Monday, April 14, 2008

Empty theaters? How well is the movie business really doing?

How do movie theaters operate with so many empty auditoriums? I wonder that. There have been a few occasions, usually weekday afternoons “in retirement,” when I go to see a movie “to review it” and it seems like the theater is giving me a private showing. The first time this happened was with a showing of “Kids in America” in the fall of 2005, at the AMC Courthouse in Arlington VA (and that sort of independent movie usually winds up at Landmark, but not always). That “satirical” film, with Gregory Smith as the lead, actually had something important to say about student (and teacher) free speech.

Other times, on a Friday or Saturday night, there will be a sellout and I don’t get in unless I buy it on the Internet. I didn’t get in to “The Simpsons” at the same theater on a Friday night 7 PM show at the same theater. (Yup, I look to much like “Mr. Burns”). As I recall, in 1999 I barely got into Paramount’s “Southpark” when I was in Minnesota. (I love these animated films that can actually say something about personal responsibility.) On a Friday night this winter at Landmark’s E Street downtown (across the street from J Edgar Hoover’s FBI Building in downtown DC) when I tried to see the film “4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days” about abortion in 80s Communist Romania, I found everything sold out. I settled for “Strange Wilderness” at the nearby Chinatown Regal (and that could have played at Landmark).

I don’t know how the current recession is affecting movie ticket sales, but it does seem slower as a whole. There are DVD’s, and most of all there is Netflix and Blockbuster, and some films come out very quickly on DVD; there is no reason to make the trip. (That varies: “American Gangster” showed up pretty quickly.) A major social calamity, like a pandemic forcing closings, could cripple the industry at some point in the future. Nevertheless, at many theaters I see "help wanted" signs (for minimum wage, mostly) even with slow attendance, and often there are lines for only one salesperson in a booth (even given Internet sales on Fandango, Movietone, etc.)

I’ve noticed that some local AMC theaters have eliminated the 9 PM show on school nights. One older theater, the Dupont 5, closed.

The most important measure that theaters have taken is to open their theaters to other events. The big sellers seem to be the Metropolitan Opera, which usually can sell out big Regal or NA auditoriums on Saturday afternoons at $20 a ticket, which quality high definition satellite projection and state of the art digital stereo. I wonder, why doesn’t the Met get together with a major “boutique” distributor (like Sony Pictures Classics) and film performances and offer high end showings at other times in select theaters. Sony or a similar company could do this with several opera companies, even from Europe. I don’t know if there are legal obstacles (the guilds) but it sounds like a no-brainer for an obvious money maker. People will come out to see Turandot.

There are other ideas. Block E Kerasotes Theaters in downtown Minneapolis has sometimes opened its auditoriums for actors’ readings of new screenplays (the screenwriting community and indie film community there is strong). Film festivals (GLBT, international, Jewish, African American, Muslim, environmental, shorts, documentary, 48 hour contests, school and amateur film) usually do well.

But there are a lot of practices of the major studios and theater chains that are irritating. One is loading up the shows with ten previews, many of them dumb. Another is paid ads. Another is ridiculous concession prices and slow lines, and coffee machines that don’t work. A better idea is to franchise real restaurants to offer real food (and even an enclosed sports bar) in leased space (National Amusements does that in Centerville, VA and the service and food is much better.) Some newer DVD’s have the annoying feature of forcing the renter to watch all the previews first, wasting time.

And, or course, there is the question of the quality of movies, and whether corporate beancounter encourage the making of formulaic pictures and sequels (in franchises) that bulk up the bottom line with cash cows, that may not remain reliable forever. The development of companies like Participant and 2929 to help big studios and indies alike make “socially conscious” films certainly helps. I think that the big suburban multiplexes, in high income areas (or near colleges), would do well to schedule more independent and foreign films.

I also think there are a number of important films that for no apparent reason do not have North American distribution. For example, an important film on global climate change, “The Planet” by Johan Soderberg has to be imported directly from Sweden (an expensive DVD by today’s exchange rates). Another such film is Gregor Snitzler’s “Die Wolke” (“The Cloud”), about a severe radiation accident at a nuclear power plant, from Germany. A plausible business plan could be developed to import and distribute such films.

Here is a story from “Bigpicture” that indicates that movie sales were flat in 2007.

Note: Breaking News: Blockbuster seems to have a deal with Circuit City. Watch the media reports to see what happens. This just came in after I put up the blog post.

Update: April 19:

The director of "Singing Revolution" (this blog, April 18) said that theaters determine "hold overs" on Monday mornings, and that weekend attendance is very important to studios and theater chains in making plans.

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