent they can. Or do they step up and ensure that their industry has a future by biting some bullets and reshaping it for an eager public.

For the record, I don't think the studios will change. Episode III will come in just like John Fithian says and save the day. But the industry will still be charging toward a messy end. Nothing's unfixable, even the continued decay of exhibition, but the sooner the studio's realize their responsibility the better. For everyone. There's everything to gain.

Saturday, May 07, 2005

And while we're on the topic of ads...

Sponsorship on the silver screen
Pre-movie theater ads annoy some, but they could be here to stay

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"Regal Entertainment, the largest theater chain in the country and most ambitious adopter of screen advertising, uses a 20-minute block of ads and behind-the-scenes promos of new movies and TV shows. The company spent $70 million on a network of digital projectors that beam this block into its theaters via satellite. They call this "The 2wenty."

Arbitron, the audience measurement company, did a 2003 study of commercials and movie theaters that's become a benchmark for the industry. No surprise - and despite evidence to the contrary (including other surveys) - they found you love screen advertising. They even have a phrase to describe you:

'Captive audience.'"
I, for one, would have to question the wisdom of this particular 70 million dollar investment. I mean, come on. I understand that theaters need to find innovative ways to widen the profit margins in a tough business, so there's a huge impetus to viewing this optimistically and jumping on any survey that appears to support your cause. But this, to me, seems pretty inexcusable. To make that kind of investment and roll out that many projectors, there was obviously no looking back. This wasn't any sort of "try it out to see how people feel about it" experiment (and judging from people's reactions, it should have been). This was a "we'll force them to get used to it because they have no other choice".

Maybe in the end, it's better for everyone, and this is saving the general public money on preventing ticket prices from rising. But both the cynic and the reasonable person in me think it's not better for everyone. Ticket prices are going to continue to rise regardless of ads. Frankly, I don't mind that as much as long as you still find ways to make it affordable for families to go to the movies. If the industry wanted to keep ticket prices down, they'd find some other way to do it. The other reason, I know this is a bad thing for everyone is that these ads are just awful. They don't even have the basic sensibilities that trailers do. If you're showing an action movie, then you show ads for other action movies. But these ads are the most generic, and poor-attempt-at-being-widely-appealing brand advertisements you can get. And speaking from my experience working with all the possibilities of targeted and contextual advertising, I find nothing more detestible than brand advertising. While it is not something that thi blog aims to address, I feel strongly that it is one of the biggest wastes of people's time and money that our society has ever allowed itself to generate.

Just to leave on a positive note, I'm including my favorite part of the article (which I highly recommend for it's much more balanced and interesting analysis of the situation)
The Portland, Ore., graphic designer started the Captive Motion Picture Audience of America - which is basically a Web site (www.captiveaudience.org) and a rallying cry. It also offers placards to print out that read: "RESERVED. This Patron is Avoiding Cinema Advertising and Will Return When the Feature Begins."

One Step Forward? Or Two Steps Back?

Loews tells the truth
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"Loews Cineplex Entertainment says it will begin publicizing true starting times of movies (when the movie really starts, not the time that the trailers and the commercials start) next month — sort of.

John McCauley, the company's senior vice president for marketing, said the times in the company's newspaper and Web listings would still be the times when the trailers and commercials start. But the ads will also carry a note advising that, as McCauley put, "the feature presentation starts 10 to 15 minutes after the posted show time."

Talk about your deceiving headlines. I was totally excited about this ...until I read the article (most of which is reproduced above). Bascially they're doing nothing. It actually feels rather insulting. They're telling people something that people not only already know, but have known since before preshow ads even became a problem. The movie doesn't start for an estimated 10 to 15 minutes after the posted start time. Wow. Thanks for being so forthcoming.

But the thing that really sucks about this is that this poor excuse for a response may be the ony response we et. Now that they've done something, they may not feel like they have to do anyting else, despite the fact that they've completely ignored the real problem. Pre show _commercials_ (light dimming, volume craning,live action commercials), STEAL your time. They're not like tralers that people actualy want to show up early to watch. When the ads start showing, not only do people detest them, but they can't do the things they normally do in the theater. Like reading the paper or talking to friends. These ads take away you ability to do anything else. And you can't show up late if you want a good seat. But how's this for irony:
"While some may welcome the change one company official says he thinks few will show up later. He says he believes "people enjoy coming early, getting their popcorn, finding their seats" and talking to one another."
Yes, we do. And that's what makes this so very, very weak

Friday, May 06, 2005

Letting Go

Cla-Zel ending long run as movie theater
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""People say [a theater with such films] makes them feel warm and fuzzy - and say, 'I just don't have time to take in a movie.' Warm-and-fuzziness does not correlate to dollars, unfortunately," Mr. Yon said."
When I first read this, I wasn't exactly sure how I wanted to comment on it. I was drawn to how heartbreaking it was.

But I had another thought that made it powerful for a reason I wasn't expecting at all.

There are so many companies and organizations that are constantly trying very hard to make themselves relevant to people. Actually, they're just trying to survive. It's a human instinct carried over to business. But it has no place there. Business endeavors are successful because they are a reaction to what people already need. A service springs up because no one is providing it. A competitor springs up because some people want something a little different. All that is a win for everyone.

People start to lose when companies start competing for no other reason than an unrelending desire to win, make a lot of money, or to keep the comapany going.

If people don't need it, or don't want it, then there's no reason for that organization to exist. Period. I know there's a lot of grey area about what people want, what they think they want, what they think they need, but I don't think enough of the top brass of aging, irrelevant companies stop to think about this.

And what Mr. Yon says, sort of represents this to me. I realize I'm romanticizing it a bit, and his tone is a more discouraged and cynical than contemplative and refreshing, but I think in the end, it's precisely that.

For the record, if I own a theater, it isn't important to me that it have a legacy beyond my managership. Who would want to go if I wasn't there, anyway? :)