By David Poland firstname.lastname@example.org
It struck me as I thought about the disregard for exhibitors shown by the major distributors this week in their announcement on VOD that it really isn’t personal.
Forget it just being exhibitors and consider the unions as well.
The studios and the corporations that own them think of every piece of the puzzle, human or not, as being something that should be adjusted to serve their every interest and whim. Actors, writers, and directors have a job to do, but the remuneration, unless the individual is powerful enough to demand and receive more, should, in the eyes of these companies, serve their bottom line. There are only two common denominators; ego and money. And money usually wins over ego.
What’s hard, for those of us who believe in fairness and shared responsibility, is that the corporations aren’t really wrong… they are just doing what corporations do. AMPTP couldn’t run roughshod over the talent unions, as they did in the last serious round of contracts, without the unions/guilds submitting (consciously or otherwise). The only leverage the employees really have is themselves and their work… but even with one guild striking, they couldn’t hold it together long enough to get significantly improved contracts. And now, SAG is already a shadow of its former self.
Exhibitors have long seemed to have an inferiority complex, like Canadians often have about America. Inferiority is not an objective truth. These are symbiotic relationships. But roles are quickly set and the distributors’ superiority complex is profound, almost made worse by the awareness that they really do need the theater owners. That’s a step less control than is optimal. This makes ideas like shortened theatrical windows more attractive, even if they don’t make financial sense… because ego makes them think that more control will eventually lead to more money. How many times has that been wrong? (We can start the conversation with the DVD Bubble and the failure to manage it.)
The exhibitors get fawned over in public by the distributors and then, after the doors close, they are treated as though they were just another obstacle to overcome. The movie theater industry in America was really rebuilt in the late 90s, by way of a load of bankruptcies, and allowed for a reconsideration of how films could be distributed. Without that partnership with the exhibitors, we wouldn’t have the massive openings we now have, which in turn, have led to the studios thinking that they can short the theatrical runs and get to the post-theatrical in 6 weeks or less, where the split is more lucrative to them.
But I can’t say that the studios/distributors are The Bad Guys. There is no morality to business, good or bad. There are some people with strong moral ideas and some of them are even enormously successful business people. But the standard for decision making, beyond those exceptions, is not a secret. Maximize in any way that doesn’t, ultimately, minimize due to the force of the maximizing action. Morality is a math problem.
The distributors are dead wrong, in my opinion, about this idea… on a business level before we even discuss the art of cinema. But are they evil? No, not really. Even though WB and Universal are both owned by parents with cable businesses and Fox is owned by a parent with an international satellite business, and Sony sees a big piece of its future as a content conduit via the internet by way of their hardware platforms… they are just trying to maximize their businesses.
This, of course, makes it all harder to respond to naked aggression. Villains make it easier to get the troops excited. Exhibitors can’t actually KNOW that shortened windows will undermine their businesses. It’s just a well-educated guess. While nothing has buried theatrical, every major innovation that makes filmed entertainment more accessible away from theaters has done incremental damage.
And ironically, while Jim Cameron and George Lucas and Jeffrey Katzenberg talk about improving the movie experience with new technology, they are unwittingly playing right into the hands of the studios that want more events and fewer movies. The theory, according to the trio, is that even conventional dramas will be improved by 3D and other improving technologies. But what I hear is the chance for those who want to turn theatrical into an event medium.
For theater owners to be able to change this equation, they will have to be willing to lose some money. Some serious money. Soon. Essentially, it is like a strike situation. Both sides have something to lose… and the repercussions will last longer than the moment.
The Distributors keeps getting to have its cake and eat it too. And as much as I hope it’s not true, I expect it to go that way on this as well. Distributors will give up some short term battles to win the war. The ball may not roll all the way down hill. But we will probably have to wait to for economic forces to change the playing field… which is usually too late.
So whose side do you take? The Good Guys who don’t stick to their guns or The Bad Guys who do? It isn’t as easy a question as it probably should be.