Sunday, December 18, 2005

The New York Times (And Mark Cuban To A Lesser Extent) Miss The Whole Point Of Why People Go To The Movies - But For Different Reasons!

One of the biggest problems with the obvious is that it far too often is... too obvious!

Case in point.

During an unofficial meeting last week, an informal gathering was unofficially told by an off-the-record participant that something quite official - and quite unfortunate for downtown - was about to happen. We were also told by presenter of the bad news that nothing could be done about this official, if lamentable, situation.

Everyone (well, almost everyone... or there wouldn't be any story here) quietly clucked their tongues and murmured in mantra-like mumblings.... nothing could be done... nothing could be done.

I, of course, disagreed.

I disagreed for the simple reason it is always obvious (to me, anyway) that doing the right thing is always - duh - the right thing to do. The fact my cowboy contrariness, as always considerably annoyed the hell out of a certain legendary downtown personality, was, as always, merely a... welcome side benefit.

So shortly after this non-meeting unofficially came to a close, I called the person handling the discussed situation, snared him in his car on his way home and - guess what! Not only could the situation be changed - but said situation hadn't even yet been... at all situated!

Cut to a few days later, and some few meetings and phone calls later - and the impossible, AKA, the... obvious... had suddenly - deus ex machina - become the now very much the... possible.

The same disconnect from the reality of the obvious is also true in the endless discussion of the not always so obvious future of motion picture exhibition.

All that is clearly agreed on is that something needs to be done as the number of people going to the movies has dropped for three straight years.

It is also obvious (to me, any way and I am the only one who counts here) that what the real problems of motion picture exhibition - which thus determines what the real questions should be - are too obvious for anyone to realize. Ergo, wrong answers to wrong questions about wrong problem are always... dead wrong.

First, let's hear from the NYT's Randall Stross:

MARK CUBAN is known to many in the sports world as the madcap-billionaire owner of the Dallas Mavericks, the one who relishes every opportunity to defy propriety. Less well known is Mr. Cuban's day job as co-owner, with Todd R. Wagner, of 2929 Entertainment, a holding company encompassing a movie production and distribution complex that is moving toward all-digital delivery.

his blog, Mr. Cuban has compared the differences between the sports world, which requires consistent repetition of outstanding performance, and the business world, which does not. He wrote: "In business, to be a success, you only have to be right once. One single solitary time and you are set for life." Mr. Cuban is indeed set, his pockets bulging with party-like-it's-1999 money.

His digital media business rests upon one more foundational concept, which Mr. Cuban transferred from Dallas to Hollywood: that fondness for defying propriety. At a conference for digital cinema planners held in September in Montreal, he said gleefully that he had been reading in the Hollywood trades that he and his business had been irritating a lot of people - "and we like that."


Digital projection is coming, not only to Landmark Theaters but to the larger chains, too. It is Mr. Cuban, however, who was so eager to have his theater chain credited as the first to adopt a costly new line of Sony projectors with the highest resolution (4096 x 2160 pixel, or 4K) before they were even complete. Actual installation of the first machines, each of which costs about $100,000, has been repeatedly delayed while Sony works on debugging.

People in the theater exhibition industry know what many outside it may not: that the transition from film to digital will not improve the visual experience for theater customers. Nothing yet invented can match the richness of film. When digital projection arrives, the best selling point that theater owners can offer may be, "Don't worry about it; you probably won't notice."

The principal reason that the owners will convert is that the movie studios wish to save the considerable expense of manufacturing and distributing film. Digital projection "won't increase our attendance," said Kurt Hall last March, when he was chief executive of the
Regal Entertainment Group, the largest exhibitor in the country.

Mr. Cuban seems so attached to the pleasures of provoking others, however, that he is unwilling to acknowledge inconvenient trends that may upend some of his plans. His rationale for making hugely expensive investments in Landmark Theaters, the art-house chain owned by 2929 Entertainment, seems dangerously ungrounded in reality.


Next year the industry will move from the testing phase to permanent conversion to digital projection. It will take years before all 37,000 auditoriums in the United States are upgraded.

It may not take so long, however, if the theater business keeps shrinking. Theater attendance in 2005 is down 6 to 7 percent from 2004, after declines the preceding two years. John Fithian, president of the National Association of Theatre Owners, contends that the downturn is an inconsequential blip in a cyclical business. He reassured his members that the "slump reflects the nature of the recent product supply, rather than portends some structural problem with the industry."

Similar reassurances were provided to theater owners in the 1950's, said Robert Sklar, a historian and professor of cinema studies at New York University. During that decade, average theater attendance dropped about two-thirds from the peak in 1948; today, on a per capita basis, we go to the movies only one-sixth as often as we did then.


When holiday sales are tallied and as theater attendance continues to sink, the theater operators a year hence may have a hard time accepting today's official party line promulgated by Mr. Fithian that "the biggest challenge is getting good movies, not competition from the home."

Mr. Cuban is similarly sanguine about the business.

Last week in an e-mail exchange, he argued that the theater business had only to extol "the virtues of enjoying a movie in a theater with fellow movie fans" - as if sitting quietly in the dark with a few dozen others is no less gregarious an activity as cheering on the Mavericks with 20,000 boisterous neighbors.

The one remaining attribute of theater exhibition that the home cannot match is temporary exclusive access to new releases. The window of exclusivity has become ever shorter in the past year, as studios begin collecting DVD revenue as early as they dare. On this issue, Mr. Cuban speaks not as a theater operator or a studio honcho, but as an anarchist: blow up the rules and release to theaters and to DVD's at the same time.

This offers the attraction of a single marketing push, reducing studio costs. But the theaters would suffer dearly. If universal release became standard industry practice, Mr. Fithian said, it would most likely mean the end of theaters.

And ... lastly...

Theater operators need not abandon all hope. Mr. Sklar, the historian, offered this prediction: "Teenagers' need to get out of the house will keep theaters alive." It doesn't really matter, he added, what the movie is.

Then in Mr. Cuban's blog:

... People come to see good movies. There aren't any magic formulas. Digital creates some new opportunities to increase customer satisfaction. The quality of a digital print never declines. if a movie is popular, we don't have to wait to create another print. We can spend money on content or marketing rather than making and distributing prints. But none matter if our audience doesn't care about the film...


HDTVs haven't cured cabin fever, the desire to get away from the kids, or the desire of kids to go on dates without their parents. Just because you better the home aspect of the entertainment experience doesn't mean you detract from the value of another.
the only missing link right now is the theater business, landmark included, extolling the virtues of enjoying a movie in a theater with fellow movie fans


Brokeback Mountain is opening this week in 16 more Landmark markets after the hugely successful and much publicized opening at the Embarcadero in San Francisco. (140,000 box office - consecutive sell outs). In the 16 new markets we have XX prints on the screen. This print count is unprecedented in LT history. I am ecstatically reporting the following opening numbers so far today. Thank you for all the hard work it will take this weekend to seat and satisfy our theatre guests.


And all of this is on the heels of Good Night and Good Luck. A movie that not only did Landmark have great success with, but that 2929 executive produced as well. And there have been other indie and art films that have done very, very well this year. Just look at the award nominees and discussions taking place. Plus, it looks like 2006 could be very strong as well !

And... finally...

And as far as the value of digital projection, i gave him some simple starting points. He didnt want to delve any further. He used that old NY Times standard - find a quote(s) that supports my conclusion and go with it. The value of digital projection in a vertical company such as ours is wide reaching.

a film in High Definition and never having to take it to film, not only saves us time and money that can be plowed into the product or marketing, but it also creates a unique visual look that we think filmgoers will appreciate, enjoy and find reason to go to a theater for. .

It also allows us to create new programs for film makers like . But he obviously was in a hurry and not interested in finding out more information.

Ok - so who's right - and who's wrong?

Everyone but me - of course!

Well... maybe not everyone on everything...

To begin with, the really big thing the New York Times blew is that, besides the economics of video projections and the ability to maintain a high level of quality of 'print' control - there is a far more important reason for converting to digital projectors; with increasing numbers of films being shot in digital, those films can be shown on digital in the way they were meant to be shown - and without the considerable expense of transfer to film. That alone will allow for far more digital films to be given trial runs in theaters to gauge the market's interest in them.

Beyond that, however - both men not only miss the boat - they aren't even within walking distance of the water!

The one point I will agree with Cuban, though, is that films like Brokeback Mountain do prove that films that are unique experiences will draw audiences into theaters. That is one fact which will never change.

Beyond that, everyone else in the article - is completely clueless as to the underlying problem of present day film exhibition, much less the real questions or the real world answers.

For a start, the social experience of seeing movies is no longer unique (or satisfying) enough to make film going a regular habit. That is the number on reason why film going is no longer a regulatr habit of Americans. Period.

Kids have plenty of places to go when they want to get out of the house. It might be noted that concurrent with the advent of TV, teenagers getting their own cars increasingly happened at the same time as the first major drop in film attendance. Not a coincidence, I might add.

Also - why leave the house any more?

I mean, 'entertaining' in one's own bedroom is far from a rarity any more.

Second, successful long term theatrical distribution will only happen if exhibitors manage to make going to theaters once again - a unique social experience. Simply having occasional great films is not enough. In fact, it's not even nearly close to being enough. But everyone within the exhibition biz is simply too afraid to admit that.

Third, there is a very simple - and dare I say - obvious - way to not only recreate, but to even considerably expand upon the old model of making film going as a social experience. It is also a way that would even make it far more lucrative!

And this solution is, of course, so staggering.... obvious... that no one has yet thought of it!

So the question of the day is - who will first understand what the new business/social model needs to be to usher in a golden era of independent cinema?? What form of exhibtion will lead us to this future?


Walt Disney got it right, even though he never realized it.

(more Cuban on NY Times:

No comments: