Big Film is losing the chess game and its theaters

The Rocketeer crashes into the Hollywoodland sign

The film industry is playing a high-stakes game of chess, and Hollywood is losing. Its piece count vastly outnumbers indie filmmakers, but in chess all it takes is a few missteps and a blindness to one’s weaknesses and any player can fall flat on their face.

Studio executives have a lot against them right now. The studios were built around a system of scarcity and expensive production costs, where few good films were made and even fewer respectable people were reviewing them. The challenge then was only to market them efficiently. Now that the scarcity has become plenty, studios have been in a panic. One strategy is to copy independent film’s marketing and distribution (see studio-backed Paranormal Activity‘s carbon copy of indie’s Four-Eyed Monsters for one, but there are many more examples of studios following indies’ lead.) Another is to bolster non-theatrical sources of income by embracing video on demand and shortening the timeframe between a film’s theatrical opening and home video release (shorter and shorter and shorter) And with this move, Hollywood is shooting itself in the foot.

The theater is the domain of Hollywood film. Big money will always be able to pay for big advertising campaigns, which even in the era of YouTube can cement a film’s success. But aside from cash, Hollywood’s primary asset is its access to a vast theatrical network–and the industry is squandering it. Instead of making the theatrical experience a funhouse of truly incredible proportions, the studios have followed the innovations of others in home video and allowed the theatrical experience to remain unchanged in its form for basically a century. (But what about color, and 3-D, you say? Please, that’s ridiculous. They both draw audiences to movie theaters, yes, but they are not on the level of the kind of change that has occurred in society around the watching of movies. Sorry Hollywood, but if you want innovation it has to come from you. Otherwise it’s an indie world and you’re just living in it.)

What needs to change in theaters? They must move into the modern age to play the role of community that they once did. Offer more diversity of films for longer periods of time. For example, allow a community to form a Criterion Collection film club and commit to watching one Criterion film per week. Host a discussion or an interview afterward. Add smaller theaters into a theater. Add prime restaurants, cafés with wifi. Look at the model of the Apple Store in being not just a place to buy products but a community hub. Bring back older movies and advertise them locally. Make a schedule that loads up with new releases but is also diverse and fun. THIS IS NOW CHEAP TO DO, why is it not happening? Why can’t I see Ferris Bueller in theaters?

It’s not happening because Hollywood is not in a position to innovate. As an industry built on conservative principles, change appears to be coming exclusively from without and not at all from within. Many industry execs see themselves as businesspeople first and entertainers second, and the difference between an entertainment and a business perspective here is the difference between success and failure. Remember, this is an industry that is known to egregiously miscast a film just to slot in high-banking movie stars, crippling the film, and then wonder why it bombed at the box office.

Perhaps I am being unjustly critical – most of the people I have known in the industry are very intelligent and certainly aware of these issues. But if all areas of the industry do not communicate, we will live in an era where indie films are completely equal in terms of how they are distributed, reviewed, talked about, and watched. That’s a world I am excited for, but you’d think it would have studio execs quaking in their boots and rushing to fix things at the theaters. Get your shit together, guys.



One Comment to “Big Film is losing the chess game and its theaters”

  1. Michael Morgenstern

    my thoughts on how studios are shooting themselves in the foot with theatrical release windows-

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