The Theatrical Experience

Still Vital for Art and Commerce

For so many reasons, mostly a little show called HEATHERS THE MUSICAL, I literally didn’t set foot in a movie theatre for more than six weeks. Several wonderful films opened and I felt like I was the only guy on the planet not seeing them. Something was missing; I felt less engaged not being able to marvel at GRAVITY.

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So when the chance arose to finally take my older son to see it (thankfully still playing in 3D at Arclight Hollywood), I leapt at the chance. The cost was a whopping $39 for the two of us. Add parking ($3) and a large popcorn and two bottled waters ($15), and you had a $57 movie experience for two. But our seats were reserved in advance and everything about the experience was first-class.

There’s been a kerfuffle in the movie industry lately about the shrinking theatrical windows being encroached upon – now mostly by Netflix, which is dominating the aftermarket (and become a primary market) for movie viewing. Netflix’s Ted Sarandos is testing theatre owners’ patience by pressing to further shrink the window between theatrical and Netflix, and even suggesting day-and-date availability.

NATO (National Alliance of Theatre Owners), or similarly-minded theatre owner organizations, has been on the defensive since the advent of television, which was sure to decimate the movie going experience. It didn’t. The same issue arose when VHS came to prominence in the 80s. Viewing habits did change, but the net financial impact for filmmakers and studios was so positive, there was no fighting it. The arrival of DVD was only more of the same. And now the digital revolution (streaming, downloading) further threatens the exhibition world.

As the music business learned, there is no fighting the revolution, which may not be televised, but it will be streamed, whether you like it or not. Interestingly, one of the net effects on the music business was to drive artists back into live performance, where a much greater percentage of money is earned today by musicians compared to those who could hide out in their studios before the digital age. The revenue model (Spotify, Pandora, et al) is struggling to find a real reward system for recording artists. So, for now, fans benefit from more live performances and wickedly low digital costs.

The film business, particularly the exhibition world, can learn a lot from the music world’s challenges. I submit that seeing movies in theatres remains critical to the on-going vitality of the movie industry, which also has great cable fare nipping at its heals. The movie-going experience, like the live concert world, has to up its game. It’s all about service and providing experience audiences can’t get at home (though technology is doing its best to approximate the theatrical at home).

The key, of course, is the group experience (like a concert, sporting event, or live theatre). The fact is you can see a football game better at home, still 16 NFL stadiums a weekend are bursting with 50,000-70,000 ticket buyers paying top dollar for tickets. A critical visceral part of seeing a comedy, horror picture, thriller or drama is the sense of having that experience with hundreds of other people. Beyond that, the big screen, big sound, 3D and any other technology that can be brought to bear has to be extraordinary. Also, the service, just as in any hospitality business, has to differentiate itself from other entertainments. From parking to ticket sales to concessions and ushers – it all has to make the theatre-going experience a welcome one.

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Not every movie cries out to be seen on the big screen. PIRANHA 3D (for certain of us) had to be seen in a theatre with a crowd if possible. THE KIDS ARE ALL RIGHT, an intimate drama about script and acting, could very easily be seen and enjoyed at home, though even those laughs and emotions are more poignant with an audience. BOTTLE SHOCK was a straddle. I think its gorgeous shots of Napa and lush score – as well as laughs and underdog sports quality – were enjoyed in large groups, but the film could still be appreciated at home.

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As for GRAVITY, I thought it was worth every penny. An undeniable big screen experience with cutting edge technology, stunning photography meant to be seen large, movie stars doing what they do best, and a cunningly spare and powerful script that gets your adrenaline running, your mind racing, and your emotions engaged. Like LIFE OF PI, it was must-see theatrical viewing.

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While there’s no denying the digital age, and I wish I’d been the guy to think up Netflix, the folks at Netflix should bear in mind how critical studio spending on production and P&A is for theatrical launches. Netflix, more than any other downstream vendor, enjoys the fruits of millions of dollars of free advertising. So if I’m running Netflix, I’m thinking of ways to coddle studios and theatres before they get it in their heads that Netflix should be shouldering some of the marketing and advertising burden for movie releases.

Just like the rest of the world, we all have to get along if we’re going to thrive.