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John Farr

John Farr

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Are Movie Theatres an Endangered Species?

Posted: 04/ 2/11 03:23 PM ET

Those interested in this thorny question should read Brent Lang's revealing article (which appeared yesterday in TheWrap.com) about this year's CinemaCon convention in Las Vegas, the trade show where the major studios come to thank their exhibitors, discuss mutual needs and challenges, and (increasingly) reassure them about a highly uncertain future.

From the sound of things, it's not going too well. After exerting tons of pressure to get exhibitors to spend big bucks to convert to digital, thus far the product the studios have been pushing hasn't been worthy of the theatre owners' precious investment.

Box office is down, by nearly twenty percent. Ladies and gentlemen, that is one scary -- and telling -- statistic.

With exhibitors feeling the pinch, you've got James Cameron, the biggest elephant in the room, talking about the need for further change -- not in making better movies mind you, but in increasing motion picture frame rates. In his view, "If 3-D puts you into the picture, the higher frame rate takes the glass out of the window."

Interesting... pretty soon when we go to a movie theatre, technology will make us feel like we are literally inside the movie. But what if the movie itself is no good?

I mean, I love being invited to parties, but regardless of how fancy or elaborate it may be, I'll only go if I think it'll be a good one.

Yes, yes. I do get it. One of the areas where the big-screen experience can sustain a competitive advantage over our humble high-def plasma screens and home theatres is in delivering a cutting-edge visual and auditory experience.

But I still argue: if the fundamentals of the movie are wanting, will all the high-tech, flashy gizmos be enough to save the day? I doubt it.

If Hollywood continues down its path of churning out tired remakes and franchise entries, they will inevitably sacrifice huge swaths of the movie-going public, and eventually start losing their core teenage/young adult base. (Put bluntly, the fact is: crap all dressed up is still crap.)

It's odd. Just when a movie like The King's Speech proves to Hollywood that boomers will go to the movies in droves when an intelligent, high-quality feature is offered, they turn around and go back to pushing all their 3-D product for kids.

Then again maybe not so odd... exhibitors are more fearful than ever about their futures, and some who spent over one hundred thousand dollars to go digital may be excused for feeling gypped right about now. And their desire to make their business upgrade pay off is totally understandable.

But isn't what counts in the end what the public wants to see? Are studios and exhibitors that certain that 3-D is their proverbial knight in shining armor? Personally, I wouldn't bet the ranch (or the multiplex) on it.

One more storm burst in Vegas: in another Lang update on CinemaCon , we learned that Warners found themselves in an extremely uncomfortable position when they encountered some steamed up exhibitors after having announced (in a different venue, obviously) an ambitious new premium VOD service to DirecTV customers.

You really have to wonder what the studio was thinking. "Oh, we'll just get the exhibitors excited over our new theatrical slate -- maybe they'll just politely ignore our exciting new VOD initiative, which everybody will be buzzing about. After all, it's only bound to hurt their business more."

Oops!

Lang also reported that several filmmakers, notably Todd Phillips (The Hangover) were on hand to express their conviction that movie theatres will never go away, and also that they'd prefer their movies to be seen on the big screen.

If I were an exhibitor, this reassurance would offer scant comfort.

Here's my own humble take: movie theatres will indeed survive, but only after a significant -- and no doubt painful -- shakeout.

The hard truth is that the growth of video streaming, driven by the price and convenience advantage of watching movies at home or on the go, is not indicative of a passing fad, but represents a permanent change in how people access their entertainment.

The studios recognize this, though for reasons that hardly need explaining, they are not fully acknowledging it.

For movie theatres to survive, they'll need more than digital capabilities. For a start, they'll need to enhance the in-theatre experience beyond what's up on the screen (expanded food options, coffee bars, etc.)

Most important, though, they'll need to be showing better movies... movies good enough to make people want to experience them right away, intriguing enough to justify hiring a baby-sitter and dining out after the screening.

They'll also need to work at broadening their base of ticket buyers beyond viewers under twenty-five. Over-reliance on this admittedly more loyal, undemanding demo will likely limit their ability to grow over the long-haul. (I won't even get into the corrosive effect of such a strategy on the prestige of the industry. I sometimes wonder if there's anybody left out there who cares about that.)

All this suggests that effects-driven 3D extravaganzas (with higher frame rates to satisfy Jim Cameron) will be only part of the solution. And here I go back to the recent success of more literate movies aimed at mature audiences. Exhibitors should demand more of these, right along with the paying public.

History reveals important lessons: for instance, the much touted innovation of Cinemascope did not single-handedly save the movie business in the fifties when TV was eating the industry's lunch; ultimately, what mattered then was the fundamental worth and entertainment value of the movies themselves.

I submit that in this respect, nothing has changed.

The ad legend David Ogilvy famously once said, "The consumer is not a moron." Hollywood should take this wisdom to heart.

As to directors telling theatre owners that their movies should be watched on the big screen, it's a very old song. Again, in business terms, it comes down to a simple truth: it's not about how the directors want us to see their work, but how we the public choose to see it. Full stop.

I feel sympathy for the exhibitors; they're in a tough spot. If I were in their shoes, I'd be all over the studios to give them the quality and variety of product that drives people out of their cozy home theatres, and makes them want to see movies the old-fashioned way: on a big screen, with a big audience. As one director put it, "Like church."

Indeed it would be nice to worship at the movies again. Let's hope the studios can deliver the kinds of films that make us want to.

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