Theatrical Is Not Your Friend — Close That Window

Take advantage of the new technologies, rather than letting theaters rule your release

The FCC’s recent decision to approve the studios’ request to take control of your cable box has opened a hornet’s nest of controversy.

It also has opened a window (no pun intended) into why you should run, not walk, away from theatrical.

The issue is, in fact, windows. After watching from the sidelines as technology has dramatically changed the way consumers think about and consume media, the studios are finally lumbering onto the field.

The studios have awakened to the fact that more and more consumers are now demanding that filmed entertainment be made available not only across multiple platforms, but far more quickly as well. While they’re painfully aware that the DVD business is withering more quickly than a sacred cow sauntering across Death Valley, they’re not quite ready to give up that evaporating revenue stream. Instead, they’re looking to video-on-demand as a way to partially refresh those coffers until they can figure out the internet.

What the studios want is to be able to offer newly released films on demand prior to their DVD releases. That way, all the couch potatoes who’ve given up movie theaters can be coerced into forking over eight or 10 bucks to watch “All About Steve” or “Spread” before someone has time to suggest that they cut off their own genitals with a dull knife instead.

With this new FCC ruling, Hollywood can now remotely block the recording capabilities of our cable boxes, thereby protecting themselves from the legion of folks determined to pirate, um, “All About Steve.” (In our lifetimes, Hollywood is unlikely to go VOD/theatrical day-and-date with anything other than shlock. Oops, that’s most of it.)

But it’s a case of "be careful what you wish for" because exhibitors are not happy about this potential new arrangement. They’re so unhappy that they’re telling distributors they won’t book anything that’s simultaneously available on VOD — or any other delivery platform for that matter.

This is an important lesson for independent filmmakers. Way more than a studio film, the life of an independent film in the early part of the 21st century increasingly hangs on its ability to be seen whenever, wherever and however the audience wants.

If you’re lucky enough, or if your film has the festival and critical buzz to land a theatrical distributor, great. As you know, though, that likelihood is an anemic one at best, and unless your film has stars, most dependent/co-dependent distributors will either not know what to do with it or lack the patience and/or skill to find and build your audience. So you’re back to DIY. But you’ve got all these bugs in your ear about theatrical.

What to do?

Well, there are independent cinemas who might take your film even if it’s on VOD or available for streaming, but they’re few and far between.

The last place you want to go is to Landmark Theaters. They absolutely will not allow your film to be streamed simultaneously with theatrical even if streaming is made inaccessible in their markets.

If you have the cash to spend, go ahead and four-wall a theater in New York. Not that you’re likely to earn back the costs (rental fee, publicity, advertising, your sanity), but because you’ll get reviewed; certainly in the New York Times (at least that’s still their policy today) and possibly in several other meaningful publications.

But unless your Times review is an out-and-out rave, don’t waste any more time or energy on theatrical. Concentrate purely on "whenever, wherever, however" because that’s where the eyeballs are and that’s where the revenue is. For independent film today, theatrical is almost never anything more than a cash suck.

You’ve got the means of production and distribution at the ready. Use them liberally and avoid the gatekeepers with determination. Especially theatrical.

Keep your fire lit.