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The Survival of the U.S. Cinema

Readers of this magazine and my editorials therein know that I have been stating that there is a problem with the current state of affairs as it regards the cinematic theater system for quite awhile now.

Hollywood is trying to make increasingly high-quality offerings, that demand upgraded theatrical systems, but then spending so much money making these high-grade films, that they demand as much as 70%-95% of the ticket sales from the theaters. So the theater owners have been in a serious state of discontent for years now because they’re having to install lots and lots of upgrades to their theaters, with no help from the Hollywood content industry, and then raise the prices on tickets to break even. Of course, with ticket prices soaring up to $10-$11 in some markets and films being in the theaters for as little as three weeks, many folks are just opting to wait for DVD and watch them on the widescreen at home.

This doesn’t mean that folks’ desire for the communal experience of the American cinema has diminished, but it does mean people are increasingly unwilling to put up with the rigmarole surrounding it, especially with the higher prices and decreased presentation spans. Why try to rearrange your schedule radically to take your wife to see a theatrical show that will only be available for a few weeks for $20-$22, when you can pick it up for the same price on DVD a few months later at Best Buy? (When I worked at Gamerz-Edge, I and my Editor were admitted into the private office of the head of Paramount’s DVD distribution center. He had a white board that showed when movies were showing in the theater and when they were expected to ship on DVD. At the time, the Italian Job was just about to hit theaters and I remember being shocked that it was slated for DVD sales only six months after that fact. Now the average turn around time from theatrical release to DVD distribution is about 3 months.)

So, in retaliation to this strange situation where Hollywood claims to want to deliver a way better show films in theaters than people can get at home, but continues to shorten the time from theatrical release to DVD (and now, Blu-Ray), theater owners have come up with a revolutionary idea that harkens all the way back to the origin of cinema.

The original Nickelodeons (so named because they cost only a nickel to use) would allow people to watch short films of people jumping rope, chasing dogs, and many other non-narrative activities. When the cinema system became more entrenched and evolved from Nickelodeons to backrooms with projectors to designated theaters, news reels were shown and, on Saturdays, serials and, eventually, cartoons. Of course, the advent of television, which became increasingly popular, decreased most of these non-feature film style offerings, as people could just tuned in to these at home. With that, the cinema focused virtually exclusively on showcasing feature-length films, which, until recently, Hollywood had the most ability to create. Now, with the HD television viewing technology and the rapid dissemination of content from Hollywood, the cinemas are looking for a way to get people back into the seats. The ironic solution is to return two old school offerings.

Since Hollywood enforced the Digital Cinema standard on the theater system, which basically required them to get rid of all analog equipment and get digital 2K-4K digital equipment, they ironically made a way for the theaters to make money without bringing the traditional Hollywood machine into the picture: via live, HD coverage of non-televised events of interest. Now, if you check your show times, you can go see famous plays in Chicago, New York, and Paris for about $25 at many of your digital cinemas. (While $25 is a bit more than the ticket prices we currently have at the cinema, it’s a great deal if you compare it to the $50-$100 for nosebleed seats at one of the large stage theaters you would see these plays in.) If plays and operas are not your thing, you can go see a huge number of concerts that would never have made it to your city (without having to cough up the ever-increasing gas money to drive somewhere that had it). In fact, one of the tops-at-the-box office offerings a few months back was a Hannah Montana concert.

The other retro offering that’s been re-explored is one that was abandoned in the ‘50’s and ‘60’s: 3D. While many 3D films are still being made by Hollywood studios (like the very well-known Beowulf), a number of companies are experimenting with taking the 3D concept into less Hollywood dominated areas. For example, U2 3D utilized 3D to showcase a U2 concert to fantastic reviews. (MFM reviewer Andy Yardy saw it in LA and stated that it was the most amazing use of 3D he’s ever seen in his life.) Now that cameras like the extremely economical (for professional broadcast settings) Red One is starting to be outfitted by different rental houses as a 3D rig, more and more content providers have the ability to create high quality 3D content. Eventually, you may be able to go see all the live shows at a cinema in 3D. (You know, once they finally figure out a way to make the pipeline fast enough to combine the twin streams of 2K/4K footage into a steregraphic mesh on the fly.)

What does all this mean for us as microfilmmakers? Well, it means that the theater system is slowly but surely weaning themselves off the Hollywood teat. As that happens, NATO (the National Association of Theater Owners) will be more and more willing to look at content from different areas. As I’ve stated before, I believe that a large scale distribution company (or two) will eventually represent a lot of the best Indie films. With the clout of such an organization behind them, high-quality, low-budget films could finally have a shot at national cinematic distribution outside the control of the Hollywood system. (Obviously, there will still be systems in place, because a system provides stability, whereas no system is simply anarchy.) And maybe, with theaters’ new focus on events, you might see more filmmakers touring from theater to theater, speaking after showings of their film and having meet and greets. Authors do book signings and bands tour to do concerts, so why shouldn’t the same thing start to occur in a more dominant way with filmmakers in the theater system?

As I’ve said many times before, this is an interesting and exciting time to be alive as a low-budget filmmaker!

God Bless,

Jeremy Hanke
Microfilmmaker Magazine

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