Film Fund-amentals: The Number One Film in the Country?

Yes, it’s official. This summer, everyone is a winner. Wolverine has clawed his way to the top. Star Trek has blasted into orbit. Angels and Demons soared into heaven. According to the major news media, the engines of fantasy are running full throttle and business is booming.

I don’t know why so many folks in the industry are sweating about the next round of layoffs. They should be getting more bonuses than the senior execs at AIG.

Unless you do the math. I mean the real math, not the bogus stuff put out each week. Let’s skip the well-founded argument that the figures reported in the business must be taken with a grain of salt (though any theater that truthfully reports its earning deserves to go under). Let’s look at the figures from a different, yet pertinent, perspective. If we were to look at earnings based upon the actual amount of showings per screen (in other words, how many screens a film got played on nationally), the highest grossing film last week end was…Summer Hours?

Yes, this French movie released by IFC Films is the champ, believe it or not. It played on two screens for an average of $24,742 per screen. By comparison, Angels and Demons opened on 3,527 screens for a paltry average of $13,100 per screen. When you look at it this way, it’s obvious that Tom Hanks ain’t gonna go to heaven.

Maybe we’re a tad too xenophobic to admit that the biggest grossing film (per screen) was a Frenchie. Besides, virtually no foreign film stands a chance of actually attracting viewers west of the Hudson River. Maybe that’s why the second biggest grossing movie (per screen) was The Brothers Bloom. This modestly budgeted independent production from Endgame Entertainment averaged $22,600 per screen and had a whopping total of only four theaters showing it.

Okay, Tom and Ron could try sending a lovely heart-felt card to the Pope and hope for the best with that mea culpa stuff. Their proportional average is looking a little shaky. It even suggests that some people may have actually paid money to see Angels and Demons only because they had no place else to go.

Which is the hard fact of modern film distribution. The blockbusters suck up more than just production funds — they also suck up a lot of theater space. In theory, this is to avoid long lines, but the result is that they block many other movies from ever seeing the light of day. Right now at a typical mall theater, two-thirds of the screens will be taken up with the same three movies. The remaining screens will hunker down with whatever teenage comedy or horror film is currently out. Then, maybe, there will be a 50-seat theater next to the janitor’s closet (it might even be his closet) that will be showing some kind of more serious independent film. Maybe. Sometimes the janitor has to use that closet.

Distribution is one of the major problems facing independent films. More precisely, exhibiting is the problem. The whole system has been taken over by the King Kongs and Godzillas of the studio system, and while the big brutes pound each other senseless, no one else can get into the ring. Basically, it’s a studio-rigged system operating with no coherent logic that necessarily benefits the business.

It doesn’t particularly work for the theater owners, who would likely be better off with a more diverse selection. It certainly doesn’t work for members of the audience, who have more choices at the concession stand than they do on the screen. It doesn’t even work for the janitor. He’s got work to do.

It only works for the major studios. In order to justify the inflated budgets, they have to have a strangle-hold on the screens. The massive ad push (largely achieved through their strangle-hold on TV) is to psych you into wanting to see the movie. The limited selection guarantees that you don’t go sneaking off to something else. The result is a theater system that has become a closed shop.

The rationale is that people want to see movies like Angels and Demons (and they do, regardless of what the Pope thinks). But there are also people out there who would like to see lots of other movies as well. The potential market is extremely diverse. It’s the selection that has gotten small.

— Dennis Toth