Wednesday, March 29, 2006

I'm a sell out

An interesting thing happened to me tonight when I went out to the movies. (This tends to happen; it's why I resolve to see at least one movie in a theater each week). Martha had the great idea to go see "Thank You for Smoking". When she gets an idea into her head she is great about looking into it and figuring out how we can do it. She planned for a show after I got home from basketball, and verified that the movie was in fact playing at a nearby theater.

Unfortunately, she's not always reliable when it comes to verifying details :) She brought us to the Aquarius in Palo Alto where we were surprised to find out that the Thank You for Smoking was not on the schedule for the evening. As we tried to figure out where it was playing, the well-informed girl staffing the box office stated "It's not at the Guild, it's probably playing at a Century Theater". There was a hint of disdain in her voice.

If you have been following this blog for the last year or so -- as I'm sure you have ;) -- you might remember that I commented (mostly in Century's defense) on an article about an independent theater protesting Century's booking practices. Steve Mason, the operator of the Palm d'Or (the independent theater), actually emailed me about the blog post and provided me with his personal perspective on the issue. I think an exerpt from his message is appropriate:
"Your perception of Century Theatres is interesting as a customer. As an exhibitor in this industry, they are known as ruthless, demanding, and prone to litigation. It is often that a distributor says that dealing with Century is like dealing with the mafia."
I couldn't help but be reminded of this discussion when I heard the tone of the Aquarius employee. The Aquarius and the Guild comprise the Palo Alto presence of Landmark Theaters. Landmark, of course, has been a long time supporter for independent films. Until a few years ago, it had been the only chain to carry them. And now it seems that they, too, are getting shut out of movies that they may have wanted.

It all seems a little bit wrong. Landmark, being a first mover, and playing a pivotal role in creating the audience for movies like "Thank you for Smoking" doesn't deserve to be shut out of movies.

The worst part, though, is that when I heard our movie wasn't playing at either the Aquarius, or the Guild, I was actually relieved. Truth be told, as much as I love where they came from and the movies I can see there, I hate watching movies at those two theaters. The seats are uncomfortable, the screens are small, feel a little dim, and the sound is subpar. I'd much rather be at Palo Alto Square lounging in a comfortable seat, and experiencing all the polish of a well produced movie in sweet sweet hi-fi.

I was a little alarmed by this. What does that mean for people like me? If I'm ever lucky enough to have a theater, won't it be more likely to be a place like the Aquarius, than Palo Alto square? Where do my alliances lie? Do I really think the bigger theater chains like Century should be able to steal me away from theaters like the Aquarius, or the Palm d'Or?

In a word, yes.

It boils down to providing the best movie going experience possible. If the resources of a theater chain enable me to do that better than independence as a theater owner, than I'm siding of the Regal's, AMC's, and Century's of the world. To take it even further, if providing people with home theaters enables me to do that better than multiplexes, I guess I'll go into selling home theater equipment.

I find some theoretical grounding in all of this as well. In yet another previous post, I clumsily challenged the propriety of capitalism for all of our social needs. I've been doing some basic thinking and reading about capitalistic economies and competitive environments. And where capitalism (and competition) is really effective is at the margins. For example, providing people access to independent movies where there were none before (what Landmark did). But after the bloody competive battles yield the proper way to do things and still cut a profit, there's no need to compete in that space. It starts to be counterproductive, if nothing new is going to be developed. The only thing left to do is to make the experience better. And that battle will go to the people with the most resources to do so: the institutions.

With no disrespect to the important work that indpendent theaters have done in bringing a fresh variety of movies to watchers like me, their role in all of this is a bridge between and undeveloped market, and an optimal solution for getting people to the movies they want, how they want them.

To be sure, the work that first movers, like Landmark, do is both costly and instrumental to the development of any industry. And they should be awarded with some sort of patent on the process that they've perfected (if other people are going to use it). But independent theaters that are gradually losing this battle should not assume a protectionist stance on their roles. I hope that when I'm faced with these types of conflicts, I have the foresight to understand this.

Of course all this aside, at the heart of the matter here and at the Palm d'Or, the issue is that the question of who can provide a better service is not answered. Locking out nearby theaters from showing the same movie limits the ability to compete on even ground. Some people may prefer what the Aquarius has to offer, and the Aquarius may even want to offer it on a different schedule than Palo Alto Square. That, of course, may impede Palo Alto square's ability to make a living. But stamping out the competition and winning by denying the audience choice doesn't seem like a very productive practice.

Tuesday, March 07, 2006

And like that... he's gone.

George Lucas:"The Blockbuster Is Dead"
go to original article ... or email me for article text
""The market forces that exist today make it unrealistic to spend $200 million on a movie, Those movies can't make their money back anymore. Look at what happened with King Kong""
I'm inclined to agree. Sort of.

I think it's all too easy for "Hollywood" studios to make their money back on the big budget movies they produce. It's formulaic, in fact. That's why everyone celebrates and jeers at the big flops and misses. We're so used to them winning (and winning ugly) that we like to see them lose every once in a while. If you've ever cheered against the Yankees, Duke or (I hate to say it) the Lakers, you know what I'm talking about.

The studios have made a precise science out of what the public will come out to see, and it doesn't necessarily have much to do with how good, original, or meaningful the movie is. But they can make their money back (and more) in theatrical release -- and definitely in dvd sales -- because they're smart about what they put out. What people who go to the movies a lot are noticing, is that smart production moves don't tend to lead to interesting movies.

So what George is essentially saying is that it's impossible for GOOD big-budget movies to make their money back.

Over my many years of being obsessed with Star Wars and following what I could of George Lucas, I've flip flopped in my opinion of him many times. In the end, I believe that he is, in fact, an artist. He can fail to execute well, he's not prone to admitting mistakes, and he's not always in touch with his audience or the general public. But there is soul and creation infused in all the stuff he tries to do.

Reading the reaction to his most recent public comments, it's clear that not many people agree. Which is unfortunate. As an artist, I think Lucas is speaking out about how no one who wants to make an expressive piece of cinema will be able to access "Hollywood" funding, because outside the formula, the economics of film distribution just don't add up. And for people who think about art, the other movies don't count.

His predictions seem off base, because they probably are. I doubt we'll see the average production cost dip. Big movies still make money, and they will continue to because the channels are established and mature. The reality is, the checks and balances that exist corporately make it impossible for them to fail. But the artist is myopic and sees only his and his contemporaries paths. The people who want to make GOOD movies will have to work outside the hollywood machine (create a new machine perhaps) and do it for less money.

If this interests you, read the book "Blockbuster" (referenced on the right). Blockbusters are not just movies that cost a lot of money and bring in huge grosses. They refer to a specific period in the history of cinema where two huge dams seemed to break simultaneously. There was a backlog of images and stories that filmmakers were holding in their collective imagination that had yet to put on the screen. And there was a backlog of these same images in the viewers collective imaginations as well as access and choice to a multiplicity of films. The multiplex and big budget movie matured together and they were born of the Blockbuster (whose name even suggests exceeding capacity -- lines that went out the building and around the block).

Now the economic channels are more mature and there has been little unmet demand like before. I don't think a business will erupt like what happened with Star Wars, but steady technological changes will start to decentralize the big screen movie viewing experience (out of the multiplexes and into high quality home theaters and intermediaries) and this shift will allow a more balanced distribution of films across the appropriate channels. Not every film is feasible if it needs to go out to 10,000 screens worldwide. But any film with an audience can probably find a way to get made for that audience.

The blockbuster, isn't on the verge of death. Without anyone really noticing, it died years ago.