Film Fund-amentals: Secrets of the Empty Screen

Back in the early spring of 1977, an executive in charge of booking for a major Midwestern theater chain was feeling perplexed. He was trying to pick what might be the big summer hit for his company and had narrowed the choices down to one of two films from 20th Century Fox. After long consultation with the studio reps, he decided to go with their strong recommendation.

That is why his chain got stuck that summer with The Other Side of Midnight instead of Star Wars. I got the story from the man’s son, who was working as my assistant. His father barely got to keep his head, let alone his job. Unfortunately, this is the reality of the distribution business.

As a general rule, the distributors know nothing, and the exhibitors, who know even less, must blindly trust this vast canyon of nothingness. Privately, they know that no matter what, they are going to get screwed by the studios and the distributors, and they also know that this is all part of the Great Game, the rules of which are largely unwritten and bound and sealed by a thick, tangled web of pure hooey. It’s called show business, and it is one of the problems faced by indie movies trying to get distributed.

There are more than 29,000 movie screens in the United States, of which nearly 50 percent are owned by just three companies. At any given moment, at least 12,000 to 15,000 of these screens are showing the same three major Hollywood movies. Most of the rest of these screens are showing a few other second-string major studio films. With the exception of the Landmark Theater chain, very few screens are showing any amount of independent movies.

There are many reasons for this, but the most basic reason (and the least spoken) is that theater owners are not in the business of showing movies; they are in the business of selling goods. A manager with one of the largest chains in the country once explained to me that “the film is sometimes an interruption in the flow of commerce.” After all, they make their money at the concession stand and the video games. Since most theaters are stuck with extremely one-sided contracts with the distributor, they are not actually making their money from the tickets (which even at their current high of $8 and up are still artificially deflated).

So basically, theater owners are not looking for movies. They are looking for brand names. The bigger the brand, the more of a come-on to the popcorn stand. In a nutshell, this is the real business. That is why a lot of theater owners put a lot of trust in the reps from the major studios (who are the main distributors): they have the brand names that the owners want.

Distributors are not out there to distribute films; they are selling high profile, quick fix, mainstream products. In truth, most distributors wouldn’t know a movie if the ghost of Robert Altman were to hit them right between the eyes with a reel from Nashville. They only know brands, whether it be the movie star (brand “Cruise”) or the franchise (brand “X-Men”). This is the hook they use for selling the movies; without it, they are lost. All they have to do is get their brand of the week into as many theaters as possible for a big opening weekend. After that, they move on to the next upcoming brand release. Like a driver deep into white-line fever, there is no looking back.

Small independent films do not work this way; they have no type of a brand attached to them. Often, they have to develop slowly, with the opening weekend being less important than their fourth or fifth week of theatrical run. Most small independent films are hard to promote and would challenge the legendary wiles of even Joseph E. Levine (whose skill at promotion was as Herculean as his original movie icon). Yet these films need a steady, nurturing stream of promotion, which is something that the current system is incapable of providing.

Most of all, they need theater owners who are willing to take the gamble of booking them, but the system is not designed for gambling. Even if someone were willing to gamble, most theater owners are not informed enough to know much of anything about the average small indie movie, so it is no surprise that they will always stay close to the majors. Even though the system may be working poorly (and in many respects, working against them), theater owners are convinced that the big Hollywood turkeys will bring in enough people for the popcorn sales.

The really strange irony of this system truly hit me one night when I went to a Monday evening screening at a declining urban three-screen theater. I had arrived early, and while waiting, I suddenly realized that the only people in the whole place were me and the kid at the ticket/concession stand. In each theater, the movie was playing to a completely empty house. Despite the complete lack of an audience, the theater was contractually obligated to run the various movies twice in the evening, and they were doing just that. The reason: they hoped it would improve the popcorn sales.

There is no logic in this system, and indie movies require logic in their distribution. However, there are a few models worth exploring.