Sunday, October 23, 2005

Let the Hard Times Roll

Movie theaters up the ante on advertising
go to original article ... or email me for article text
"While the trend took off in Europe, it never really gathered steam here as theaters were afraid of upsetting moviegoers.

But theater chains became much more receptive to tapping advertisers after falling on hard times financially in recent year"

Let's say you had a girlfriend. And you were afraid that you were close to breaking up. And the reason you two were breaking up was because you kept spending all of her money. Even after realizing that lets say you decided to spend more of her money. There are only two possibilities for what's going through your head.
- This is a last ditch effort to milk her for all she was worth before she kicks you to the curb
- You think might be able to buy her favor back spending her cash on some roses, jewelry, or a tropical vacation.

Either way, what would you say the chances of staying together were?

I guess the theater chains don't see it that way. Moviegoers shouldn't expect a better experience even if they are bankrolling it themselves with their time money, and in this age of ads, their eyeballs.

I think it's important to note how this trend took off in Europe years ago. Europe also offers much more attractive moviegoing prices in the form of monthly or season passes. As in, they're actually embracing the fact that movies are becoming an Ad-supported medium. Here, the theaters are trying to eat their cake and have it too.

I have to admit, the gossipy screen content isn't bad. I do like seeing the behind the scenes stuff when I show up earlier to the movie. But I can't help resenting the fact that they're collecting two checks from me.

Save me a seat!

New Website Targets Home Theater Seating Market:
go to original article ... or email me for article text
"These real movie theater chairs are actually engineered and designed with movie viewing in mind, making them perfect for the growing home theater market.

Advantages of having a home theater are many. Having a real mini movie theater in your home keeps the kids at home more often, encourages the guys to come over for the NFL Super Bowl party, and have a ‘girls night in’ for a chick flick and some popcorn."
A true sign of the times.

The home media products and theatrical viewing products are quickly converging. Theater seats may not be as high profile an item as say, digital projectors or DVDs that are released at the same time as the theatrical premiere, but are perhaps a stonger indicator that the distinction won't be sticking around for much longer.

I'm trying to think of a good analogy for this situation. I guess home theaters are a lot like swimming pools. Everything you need to create a swimming pool in your backyard is available and almost commonplace, despite the fact that pools are also commonly available through public institutions. Noboby thinks twice when they see a pool in someone's backyard, it's entered people's minds that the swimming pool is something that you can enjoy at home.

The biggest difference, I suppose, is that people don't have to ask studio's permission when they want to practice their backstroke. :)

Wednesday, October 12, 2005


I think some of my coworkers at Google find it intriguing when I say I want to operate a movie theater for a living. While asking me about it one day, one of my friends, Matt, asked me (paraphrasing) what a movie that changed my life was.

I find that this is one of the most earnest questions that people are likely to ask me about when we discuss this topic, and consequently, one of that can provide some of the best insight as to why I would want to spend my life in movie theaters.

My answer to Matt was that I don't think movies ever changed my life as in introduced a new way of thinking. Generally the ones that really moved me -- or that I really found important to me and always remembered -- were ones that dealt with ideas that I had been tossing around in my head and either helped me put them into focus or affirmed a direction I was moving my life in. Like how Contact landed right as I was at the peak of my academic ability in high school and as I was thinking about whether I should continue to spend my Sunday's in church.

I'm thinking about this now, because I just got back from watching one of those movies: Proof

I've been weirdly hesitant to blog recently, all of a sudden feeling the weight my work at Google and my own expectations. And it's left me very tired. While I've tried to continue keeping up the schedules and practices that I use to regiment some discipline into my blogging, I just haven't been able to turn any of the ideas I've been having recently into thoughtful posts or insight.

But in the end, the first practice I instituted is the one that's helping me shore up some inspiration. I made a goal to see at least one movie in a theater every week, and tonight is one of those nights where I remember why.

I've actually been to the movies 5 times in the last 2 weeks (I think I've been pretty desperate to get something going in my head and in my heart) to see Serenity, Roll Bounce, A History of Violence, Into the Blue, and finally, proof.

I walked away from the first four thinking that I'd seen each movie before, and in various ways I'd seen each done better (This was less true for A History of Violence than for the other three). I didn't detest any of the movies, and I could identify more than a little virtue in each film. But proof connected with me in a way that the other ones couldn't. And got me thinking about how proof tonight connected with me in a way that it couldn't have at any other time in my life.

Movies (like a lot of things in life) are all about timing.

I'll often hear criticisms of movies that rail on them for telling a story that had already been told or for trying something that had already been done. I feel like that is one of the least useful criteria for critiquing a film. But I also see it as one of the most natural things for an individual critic to bring up.

For me, films boil down to two things: Truth and Execution.

How good a film is dependent on its ability to resonate with a viewer because of how true it is, and how well it is accomplish what it sets out to do. Evaluating a film with respect to other existing films doesn't address either of these two things (which form the basis of a film's ability to touch people). But evaluating a film with respect to other existing films that you have seen does address whether or not you like it. Because a film that has moved you in a particular way, can never be supplanted by a film that moves you in a similar way. There just isn't enough room. (It's one of the great problems with having institutionalized individual film critics. A single person can really only advise someone with the exact same film watching history. It would make more sense to have one articulate voice rise out of the masses for each film. In fact, IMDB does this to some extend)

So what's the point of all this, and what does it have to do with movie theaters? Well, it's everything really. All there is.

I don't think people can mature without periodically taking time to reflect, either by creating art or observing art. The art can take many forms, printed literature, religious ceremonies, academic study, but one way that works for a lot of people is watching films. But as I mentioned before, with movies, as with art, timing is everything. So if movie theaters want to be venues that facilitate people's access to films that they'll remember, they have to recognize people's inherent sensitivity to timing. Movies need to be available to the patrons at the right times.

In a way, Hollywood does us a favor (or at least the younger generation) by remaking movies over and over and over again. In part it's less by diabolical design and more by nature. Just as there are legions of new people ready to receive an old message, there are legions of new storytellers that are just realizing how important that message is and desperate to tell it. And when it comes down to it, there are really only a few messages that need to be told. Some religious texts can fit it into a hundred page book that even I could finish. And the more current a transmission is, the more likely it is to be compatible with the receivers on the other end.

I take a lot of flak for being a "movie guy" and not having seen a lot of films like the ones that make up the AFI top 100. And I used to feel guilty or some how fake when I would watch some of those films and be totally unmoved. After tonight, I've got my alibi.

The challenge is to line up the people with what they need/want to see. And the exhibition arm is an important layer for filtering information down to the viewers, and back up to the creators. If people knew what they needed to see to they wouldn't need to see it. Theater operators (who have seen a lot of movies) are well positioned to direct people to films. Conversely, if filmmakers were perfect, they'd have very little to make films about. Showing the films to the right people can spark the dialog that the artists need to mature themselves (and make more and better movies).

Exhibitors can't do either of these things, without respecting timing.

As a bit of an aside, this explains another of my most commonly criticized movie quirks. In college I started amassing a rather large DVD collection that I would loan out to my friends and dorm-mates, and anyone who came by really. As it started getting bigger, it required a fair amount of organization, and I decided to order the films by year of release.

This infuriated people.

No one understood why I would want to do this, and I couldn't give a very convincing explanation. The main thing I liked about it was that I thought it was cool to see when a bunch of movies I really liked all came out for the same Oscar season (like 1998). I liked seeing them bunched visually.

Now I realize that it was more than that. I liked traversing my personal history through film. The concept of timing even explains the other thing that seemed to infuriate people: that I had lots of movies that they thought were awful. Organizing my DVDs (good and bad) by year gave me a rough map to revisit all the major events in my life. What would make even more sense would be ordering movies in the order that I saw them (and then possibly even in the order that I _saw_ them, or really understood them).

Now that I think about it, this would be a cool thing to offer movie theater patrons, to reward them for their habit and remind them about what their habit has built (like does).

I think I'm going to go reorder my DVDs. :)

Monday, October 03, 2005

Paint by Numbers

Curiosity Culture
"Oftentimes, all we have to do is check that a movie is as bad as everyone says it is, in enough numbers, and - poof! - we've accidentally launched another blockbuster film franchise on an unsuspecting world."
I'm finally on to a new book (both books, by the way, are great, and are listed over on the side bar), and a couple of pages into it, it's already helped me focus on a point that I've been meaning to bear down on. We all hear the box office reports that are meant to do everything from measure a film's success in earning back it's production budget to give insightful critiques about moviegoing trends and the social climate. Unfortunately, the simple gross revenues tend to do this very poorly.

For example Tom Shone (Author of afore-mentioned new book) compares the list of record-breaking films by gross revenue, to the all time list of top grossers when adjusted for simple inflation. The first list is dominated by movies released in the last two decades, with little to no representation from any previous era. The inflation adjusted list drops most of these films out of the top 50 or down to near the end of the list. This list is headlined by Gone with the Wind and has several representatives from the 70's, 60's, 50's, and even the 30's.

Obviously there are a lot of things to compare from era to era, how many films were released, how many venues were playing different films, how much more expensive films are to produce, what alternative entertainment existed, etc. But the greater point is that, the gross revenue numbers that seem to get broken year after year don't really mean anything.

Most unfortunate is the fact that gross revenue is the only number around. I know, because I quote it to my friends all the time. I even regurgitate the "interesting" spins I get off IMDB about how the revenue is the largest seasonal opening for a film starring a particular actor without the presence of another actor in a particular genre yada yada...

Box Office analysis needs some serious attention. There's an ESPN writer that I really like, John Hollinger, who evaluates players and situations with an extreme statistical bias, however goes beyond the traditional metrics and combines the stats that are already being recorded into more meaningful numbers. For example, he combines a player's scoring output, rebounding numbers, defensive contributions, etc into an all around evaluator "Player Efficiency Rating". He combines 3 point accuracy, standard field goal percentage, and free throw percentage into a "True shooting percentage". These concepts are already starting to become popular with the play-by-play commentators and other analysts who evaluate player performance for the general public.

A suite of numbers like this, but applied to the film industry, would accomplish a few really important things. One it would push the general public towards a more imaginative understanding of the film landscape. This could inform their moviegoing habits, and potentially shift how and where they purchased media. I think it would also legitimize a lot of projects that don't look so hot when you look at their gross revenue. For example, a movie with a good per theater draw across 50 theaters, never looks that impressive, when you tally it together, but it's possible that it's generating twice the interest of a movie with a wider release despite a smaller marketing budget. Finally, the DVD/home media sales are already factoring heavily into the studio's estimates of a movie's profits. This should start to be institutionalized, as again, it legitimizes some projects that don't look attractive in wide theatrical release, but could still have a successful life in home video.

This number could be an important bargaining point for two groups of people. The creative forces (actors, directors, anyone with profit participation deals) could cite it in their contracts. Since the DVD release will be sliding closer and closer to the theatrical release, exhibitors can make a case for a share of the overal box office revenues, and if studio content doesn't want to comply, maybe independent distributors (like what landmark is offering currently) will more willing to deal.

As it stands, I have a lot of box office data to stare at, but no numbers to show for it. As I accumulate more data, I expect things will start to become clear (I hope :) ). Between now and then, I'll try to pick up a statistics textbook and build on the following concepts:

Blockbuster Rating: Some concept of true dominance, like Gone with the Wind, or Titanic recently
Staying Power: Films that are either rewatcheable or continue to generate interest
Home Video/Theatrical Bias: Films that were watched more or less in one format
Overall Value Proposition: How much earning potential a film has relative to it's production costs

And a bunch more that I can't think of right now. (But I'd love to hear ideas)