17 December, 2015

So You're Going To The Movies!

Two very big movies are about to be released (and perhaps you've heard of them).  There's Quentin Tarantino's new one, The Hateful Eight, and there's the next installment from a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away.  Planning on going to see them?  Probably.  But how?  Well ...

                  How and why we go to the movies -- to theatres -- has always been a tug-of-war.  I don’t often get into the hows and whys of The Movie Industry but a couple things I heard recently made me want to chime in.

And more than a little they revolve around these two biggies.  Re The Hateful Eight, I heard, “The Weinstein Company is making changes to the release.”  That they were changing the date didn’t surprise me but that Mr. Tarantino was making cut changes raised an eyebrow.  Then I thought, "Is it still going to be in 70?"  And re The Force Awakens, I heard, “I can’t wait to see it in IMAX!” to which I thought, “I don’t think you can.”

But more on those in a moment.

Because first we’ll talk about Marcus Loew, a famous 1948 U.S. Senate decision, and B Movies;  because frankly I have to get at least a little fandom history into the hows and whys.

Marcus Loew, the creator of MGM and one of the most successful figures in The Biz, was, first and foremost, an Exhibitor.  “I don't sell tickets to movies,” he said, “I sell tickets to theaters.”  He co-founded The People's Vaudeville Company which included several penny arcades in New York City and one in Cincinnati, Ohio, where he built a 110-seat theatre on the second floor to screen motion pictures.  Loew ran Nickelodeons -- houses that screened movies for five cents -- but he made his mark with what was called "small-time vaudeville," a show that combined a live vaudeville performance with a movie;  take a look at James Cagney in Footlight Parade for a fun rendition.  By 1920, Loew owned or leased more than fifty theatres from Canada to New Orleans and became committed to developing a Vertically Integrated motion picture company, which controlled Production (making the movie), Distribution (getting that movie to theatres) and Exhibition (showing that movie to audiences).  In 1919 he formed Loew's Inc, purchased the Metro film studio and then Goldwyn Pictures.  In 1924, he acquired Louis B. Mayer's Los Angeles studio and formed Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.  Until his death in 1927, Loew continued to expand his theater holdings, including newly built picture palaces.  His legacy lasted and thrived, all the majors following his model.  And in the 20s he (did not pioneer but) championed “The Road Show,” where a movie opened in a limited number of theatres for a specific period of time before its general release.  And it was an event, with only one or two showings a day, often live-music Accompaniment (including Overture), an Intermission, Souvenir Program, the works.  As you can imagine, the first talkie The Jazz Singer (1927) was a big one, as was Gone With The Wind.  With the rise of Television in 1952 and continuing through the early 70s, Studios tried to bring movie audiences back to theatres by making widescreen epics, again using the "Road Show" formula, but they soon faded away.

The Studios (for this bit we can lump them together) attained a virtual monopoly over the film industry by limiting The Exhibitor’s freedom in booking films;  most significantly in the Run Zone Clearance system.  The U.S. was divided into geographical zones.  In each zone, movies moved consecutively from first-run (say Manhattan) through final-run (say Mississippi) venues, ticket prices dropping with each.  There was also a “clearance” time between runs, meaning moviegoers might wait a year after a film premiered at a downtown picture palace before it reached a neighborhood theatre.  By privileging theatres and organizing distribution accordingly, The Studios all but guaranteed films ensured maximum profits.  (And this doesn’t take into account the direct monopoly The Studios’ own theatres ensured along Broadway;  that is Downtown L.A.’s Theatre District.  A remaining Studio-owned theatre is El Capitan, Disney’s own in the heart of Hollywood.)  Even after Loew’s death in 1927, his model lasted and thrived … until 1948. 

As early as 1940, independent movie producers -- including Charlie Chaplin, Orson Welles, David O. Selznick and Walt Disney -- formed The Society of Independent Motion Picture Producers (SIMPP).  But on May 3, 1948, The Supreme Court -- in the famous “U.S. Versus Paramount” case -- declared The Studios a monopoly and ordered them to divest their ownership of movie theatres.  This opened the movie industry to independent producers and theatres, indelibly changing the way we see films (and the films we see).  The case is important both in U.S. Antitrust Law and Film History, remaining a landmark decision in Vertical Integration cases and as the first nail in the coffin of The Studio System.  “U.S. V Paramount” still controls Movie Distribution and Exhibition in the U.S.  Today, studios splitting gross profits with theatres (and read that again if you need to:  not net, gross profits).

Before we go on, please remember a couple of terms so far:  “The Road Show” and “Vertical Integration.”  ‘Cause we’ll be chatting about both of those again.

                    First, how do Studios and Theatres make money?

Well, simply, The Theatre rents the movie from The Studio.  And it used to be that simple, beginning with an actual rental of one of the prints The Studio made.  Granted there would be higher fees for the “A Pictures,” smaller fees for “B Movies.”  Incidentally, those terms come from when Double Features were common at your local theatre, and they were simply listed like that in the Studio Log.  “A:  Double Indemnity, B:  Cobra Woman.  The A Picture was your big budget star vehicle while the B Movie was, simply, less expensive.  Less expensive for The Studio to make but, just as importantly, less expensive for The Theatre to rent.  But back to how Studios and Theatres make money.

In the late 40s, early 50s -- a lot changed when Studios and Theatres battled Television -- a standard rental fee went bye-bye.  After all, Studios realized they could make even more money than “a little more for Bette Davis.”  So you buy a ticket for a movie.  Well, most of that money goes back to The Studio.  How much?  In the first couple weeks a movie shows, the theatre only keeps 10-20%, the percentage depending on the individual leasing deal.  (For Star Wars:  Attack Of The Clones, Twentieth Century Fox took 100% of the box office for the first week;  remember Lucasfilm is The Production Company, Twentieth Century Fox is The Distributor.)  As the movie moves into its second and third weeks of release, the percentage swings in the theatre’s favor:  anywhere from 45% – 55% and it gets even better after the fourth week when theatres generally keep 80%.  But say you finally get around to seeing a movie that’s been showing four weeks, you might be the only person in the place.  Doesn’t do the theatre much good to keep 80% of the ticket sales when they’re only selling one ticket a show.  And with more and more movies getting released every week, the length of time a movie stays in theatres is already shrinking.  When averaging the whole run, the theatre might only take 25% of ticket sales.  So how do they stay in business?  You guessed it, the $20 popcorn you’re eating.

Over the years, it’s not uncommon for Theatres to take a loss for a given movie based on ticket sales alone, and there’s not too much they can do about it.  They can’t make the movies themselves -- most of them, we’ll get to that -- and they certainly can’t turn away major blockbusters.  So what do The Studios do?  Throw more weight around with things like, “Well, if you don’t put this movie on half your screens for this amount of time and give us x% of the gross, you’ll not be seeing our films for a while!”  Frankly, Theatres don't focus on volume of customers, rather on the right customers;  who buys what tickets … and who's willing to pay for $20 popcorn.

But Theatre Chains have a little weight too … with each other.  Look Cinemas in Dallas recently opened a $20 Million Theatre just in time to find out a new AMC Theatre a mile away would be showing the third Hunger Games … solely.  Look was even more stunned to learn they were placed on a list of theatres across the country AMC deemed "predatory competitors."  How?  A new generation of Run Zone Clearance, AMC got Studios to ensure rivals in proximity could not play new releases at the same time.  (AMC has been especially aggressive in the three years since China's Dalian Wanda Group acquired the company for $2.6 billion.)  Legal?  For now, although there are more Antitrust Suits on the horizon.  (And I’m not here to smear AMC;  Regal and Cinemark are doing the same thing.)  "This is the sort of thing Antitrust is particularly worried about,” wrote Mark Lemley, a professor at Stanford Law School.  “Do we have a few dominant players entering into deals that make it harder for independent companies to establish themselves and gain ground?”

Eyes not glazing over yet?  Add Video On Demand to the mix (exploding in 2011).  Theatres nearly fainted when Warner Bros., Sony, 20th Century Fox and Universal launched VOD Services.  The Theatres’ first reaction?  Finally fight back!  Pull those studios’ Trailers and Posters for the big summer movies!  (Well, the only people happy at the time were Disney and Paramount.)  The threat would eventually prove … not meaningless but not worthwhile.  Because what if x movies weren’t shown in Theatres?  They’d still be shown on VOD and probably for the same price (or people would just wait for the DVD), The Studios making all the cash and VOD is legitimized.  (We aren’t quite there yet because, as you can imagine, The Theatres went quickly -- and fairly quietly -- back to the way things were.)

Now -- ready for this? -- many feel the continued battles are a direct result of the 1948 U.S. Senate decision.  Studios should own Theatres again.  And they make it look easy.  Say a movie overperforms in St. Louis, Nashville and Kansas City, but disappoints in Los Angeles and New York.  If The Studios owned The Theatres, they would have shortened runs on the coasts, and perhaps shown it more in the Midwest, thereby giving the people what they want (and of course suffering fewer losses).  They also say Studios owning Theatres would shorten the time it takes a stale movie to move from Theatres to Home Release.  As one industry insider noted, “If 92% of a movie’s gross comes in the first four weeks, wouldn’t it make sense to put out a movie and, after four weeks, say 'We’re moving this to DVD?'”  And from Candace Carlo, Head of Entertainment Law at Greenberg Glusker, “In 1948, you didn’t have TV.  For entertainment you went to a movie theater, and the motion picture studios controlled everything.  But then the marketplace changed dramatically.  And now with The Internet, it’s an all-but-obsolete ruling.”

               Just this year, two high-profile Execs argued publicly for Studio ownership of Theatres.  First, at a Variety confab, Joe Roth;  and, at The PGA’s Produced By Conference, Mark Cuban.
            For Roth, the solution is to regain control over sequential distribution.  “You need to manage the way you present your product in the first window,” he told Variety. “You need to control that experience, and the only way that happens is if you own theaters.  Technology is not the enemy, it’s the coming onslaught.  You need to use the first window to make as much of an event of your movie as possible, to be able to determine how long a film will play and how it will be promoted.”  Roth himself faced an exhibitor revolt over Alice In Wonderland (2010) on which he was a Producer, when European theatres threatened to boycott the pic because Disney wanted to speed its release into the Home Market.  Roth again:  “It’s symbolic of what’s in store in the future.  I think we’re just at the beginning of such skirmishes.”

            Now, Mr. Cuban is something of an asterisk in the mix.  As I wrote earlier, “[Theatres] can’t make the movies themselves -- most of them, we’ll get to that,” Cuban owns Landmark Theatres, Magnolia Productions, Magnolia Home Entertainment, HDNet and HDNet Movies.  Still, his is a voice worth listening to.  He wrote to Variety in direct response to Joe Roth’s talk:  “Joe is absolutely right.  Being vertically integrated would allow a large organization to optimize how and where it releases content.”  (Remember I said to remember “Vertical Integration?”  1948 was hardly the end of that.)  Cuban continued:  “Being vertical has made us smarter and more profitable.  We know which movies play best in which Landmark Theater, which movies work best in day-and-date release and in pre-theatrical release to VOD.”

            Say Warner Bros. does own Theatres.  And not like Disney owning El Capitan -- a one-screen theatre -- but a multiplex, a chain of multiplexes.  Now Paramount wants to show a movie there.  Well, Paramount would have to negotiate with Warner Bros. over a percentage of the box office.  As would Warner with the Paramount theatres.  And what if Warner doesn’t have a theatre in your city;  you don't get to see one of their movies?  (And you thought negotiating Run Zone Clearance after The Road Show was bad.)  Here’s former Disney and Fox Exec, now CEO of Pandemonium Films, Bill Mechanic:  “If you own theaters, you have to worry about two businesses.  No, the real solution to declining revenues is to make better films.  If you make a crummy movie that you can’t expect people to buy more than one time, then shame on you.”

            Huh.  Make better films.

            Which brings us to as recent as The Hateful Eight and The Force Awakens.
            To recap, re The Hateful Eight I heard, “The Weinstein Company is making changes to the release.”  And re The Force Awakens I heard, “I can’t wait to see it in IMAX!”

            "Huh?"  And "Can we?"  Well, Studios and Theatres are still playing tug-of-war.

            We’ll start with Mr. Tarantino and his newest movie, scheduled to release Christmas Day.  Tarantino loves releasing at Christmas.  Remember the tag for Jackie Brown?  “Santa’s got a brand new bag.”  And he always has a little something extra for us.  This time it’s shooting and releasing Hateful Eight in 70MM.  So let’s first talk about what that means.  

            70MM film -- actually 65, the last 5 is for Audio -- is, to be fair, exactly what it sounds like:  big film;  twice the size of 35 and, for the purpose of this piece, that’s about as far as we need to go.  Except to say it’s rare.  The vast majority of theatres can’t handle it, so even original 70MM films -- say a re-release of Ben Hur -- are shown using 35MM prints or, today, probably Digital Projection.  The second “problem” is the theatre itself, which most likely isn’t built for the size of the image:  a true Cinerama screen (not just its size, it’s curved too).  So it’s not just a matter of “Can we capture this image that way?” but -- remember we’re talking Studios and Theatres having to work together -- “Can we show it that way?”  Or let’s be honest and say what everyone really means:  “Is it monetarily profitable?”  While 70MM film has been around since the 1890s, everyone thinks of it as hitting in the late 50s to battle Television -- Studios luring audiences back into Theatres -- and that’s of course true.  But since the early 70s the answer to "Is it monetarily profitable?" proved too big a “No.” 

            Now, we have seen a certain resurgence as some filmmakers with the right clout are using it again.  Kenneth Branagh’s ’96 Hamlet, Terrence Malick’s The New World, and Christopher Nolan’s last four movies had portions in IMAX.  (Wait, that’s IMAX, we're talking 70MM.  Well, we’ll get to that.)  Even today with technology making formats a little easier, it’s still not easy enough.  [Not to mention it’s still tricky for The Home Market.  While VHS and DVD could not handle the image, Blu Ray can;  but, even if the film was shot 70, most video transfers come from a 35 print as most telecine (film transfer) machines can’t handle the physical 70 celluloid.]  Frankly it’s all a matter of cost.  70 film (celluloid) is expensive, the cameras are expensive, processing it and making prints is expensive, having a theatre big enough to accommodate it, the necessary projectors in that theatre, at this point your eyes must really be glazing over.
            But those two bits -- what you’re seeing and where -- is, again, very much the purpose of this piece.

            It’s no secret that Mr. Tarantino loves movies -- and respects them -- so it wasn’t a surprise that his next film, a Western, would be in 70MM.  And not just shot on that film format, it’s the first movie since 1966’s Khartoum to use Ultra Panavision 70MM Anamorphic Lenses (and that’s something you can’t do Digitally).  Panavision’s Vice-President Dan Sasaki said, “[Quentin] really wants to get people back into theaters.  You’re not going to get this [at home].  He did something really great to bring that [experience] back.  He wanted an epic Western, something that hasn’t been seen in forever, that would really wow people.”  Buzz from the early footage at Cine Gear Expo was huge. 

            So that we get to properly experience it all?  Tarantino and Panavision worked to outfit 100 theatres across the country with 70MM projectors, allowing audiences to see the film the way he intends.  Panavision even retro-fitted 19 lenses to allow The Hateful Eight to be “properly” filmed.  (These lenses are expected to be used for Star Wars:  Rogue One but whether that film is projected in 70MM remains to be seen.)

            Now here’s where we get to “The Weinstein Company Making Changes.”  The studio is set to allow a small number of theatres in select cities to show a Digital Version of “The Road Show Cut” as of Christmas Day.  (Remember our talking about those with Marcus Loew?  Indeed, Mr. Tarantino has prepared a Road Show Cut of Hateful Eight, with an Overture, Intermission and Souvenir Program;  just one more incentive to get us into theatres.)  Well, as it previously stood, that edit of the film was only going to be shown in 70MM, with Digital Presentations coming for the wide release, but now that plan has shifted with the movie moving up from 8 January to New Year’s Day.  And how did we get here?

           The goal was to have The Hateful Eight in 100 (70MM retro-fitted) theatres for Christmas Day.  However, Weinstein also insisted that the theatres pick up the cost of the prints, which we know is expensive.  (And read that again if you need to.  Prints.  Celluloid.  So not just their cost but which theatres can still project actual film?  Well …)  Many theatres balked at showing the film, believing they'd end up in the red once the run was done, unable to sell enough tickets in their moderately-sized houses to justify the cost.  Some theatres were still game, but Weinstein’s target was effectively cut in half, with true 70MM showings down to about 50 theatres.  (And this probably is a better film, Mr. Bill Mechanic!  So what are we to do now?)

In the hopes of boosting those numbers up -- and making the film a bit more accessible to those who would like to see The Road Show Cut -- the Digital option surfaced.  The number of locations that will be showing the film Digitally is still being finalized, but it’s not a bad bet to think it'll be around 50 in order to hit that 100 total they originally wanted.  Then on New Year’s Day the “multiplex version” will kick in, offering audiences the option to see a slightly different cut of the film, with no Overture or Intermission, thus shortening the exclusive window the first wave of audiences have to themselves.

What “slightly different cut of the film?”  There will be two cuts.  Those seeing The 70 will get six extra minutes in addition to the Overture and Intermission.  And Tarantino has tweaked certain scenes in order to maximize them for the way they'll be seen.  He himself said, “The 70 is the 70.  You’ve paid the money.  You’ve bought your ticket.  So you’re there.  I’ve got you.  But I actually changed the cutting slightly for a couple of the ‘multiplex scenes’ because it’s not that.  Or now you’re watching it on TV and you just kind of want to watch a movie on your couch.  Big, long, cool, unblinking takes was awesome in the bigness of 70, but sitting on your couch, maybe it’s not so awesome.  So I cut it up a little bit.  It’s a little less precious about itself.”

               So what are your chances of catching a 70MM screening?  I live and write in Los Angeles, so I’ll use her as examples.  Your best bet is The Cinema Dome in Hollywood;  or, rather, its Arclight counterpart, and more on that in a moment.  Elsewhere?  "Check your local listings," as they say.  Frankly, if you're not near a big city, it probably won't be 70;  after all, we can’t imagine all that retrofitting happening for a local indie.  How "local indie?"  Tarantino's own New Beverly will be showing The Road Show Cut ... in 35.  So even in a major city, still look closely.  If it’s "70," is it celluloid?  On the right screen?  Or is it Digital Projection;  and, even then, what kind of screen is it on?  Is it at least the right aspect ratio?  Sorry, your eyes are probably glazing over again.

So cue John Williams!  As I write this, The Force Awakens premiered this week and the movie opens tomorrow.  Early buzz is as big as you’d expect;  all signs pointing to this one finally being the installment we’ve been waiting for.  And perhaps you also can’t wait to see it in IMAX?  And I burst your bubble with, "I don't think you can?"

Let me explain.

New details have emerged surrounding the IMAX roll-out of Star Wars:  The Force Awakens.  While exciting indeed for people near a true IMAX screen, most people are not (and while you think you are, you’re probably not). 

First, what is IMAX?

For the purpose of this piece, we’ll say it’s 70MM turned on its side and doubled.  Interestingly, it’s then kept “on its side,” projected “laying down” instead of what we typically think of as a reel “standing up.” 

But these days the word IMAX is thrown around far too often;  worse, inaccurately.  Mostly because there was a growing trend that began a few years ago involving average movie screens being billed as “IMAX Experiences,” the biggest lies -- kid you not they call it LIEMAX -- being [a] you’re probably seeing it Digitally and [b] the size of the screen.  We know celluloid is better, but does size really matter?  I say only if you’re paying for it.

Large projection is the whole reason for the IMAX system existing.  IMAX films are shot on 70MM film stock and are meant to be projected on a screen that showcases all of the detail captured on the massive frames of film.  A frame of standard 35MM is ten times smaller than a frame of 70MM IMAX film.  Having The 70 crushed down to a medium sized screen is bad enough -- remember what we talked about with a Ben Hur re-release? -- but to charge customers the same ticket price as a full IMAX presentation should be a crime.

This is roughly what I was talking about when I wrote, “Christopher Nolan’s last four movies had portions in IMAX."  And, "Wait, that’s IMAX, we were talking 70MM.”  Because it's doubtful you were seeing any of it in true IMAX, maybe 70 but even that's doubtful;  unless you were lucky to have a theatre that accommodated the difference.  When Diana and I saw Interstellar at The Chinese they did;  the actual projected image going from "letterbox" to "big square" and back again throughout.  Still Digital, but at least the size was correct.  Anyway ... 

               Here in L.A., we used to have two choices when we wanted to see 70MM IMAX.  There was Universal CityWalk and The Bridge.  Unfortunately both have gone Digital, leaving The Film Capital Of The World without a true (film projection) IMAX Theatre.  “But isn’t Digital better than Film?”  That’s a different -- and much longer -- article but Adam Davis, Executive Director of Corporate Communications at IMAX, said, “We believe this new dual 4K laser technology will be far superior … delivering an experience that will be more visceral, brighter, razor-sharp and in fuller lifelike colors than anything available today.”  And there's nothing wrong with believing.

              But let’s keep it in the Star Wars universe.  The first film -- A New Hope -- premiered at The Chinese on Hollywood Boulevard;  originally Graumman’s Chinese, now officially The TCL Chinese Theatre IMAX (again those four letters tagged-on a bit too loosely).  While the theatre certainly deserves its own write-up -- including Diana and my getting to tour it with The L.A. Conservancy -- suffice to say it’s the oldest first-run theatre in the country.  So even though it’s not film (celluloid), IMAX positions it as something even better (Laser Digital).  However, until "Laser" can at least mirror light shining through celluloid, thems in the know will remain beholden.

              So what if you really are excited to see Star Wars in IMAX?  Can you?  Yes, if you live near these eleven theatres:

McWane Center IMAX Dome Theatre – Birmingham
IMAX, U.S. Space & Rocket Center – Huntsville
Hackworth IMAX Dome, The Tech Museum – San Jose
Museum of Discovery & Science AutoNation IMAX – Ft. Lauderdale
IMAX Dome, Museum of Science & Industry – Tampa
IMAX, Indiana State Museum - Indianapolis
Blank IMAX Dome, Science Center of Iowa – Des Moines
Branson’s IMAX, Entertainment Complex – Branson
St. Louis Science Center OMNIMAX Theatre – St. Louis
Tuttleman IMAX, The Franklin Institute– Philadelphia
Boeing IMAX, Pacific Science Center – Seattle

So, yes, the tug-of-war continues.  “Big Studios” and “Big Theatres” still fighting for your popcorn money.  Because, no, not even The Hateful Eight or Star Wars are immune.  And I’ll close with something that happened yesterday;  not just because, kid you not, it happened yesterday, but because it caps my point all too well.

Quentin Tarantino went on Howard Stern to say Disney is strong-arming Arclight Cinemas to push the 70MM presentation of The Hateful Eight in favor of The Force Awakens.  This is in L.A.'s famed Cinerama Dome (and here's where we revisit that great theatre in this piece).  One of the city’s last theatres to screen true 70 -- not IMAX but true 70 -- Mr. Tarantino’s Western was originally due to play there starting Christmas Day but now The Force Awakens is getting an extended play through the holidays.

For years there was a clearance boundary -- again, not too different from Marcus Loew’s original ideas -- where if a movie was playing at The Chinese then it couldn’t play The Cinerama Dome.  But apparently that’s not the case as Disney gets The Chinese, their own El Capitan and The Cinerama Dome.  (Incidentally, the Force Awakens Premiere was so big it screened simultaneously at The Chinese, El Capitan and The Dolby, home of The Oscars.)

But The Cinerama Dome is a prized venue for Tarantino.  Its logo appears in the opening credits of The Hateful Eight.  The Premiere was held there on 7 December and the director told Deadline’s Pete Hammond, “I made The Hateful Eight for The Dome.  This is the first time seeing it at The Dome for me too, and it was like I hadn’t even seen it before, not like this.”  He added that his beef isn’t with Force Awakens director J.J. Abrams, but with The Suits at Disney.  (Incidentally, Abrams and Tarantino have been friends since Tarantino guest-starred on Abrams’ TV hit Alias.)  At press, Arclight Hollywood will still be playing Hateful Eight in True 70, albeit on one of its non-Dome screens.  

               Anyone still awake?  I do thank you.  Sorry I rambled a bit but sometimes these pieces are their own rabbit holes.  I’m not sure if Marcus Loew would be proud, but the tug-of-war indeed continues … a hundred years tugging.  How and why we go to the movies has always been something to talk about.  In the end, I hope you get to the theatre and enjoy the movie.  This movie, that movie, doesn't matter.  Who cares if the hows and whys don't change anytime soon?  For us cinephiles there are fewer greater enjoyments than when the lights dim and the music swells and the popcorn's munched.  We don't care what it cost.  We're there for the experience of it all.  

               'Cause that's always worth it.

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