Author Archive

“If Your Fall Festival Wants To Live, Come With Me.”

It’s almost June 1. And frankly, the festivals (Venice/Telluride/Toronto… and New York) are running out of time. What are they going to be in only three months?

We all have the same desire. For the festivals to go on, safely, with people sitting in theaters, watching movies. But circumstances are circumstances. The situation is not stable. No one can assure any state, town or group of festivalgoers of ANYTHING that will happen in late August and early September. The most committed filmmaker to opening his movie on screens this summer, Christopher Nolan, who has Tenet, put out a trailer this week without a date on it, even though they are on the calendar in seven weeks. For festival operators to proceed as though they can predict their future this year is nothing less than playing inverted Russian roulette, with one empty barrel and the rest loaded and ready to kill the thing we all love, the festival.

The problem is more than just putting people together in movie theaters. It’s the talent. It’s the films themselves. It’s competition, even in stasis, between distributors. It’s technology, which exists to manage all this, but is far from foolproof and requires testing and time. And it’s the pressure on these not-for-profit organizations to avoid taking on giant blocks of new debt (whether they can carry them successfully if they do is another conversation).

What would be the signal that TIFF or Telluride could have a legitimate shot at running a close-to-normal festival in any way this year? It would take the successful opening and maintenance of at least 10,000 theatrical screens in the US and Canada from July 15 until the start of those festivals. That’s your over/under.

But the trick is, if they wait until August 1 to decide, they don’t get to make the decision at all. The festival ship will have already sailed.

So what to do? My thing is… not knowing what field one is battling on means that the best plan is to build towards the most stable foundation. And if the Best Case Scenario is what comes to pass, do your best to support that in the moment, but no apologies for staying alive.

But without a small miracle, is talent coming to the festival? No.

Will movies be ready for the festival? Some yes, some no… many unknown.

Will distributors commit fall titles of significance when they don’t know the commercial endgame? That is a huge challenge.

Will smaller indie distributors be willing to send a lot of content if they are suddenly the dominant force because the bigger players aren’t ready to play? Yes.

All of this points right to digital festivals.

If TIFF can get $15 a ticket for streaming movies and the cost of delivering the movie is about $4, they should make good money, while saving a significant amount on the physical festival. Telluride and its pass system is more complex financially. If the festival were digital-only, the offer of a 20% discount for next year’s festival for Year 2000 passholders would satisfy most who shell out for the festival. Telluride is a labor of love for most attendees and I don’t know what the nut already committed for the festival is… but the only way to cause passholders to demand money back is to be too rigid.

I have written about the massive challenges for both festivals. For Toronto, it’s size and an international base of filmmakers and non-local attendees. For Telluride, it’s the glorious location and feel of the fest, which is profoundly about community and being in the 8,750-foot mountain air at a time of year where the daytime sun can deliver 90 degrees, that night can drop to 40 degrees, and rain is pretty much guaranteed for some part of the long weekend.

In both situations, upbeat estimates figure that the festivals will operate at 50% of attendance. But hearing people talking about 20% and 30% attendance isn’t rare. And in neither case is this is situation of any regular attendee who no longer loves the soul of these festivals. And it would be a huge mistake for the leadership of either festival to push either potential attendees or distributors to pick sides. That’s stress talking, not serious consideration of how difficult this is for all.

If I were a betting person, I would bet that North America will reach herd status before there is a vaccine. But that is probably late fall 2020 at the earliest.

I wrote about taking the media out of the process, by including them electronically, a month ago. But a month later, none of these festivals have taken this kind of action. Everything is still private chatter. That is the normal way that festivals run… quietly… negotiated between interested parties… presented to the media and public quite late in the game. This year, this is a suicidal approach unless you get lucky (the one empty barrel).

There are significant advantages to working through this on the media group first. Obviously, it is a smaller group of people than your primary festival audience. Second, it is a motivated group, already dealing with content-sharing technology, and hungry for experience that can eventually lead to stories. Third, with due respect, the publicity machine has control of the group in a very real way. If there are story embargoes, they will hold. If there are exceptions, one or two voices can be contained. But the entertainment media works hand in glove with the industry., Access is everything.

Toronto could experiment with a pre-VOD/theatrical release in the next month. A studio like Universal could screen The King of Staten Island through TIFF. The festival could develop a neutral digital platform for streaming (a challenge to be discussed further), spend a couple of weeks navigating their media list and expanding it or narrowing it accordingly. TIFF could, in theory, show it to junket press when it was time and then have all-media screenings whenever Universal’s chosen time for that occurred. (It’s too late for this title now… but not for a film like Sony Classics’ The Climb, due mid-July or even something like Disney+’s Hamilton.)

Obviously, if a first experimental effort worked, they couldn’t just expand it to a thousand TIFF ticket buyers. There will be bumps in the process. Large and small. But you have to start somewhere to get the process working if there is any hope of being a successful streaming festival in a few months.

“But David… NYFF and others are already streaming movies for money, so why is this even challenging?”

This is the next big problem. The indie theaters and festivals that are presenting “virtual cinema” are promoting and thus, earning a piece of the action from companies that would otherwise be doing normal VOD business. Nothing wrong here. But a festival is a gathering of distributors. So what becomes the standard for festivals? Is there such thing as a neutral streaming site? If you set it up so every distributor allows the festival to sell a set number of virtual tickets to each film, is every distributor set up for this?

The major studios distribute by single unit rental nad sales digitally via Apple iTunes, AT&T’s Fandango, Amazon, and so on. But all these parent companies are in the content business. If you are Warner Bros. under these circumstances, would you allow your film to be exploited at a festival in any way digitally by anyone other than Fandango? What about Sony? What about Paramount?

Bell is the primary sponsor of TIFF. Another Canadian company, Rogers, is also involved. As best I can tell, neither Bell or Rogers is partially owned by AT&T. Could they be an answer? Maybe. Or maybe the delivery process is a quilt of all the different distributors and their preferred delivery systems.

Netflix has a press and industry set-up to allow private access to content on their platform. In theory, TIFF could sell tickets and give the details to Netflix and Netflix could set up access passwords for 750 people. But that wouldn’t be a cakewalk. For instance, the private access is connected to the account that started the service… but that may not be the person who is expecting access. And people have a hard time, often, with what seems like easy password access processes. So it is possible… but challenging.

Telluride is different. Many fewer films. Overall festival passes instead of ticket sales. In theory, every Telluride film would have to be available to each of the 4,000 participants over the four-day weekend. Sounds like a long rental. I would love to watch films multiple times, but Telluride tradition has been that no one can see anything more than once across the weekend. (They used to punch a hole in your pass for each film, by number. They may limit digitally now. Not sure.) That is a choice the festival could make. But with a 96-hour weekend and sixty hours of films, I would push to see every single title at Telluride, which is an opportunity you can’t physically manage at the live festival. Q&As and Honorees could easily be handled online. And to the degree that distributors want to create talent access, also easy.

(For clarity, I’m not including Venice in this because, honestly, it means almost nothing to the domestic landscape. I have no idea how that festival relates to European theatrical or even their digital universe. I would be thrilled to be educated on this, but I haven’t seen in-depth analysis of the impact of Venice on film distribution in the rest of the world. I would attribute that to the interest of writers and media that want to continue to inflate the significance of this festival as it has done for decades. My comment on the commercial value has ZERO meaning as regards the artistic value of the festival. I am not challenging that. That is a different discussion.)

Next issue… Piracy!

I don’t consider this a minor issue. In fact, it may be the death of the whole effort. I may have buried the lede.

Again, less of a problem for Telluride, as it is a smaller audience overall and in some ways, the group has been pre-qualified by their purchase of a pass that starts at $800. Push the crowd size to tens of thousands at TIFF, add high-profile titles, and you are looking at a potential piracy party. Do distributors want to deliver brand new, top-end product with visual impairment to stymie or prevent piracy? Even if they do and festivalgoers live with it as press often does, setting a camera up to shoot your TV is going to offer better quality than sneaking a camera into a movie theater, much less a festival theater where the audience is made up of film lovers who hate the idea of someone there stealing content.

A lesser but also significant problem is that a single ticketed screening of a movie could be seen by multiple people. One person could stream a screening on Zoom or the like, offering an inferior but watchable product to dozens of people without leaving an imprint to be followed later… just damage.

Of course, distributors have taken piracy into account for a long time. Perhaps they can see their way to feeling that it is not that much different from showing the film in a large festival theater.

And back to the start of this piece… time is the enemy of any of this happening. The massive endeavor of bringing together a big group of volunteers, operating as few as ten screens at Telluride or as many as forty a day at Toronto, selling tickets, moving people and talent, etc, etc, etc is no small feat. But these festivals have done that for years. They haven’t been dealing with the vagaries of delivering a digital film festival, to 4000 or 40,000.

And if we are still having the “will they or won’t they” conversation in another month, the likely answer will be “they won’t.” Either outcome, whether they commit to live festivals or try something digital, becomes a prohibitive long-shot when it comes to delivering the breadth and width of these fests.

2020 is a freakshow. I would suggest these festivals take the opportunity to build something they can rely on financially. And if there are live screenings, great. I will be the first in line. And I will be thrilled to be there in 2021 for sure, as I was in 2002, the year after so many of us walked TIFF in shock after that singular event.

The show must go on. In 2021 and onwards. Losing one year will not kill these festivals or our passion for cinema.

Hightown, Monica Raymund

D’arcy Carden 2020, The Good Place, Barry, A League of Our Own

Defending Jacob, Mark Bomback

The Viewing Booth (@True/False), Ra’anan Alexandrowicz

Quibi Review: Dummy

I never thought it would happen to me.

I wandered through Quibi’s programming selections the week it launched. A few minutes here, a few minutes there. A laugh or two. Pun titles all over, like Gayme Show and Dishmantled and Barkitecture. But nothing I felt compelled to stick with. After jumping on the app a bunch of times in the first week, it became just another app square staring from my phone.

And the app seemed dead.

But while sitting in a long Starbucks drive-thru line, wanting to distract myself somewhere outside of my home, I jumped back in. And the one show I had not watched but was intrigued by— to me, as in “why is she doing this?”—was Anna Kendrick and Dummy. The image of Kendrick and a sex doll that represented the show was off-putting. I mean, how could it be. On Quibi. The app with Chrissy Teigen as a judge, which seemed to be the natural extension of Kate McKinnon sexualizing Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

But there I sat. I turned the sound on in the car, turned the phone to widescreen, and it began.

The sexualized version of Anna Kendrick, who shows up now and again. When she grooms a hair on her (unseen) breast, you know something is different. Big handful of expired pot gummies. Her boyfriend is Donal Logue (Dan), who is about a decade too old for the relationship. Hmmm. Honest dialogue. Sweet kink.

And then, the sex doll. I won’t explain how she arrives. But she is found by Anna Kendrick’s Cody (same name as the writer/creator of the show) by calling for Cody.

So what is this? A fantasy? Michigan J. Frog? A set of universal rules that are outside of the norm? All of the above?

What follows for nearly an hour is a panini of the familiar and the unexpected. The Sex Doll, named Barbara (voiced by Meredith Hagner) becomes the comic driver of the piece. She is, even more than the characters we have already met, who love how super-honest they are, dead honest. Or at least she is as a reflection of the unspoken truths that Cody dare not speak.

Then there all the flavor crystals spread throughout. Dan is fully named Dan Harmon, who has been “involved with” the real Cody Heller for years. Ballsy. Though apparently Cody never met Dan’s sex doll. But the fact that she didn’t do sex doll research for the writing of this piece makes it all the more clear that it is about Cody and not about Barbara.

There is an episode where there is an exploration of feminism in terms of how women see themselves with men and how they see other women—or dolls—who are with men. And how dolls see women. The female in the Hollywood pool is a theme throughout, but most specific in the episode “The Bechdel Test.”

I really, really liked this piece. And that is really what it is. A short film with a beginning, middle and end. I like it so much that I don’t want a season two. It’s better than that.

If you are shy about words about human excretions, etcetera, this is not for you. It is rough and raw and right to the point (or the liquids left inside Barbara). But it’s fun and smart and remarkably serious at moments, though it doesn’t take itself seriously for a second.

They did take it seriously enough to hire Tricia Brock, who is a legitimate veteran TV director, to direct the piece.

I don’t know what category this fits in for the Emmys, but it is a worthy candidate for a nomination and maybe even for a win. Is Quibi going there? I don’t know. But it’s the only truly original, thoughtful, high-end piece I have seen on the app. Seriously… this could be an episode of Black Mirror and it would be all anyone could talk about for weeks.

Meanwhile, Ms. Kendrick is coming out in an HBO Max series (Love Life) in a few weeks that is already being positioned for Emmys. But I seriously hope this piece won’t be lost in the wake. It’s one of my favorite new things I have seen in these months of screening a lot of new stuff.

42 Weeks To Oscar?

The single most significant public event in the possible Oscar season to come happened today. Disney and Lin-Manuel Miranda moved Hamilton into 2020.

No, I am not saying that Hamilton is a lock to win Best Picture. It is possible that it won’t be nominated. It is possible that it will be nominated and lose. Etcetera. That is not my point.

Cannes and Venice are dead for 2020. Telluride, Toronto and New York are iffy, regardless of what they say now. For there to be an Academy Awards as is traditional in February, at least three of the six months of the year, starting in July, will have to have movie theaters open and operating in a relatively traditional way, in terms of movies being released and non-industry audiences being able to see them in relative safety. And I believe that two of those three months have to be some combination of October, November and December.

The festivals are the festivals. They are the ignition to the season. They are not The Season.

The Hamilton decision is multi-layered.

First, The Oscar thing. It is a natural contender. A film shot on a stage has always been a TV thing, going back to PBS and even the early days of HBO, when shows like Camelot were a part of the Original Programming mix long before series became their groove. But welcome to 2020, where the lines are blurrier and blurrier.

And oh yeah… it is going to be a Streamer.

Second, Streaming. There is endless talk about “all options on the table” and “out-of-the-box thinking,” but it is exciting when a choice made by a big company actually allows for all options and shows out-of-the-box thinking. This is a case of that. Just a few months ago, in a culture far, far away, Disney bought Hamilton rights. The “movie” was shot in 2016 and was likely finished except for a few touches and sitting on Tommy Kail’s shelf at home, waiting for the right moment.

When Hamilton movie rights were sold, all the way back in February, the plan was to release the Freestyle Love Supreme doc (Lin-Manuel Miranda & Co’s origin story) on Hulu in May 2020, followed by In The Heights (the second act) in June 2020, followed by Hamilton, sometime in 2021.

Coronavirus flipped all that, pushing In The Heights — a hot, New York, summery movie — into Summer 2021. And what do you do with Hamilton at that point? Compete against yourself? Push it all the way to 2022? Give up what was the symmetry of the three films being released in succession, as opposed to each being in a different year?

So Disney and Miranda (& Co) took a look at the goals that each had for the Hamilton movie and flipped the script dramatically. A full theatrical release always had a plan for a lot of free screenings for kids and the ticket price-challenged. Miranda has created special opportunities with his show from the start. And even so, there was likely a $140 million – $250 million worldwide box office opportunity for Disney and partners. And having the successful theatrical launch of Hamilton as a part of the Disney+ library afterwards was a not-insignificant added bonus.

But… Coronavirus. So what to do? The finished film was sitting on a shelf. So the cost of waiting was negligible compared to a film that had a big production investment and is sitting for an extra year or two. (Or course, no interest right now… but still.) They were really free to do whatever didn’t conflict with In The Heights (at WB).

You can start to see, now that it has been a live service for six months, that the Disney+ strategy is not going to be to pile up new content like Netflix, but to try to roll out one high-profile item every month or two. Check!

The Academy changed the rules for this year so that you can release something on streaming first and then theatrically qualify it. Check!

People are hungry for event programming and no one knows how the transition back to theatrical release will work in July or August… if they work out at all. Check!

Disney+ is a premium platform that is also the cheapest premium platform. $7 a month. No ups, no extras! A couple dollars more than a normal on-demand digital rental. Check!

The film cost Disney $75 million to buy… a lot for a filmed Broadway show, but not a lot for a phenom or for a high-impact event on Disney+ (even if they have much tighter budgets overall than Netflix). Check!

By releasing the film on July 3, it fits the independence day theme. And it beats Tenet to viewers, regardless of whether Tenet lands on time or not. So it is the first serious Oscar contender of the year. And it grabs publicity for weeks before Tenet tip-toes in (don’t be surprised if their July release ends up in IMAX only or some such thing for the first few weeks as audiences consider the choice to come back to theaters). And if the film plays great and things move forward for Oscar season, it will be the first non-Netflix film to start on streaming that will then spend the effort and cash to make a serious run at Oscar nods.

What I find exciting is that it isn’t making lemonade out of lemons or throwing something at the wall to see if it sticks. This feels like a change of plans with a full strategic logic of its own. And that, my friends, is a rarity amidst the paradigm-shifting hysteria.

And so the 2020 Oscar season – real or phantom – lurches to life earlier than expected. And it starts somewhere unexpected, Disney+.

Anyone who reads me regularly knows that I believe in theatrical and that Oscar should remain as an award for theatrical movies. It’s not about Netflix so much as the wave of streaming that will become the norm for your television. Theatrical is just another thing. But the rules are what the rules are. And within that context, I will embrace the strategies and tactics and enjoy the ebbs and lows.

One thing is clear here… Hamilton is not giving away its shot.

Paul Schrader’s Call For Big Fests Online Exposes What Fests Mean… & Don’t Mean

Paul Schrader is a brilliant man. But… myopic.

Festivals have a narrow value beyond the experience to be had at the festivals. And every one of the major festivals has a different purpose that extends beyond those events.

Cannes is many festivals. There are two major competitions, a few other platforms, and then a major market event that is actually a private thing. Venice is a combination of showy premieres that come to the festival with U.S. distribution, for international marketing purposes, some high-quality premieres looking for worldwide distribution, and a bunch of international titles that will never get a wide audience in the U.S. Telluride is a combination of premiering the best of Cannes (that aren’t heading to TIFF or NYFF exclusively), being an Oscar platform for films with distribution, as well as high-art odds & ends with the very rare film that is seeking distribution there. And honestly, no one quite knows what NYFF is anymore, as it changed its stripes almost annually for the last decade. It went from having virtually no premieres to having big awards slots to being murky. Netflix pushed for a festival launch for Scorsese, so Scorsese did his very rare festival launch last year. But mostly, NYFF has been the place, in this regard, to avoid the heavy competition between awards movies at TIFF.

Schrader’s notion that the power and big spending of Netflix or Amazon could foster an event that would capture the public’s imagination in the way festivals do is not realistic. Not because it is impossible to find that audience, but because the purpose of festivals is not the same as the point of public release for movies, theatrically or only digitally.

Moreover, outside of the festival world, no one knows the festival heads and no one cares about film festival awards. This does not mean that festivals don’t have a place in the life cycle of indie films. But you’re talking about five percent of the films that experience that cause and effect.

If you have a title that you accept as less-than-commercial or unlikely to explode beyond its niche — not a judgment of quality at all, often the opposite — go ahead and play at a worldwide online festival. Just like rolling the dice at Cannes or Sundance, you may have an explosive moment and get money for your next movie. The Festival Dream is a crapshoot anyway… Take a different crapshoot.

But getting back to Schrader’s prayer. His idea is premised on a fantasy, that Netflix or Amazon is in the business of cultivating high art. Netflix may feel that taking a big $ hit to get an Oscar is a worthy bet. But paying festivals to curate arthouse movies? Too Smart To Handle.

Putting these films online doesn’t add the film-fest dynamic. It adds media to the mix of direct-to-distributor sales. And some popularity scale, based on how many people watch each film. It doesn’t put First Reformed in front of distributors with an audience.

That moment when a film is discovered — tracked for months leading to the “discovery”— at the first Sundance or Cannes cannot be recreated online. It is gloriously irrational, which is why so many overspend at fests.

Also, we already have a sampling of the impact this might have. Amazon Prime has had a handful of SXSW movies on their service for weeks. Has anyone watched?

Yes, Cannes and Venice and TIFF titles would have more profile going in. Two or three might emerge as media obsessions. But again… a crap shoot.

Since I started writing, Cannes announced that it will try an online market (Marche) in June to fill the void. [LINK]

The sale of online passes will begin soon. But the question will be what kind of access the media does and does not get to these films. I have attended Cannes with a press badge and a Marche badge. It allowed me to cram a lot of extra films onto my schedule. But I was also excluded from many screenings that were meant for buyers only. I suspect that will be the experience here. Some international films will take the opportunity to allow press to get access. But my guess is that any film with serious aspirations for a U.S. window will keep us at a distance.

I circle back to my fall festival suggestion… to create a digital festival circuit for media this year that allows the distributors to take all the advantage of the media that it would normally get and to still control the opportunities for their films in the unknown situation around how films will, or will not, be distributed this fall.

In building a digital plan for media, these festivals could build a digital plan for festival attendees. Yes, the films will be on the fence until close to the last minute. But I can imagine a TIFF that leans heavily into Canadian product and docs and foreign language that opens up for TIFF ticket buyers for 10 days, allowing them a smorgasbord of opportunity and generating enough revenue for TIFF to keep them afloat, while also fulfilling the desires of the distributors and filmmakers.

In other words, build SOMETHING. Start now.

But the panacea of Schrader’s notion… Too much… Too ambitious… and too much in love with the idea of festivals. It’s a love I share. But I also know that it is a very niche romance that only a few of us are blessed to embrace every year.

Misunderstanding The Future of Streaming & Theatrical Exhibition

“Theatrical is over.”

Yeah, yeah, yeah. I have been listening to this bullshit for decades. And if you read David Puttnam‘s “Movies & Money” (from 1997!), you will see that this line of gloom & doom and hipster pronouncements about The Future started coming up a century ago.

This morning, Indiewire published a piece by Anne Thompson, who is fully committed to the idea of the end of theatrical as we know it and has been for a while. She rolled out a pretty complete rationale for this notion. And besides being soaked through with inaccuracies and errors of omission, there was an anger involved that took my breath away.

I will link after quoting the most offensive paragraph:
“Exhibitors are very different from their studio partners. Both groups are largely comprised of white men, but theater owners tend to reflect mainstream tastes and fairly conservative politics. (Imagine a Hollywood executive signing off emails like one Cinemark staffer: “Oh give thanks to the Lord, for He is good, for His steadfast love endures forever. Ps 107:1.”) As a whole, this group prefers PG-13 to R ratings, and worships Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson and all things Disney. They largely work out of their headquarters, whether that’s Kansas City (dominant AMC, with 8,000 screens), Dallas (Cinemark and Studio Movie Grill), New Orleans (Southern Theatres), Milwaukee (Marcus Theaters), Scottsdale (Harkins), Memphis (Malco), or Knoxville (Regal). It’s hard to imagine most of these folks circulating at world-class film festivals. The buyers who do attend are there for their specialty screens.”

Here is the full piece. But… REALLY?!?! Anne wants to encourage us against theatrical exhibition because their corporate offices aren’t based in Los Angeles or New York? She wishes us to see them as rubes because there are some staffers who express their religious beliefs in e-mails? And she doesn’t seem to want us to think about the fact that AMC’s ownership through much of the last decade was in Beijing and Regal’s is still in London. “It’s hard to imagine most of these folks circulating at world-class film festivals.” Are you seriously this petty and ignorant? I have known Anne a long time. She is neither of those things. But Jesus Christ on a cracker, she is writing like she is.

I have spent about as many years at CinemaCon/ShoWest as Anne, wandering about Vegas for 4 days in a sea of short-sleeved button downs and candy samplers. I understand the stereotype. But I also have now decades-long friends from all across Europe thanks to ShoWest (the original title of the exhibition event). I witnessed years of negotiations leading to digital projection, better sound, geographic multiplex placements, and stadium seating choices amidst all those… (say it mean) middle-Americans.

But let me get to the meat of Anne’s many arguments instead of lingering in my shock and dismay over the tone of this paragraph.

Unfortunately, I find myself refuting most of the article… there was a web term for doing this, which I forget. (Fisking?) But I try not to do it. But I must, I must.

“Studios and exhibitors still bring movies to a paying audience, but approach it from wildly different perspectives. Studios have multiple revenue streams; theaters have butts in seats, and buttered popcorn. Studios want the flexibility to take their movies to other platforms if that’s the better business decision; exhibitors leave a lot of patron data on the table — and charge studios access for what they do collect.”

False, at least in what is being suggested. Facts. Studios have had multiple revenue streams for over 40 years now, not counting revival houses and broadcast television sales (which at one point topped $10 million for a single screening for E.T.). VHS. DVD. Rentals for both. A once-huge Direct-To business in DVD. And streaming, which has brought the major (and some minor) studios 100s of millions of dollars while they sat on their hands, letting Netflix run with the segment until they finally saw a way to make more money doing it themselves (eventually).

It is true that theaters have only ticket revenues and concession sales to pay their brick-and-mortar rents and for the many people they employ in support. But there is a suggestion that there is something new about all of this. There is not. The desire of major studios to cut the cost of theatrical release is decades old. The shortening of the theatrical window by studios? Decades old.

But what is truly misleading is the notion that, somehow, the relationship of distribution and exhibition hasn’t – no matter the disagreements – continued to progress to both sides distinct benefit over the decades. Forty years ago, hit movies played for 30 – 40 weeks in theaters. In 1990, Ghost didn’t go to 2nd run until week 38, never surpassing 1800 screens and missing the $1 million mark on only 1 week of those 38. By 2000, the top non-Grinch grosser, Mission: Impossible 2 had its last $1 million-plus weekend on Weekend 9. In 2010, Avatar had a strong run from Christmas into the spring, but still only had 13 $1m+ weekends. Toy Story 3 had 12.

How do we think this happened? Do we think the studios got super-smart all of a sudden and poof, the runtime on first-run movies magically dropped by two-thirds while maintaining similar box office totals?

Obviously not. No… the exhibitors and the distributors worked hand-in-hand to make the exhibition platforms of the 90s, 00s, and today supercharged. Exhibitors went through bankruptcies to do it, but they did it. Distributors wanted it because of DVD sales, the revenues of which were surpassing theatrical revenues… so distributors wanted to get to that cash cow as quickly as possible. But they didn’t want to give up theatrical revenues, which were still more than a third of total revenues on a movie, so the window was pushed shorter and shorter. And eventually, like a virgin on Lookout Rd, they said, “That is as far as you can go without compromising us completely.”

But the exhibitors/virgins were still putting out, keeping the exhibitors as happy as they could. Don’t get me wrong, I see this as a mutually beneficial relationship. Putting the audience aside, exhibition chooses to be there and distribution benefits enormously from the existence of exhibition and the adjustments that exhibition has made.

Here is a little example… digital projection. It took years to find the moment, the money, and the mutual will for this to become the norm. The estimate by people who counted the beans at studios was that studios would save $2 billion or more every year by not having to strike, ship, and maintain prints (God rest the format’s soul). After some bumps in the early days, exhibition has also been able to benefit greatly from the format shift. No more projection issues as we knew them. Fewer projectionists (sadly for those hard working committed men and women). Easy expansion to take advantage of big opening opportunities (accordioning, as I have called it over the years, aka, more actual playtimes on any given weekend as needed). Nearly instant delivery when needed. And the freedom to create events in theaters, like live theater, opera, and sports.

Do sprockets running through a classic projector with a bulb at proper wattage create a better experience of the image? Maybe. But honestly, that isn’t the point. That is a different conversation. But some people want to use this aesthetic argument – which obviously, the same people have regarding studio output – as some way of making exhibition seem like Luddites, hanging on to the past. This is just insulting bullshit. These are business people who have adapted to changing times, over and over and over again. And yes, many of them look like the aunts and uncles you left behind when you moved to the big city after college. But… don’t be an asshole.

Moving on…

“By night, there’s opportunities to schmooze with the studio distribution executives who represent an increasingly slim slice of conglomerates owned by AT&T, Comcast, Sony, Viacom, and Disney.”

Exactly as the exhibition business has become represented by an increasingly slim slice of conglomerates owned by multinationals. AMC, Regal, and Cinemark control more than half the screens in America and, for better or worse, the rest tend to follow their lead.

“Their awkward business partnership doesn’t lend itself to conversations; it’s designed for constant, often-rancorous negotiations over rental splits.”

What decade was this paragraph from? Yes, Disney re-opened the wounds a couple years ago with new demands, but rental splits have not been the major issue for this “couple” in many years.

“Theater owners will fight to the death to keep their exclusive 90-day window, but why can’t studios move poor theatrical performers to another platform right away, and extend the on-screen life of the ones that play? The exhibitors’ argument: Exclusivity is the only way moviegoers will keep coming to theaters.”

Again… just mean-spirited bullshit. And that doesn’t mean that there is no argument to be made for distribution’s desires here. But if you are spinning, there is usually a reason. The window, which used to be a year for pay-tv, then 6 months for DVD sell-thru (until Batman released their then-all-time-best-opening movie on DVD in November – 5 months after a June open – for the holiday sales benefit), has now been whittled all the way down to 90 days, which is already really 75 days before it goes to streaming.

Exhibitors aren’t arguing that windows are the only way moviegoers will still come to theaters. I don’t know anyone in exhibition who thinks it is the primary reason people go to theaters now. But what exhibition knows – and distribution clearly knows or they would have shoved everything into VOD by now – is that exhibition is a low-margin business and that to maintain the big boxes in the format in which they currently generate $40 billion+ a year in gross revenues and participate in creating brand value that benefits titles all the way through their ancillary revenue life, you need more than one kind of film. Because even though the media doesn’t value films that gross just $60 million in domestic box office or less, those films generated about 25% of total domestic box office last year (for instance). Take away that 25% or 20% or even 15% and exhibitors can’t make their rent unless studios want to subsidize their theaters with a higher percentage of the bigger grossers.

I’m going to keep my powder dry on this and write another column about what a reconfigured exhibition universe would look like at another time.

But what is the worst idea for marketing a movie ever? To keep moving it from one platform to another so the buyers have no idea where to find it. There is no faster road to ambivalence, then disinterest, and ultimately, “we’ll see it on streaming soon enough.” This is already an issue with shortening the theatrical window.

What anti-window people refuse to see is that once you are past the theatrical window, there is no big uptick in revenue now. But it will get smaller and smaller because all post-theatrical is the same to people at home. It will get much, much worse as everyone is in the streaming business. Disney might be able to sucker a few hundred thousand people into paying to rent Onward 2 weeks before pushing it to $7 a month Disney+, but if I had paid for that, I’d be calling the credit card company to dispute the charge. Individual unit sales are THE dying format.

Except in theatrical release.

‘During negotiations over “The Irishman,” Netflix’s Scott Stuber (a former head of Universal production) played mediator in trying to reach an accommodation on shorter windows. But the chains are not a unified group, and talks broke down.”

Uh, no. Netflix sought an accommodation for one title. The accommodation was agreed to by exhibitors. They had a shorter window. They had silence on grosses. They had the national chains. But there was one demand that Netflix would not acquiesce to… that they put a chunk of their marketing spend into pushing the theatrical release in the way major studio distribution supports most movies. Netflix refused. Deal over. I have no beef with Netflix taking whatever position on this that they like. But blaming the exhibitors for being in disarray or too unyielding is just more spin.

“Meanwhile, independent exhibitors, film festivals and distributors are taking a different tack: They pulled back from competition to pool their best practices and intelligence into launching a virtual cinema business. And when they did, they discovered a shared ability to reach cinephiles even when hunkered in their homes.”

Oh… bullshit again! Independent distribution has been fully engaged in the “virtual cinema business” (without the cinemas) for a decade. VOD has been a salvation in a still very tough market for indies. What changed under this quarantine is that they figured out – smartly – how to team with exhibitors and film festivals and the like to add a new layer of marketing to the effort. And what are the results? Please, tell us how much more money the indies are making during this disastrous moment? I bet sales are up. I bet the share with festivals and theaters eats that difference almost completely. But yes, good for them. Something is better than nothing. Good for cinema. Good for people. All good.

And this has NOTHING to do with how wide releases are released or monetized.

“If the studios and theaters were still aligned, the whole film industry picture would be very different. The theaters would not be abandoned and marooned, with only one way to make a living. Studios and theatres would have long shared the same ecosystem, reading data and innovating best practices for the ideal ways, times, and platforms to reach the consumer.”

Honestly… whose ass was this pulled out of? Please… take a moment to think about it. Think deeply. Because it is just a wistful theory with absolutely no argument to back it up.

What other way would brick and mortar theaters have to make a living if they were owned and operated by movie studios? Tell me! Someone! Anyone! Merchandise? Ha. Event programming? Already exists, to modest success. DVD sales as you come out of the theater? Are you kidding?

It all sounds so smart… “share the same ecosystem, reading data and innovating best practices for the ideal ways, times, and platforms to reach the consumer.” Seriously! What do we think this means in action? Have you been watching AT&T try to manage both DirecTV and the launch of HBO Max? Do you believe there is more money in giant Disney titles than is already being squeezed out in the billions? Do you believe that Trolls World Tour will have a stronger ancillary revenue stream with 4.5 million families renting it at home or 12 million people going to the movie theater to see it in excited groups?

Executives love control… until they come up short.

Ironically, I have long been a proponent of Netflix buying a small-ish exhibition chain to achieve their long-term goals. Why? All the reasons Anne seems to covet. But more to the point, Netflix, at this time, could run movie theaters without profitability being a principle motive. Their overall model is not profit-driven, which is why they have so little profit on $20 billion+ a year in subscription revenue. It’s by choice. (And that is a different column too.)

If Netflix had bought the Landmark chain when it was for sale, it could have been their best marketing tool ever. Because Netflix is and always has been about the freedom of consumer choice. Owning about 100 screens in 20 or more major markets would allow them to try out a ton of ideas… and again, they wouldn’t have the pressure of making money. So long as they made 50% of costs or more, it would be viable for them (in my opinion… it’s their money). If done properly, it could work for indies as well. And a big hit or five could actually make the whole operation cash positive.

Doing theatrical better would be a huge win of perception for Netflix. And it would be 100% on their branding. And it would encourage filmmakers to come to them on quality projects without having to overspend or take on films that are really too expensive or discarded or somehow broken.

But I digress…

“In France, the entire movie and television system feeds each part of the production-distribution-exhibition chain in a circular and supportive way. They’re in it together. There’s a lot to be said for that. The time for reflection and change — reframing the conversation about doing something different, that is in the best interest of the consumer — is now.”

Don’t even get me started on the “best interest of the consumer” crap. No one cares about the best interest of the consumer. Not exhibition. Not distribution. Sorry… hard cold fact. They are in business, not in friendship. As anyone with a child knows, giving them everything they want because they want it is a terrible way of operating “in the best interest of the child.” Consumers are not children. But their desires, like most everyone aside from Mother Theresa, is selfish. You can’t operate any profitable business, much less an industry, on the principle of what is in the best interest of the consumer. Because the simple answer to that idea is… everything, always, for free. And that is not on the table anymore than a $2 premiere rental of Trolls World Tour or $3 popcorn. These are, always, businesses.

As for France…

Circular and supportive in France means a 3 to 4 month theatrical window and after 4 years, it is free for all on demand.

And with that, I am done with this for today. Let me just say as I exit, I believe in studios. And I believe in exhibition. And the great fallacy that I hear behind all of the arguments against windows is that making fundamental chance to the ecosystem can happen without both the clear financial consequences to exhibitors and the unintended consequences that studios are almost always completely inept at forecasting. This column has not said a word about the church of cinema because that is not the subject at hand. Business is.

As a student of the living film industry for decades, I have witnessed the good, the bad, and the ugly of rushing from one new panacea to the next. I am not hanging on. I love innovation as much as anyone. I admire so much about Netflix (aside from their silly stock price). But aside from running a solid operation, Netflix is based on 1 groundbreaking idea (subscription DVD rental) and 1 obvious leap into the future that studios mismanaged for a lack of vision (streaming). $10 a month for the biggest buffet of content you have ever had. Of course studios didn’t rush in… it was suicidal. And it still kinda is. But that future is almost here, whether the studios are ready or not.

Theatrical exhibition is old-fashioned. It is. Even with all the innovations. But so is storytelling. Theater still thrives. Movies still thrive. And yes, sitting in your cave, watching hours of content for very little money still thrives (from local to broadcast to cable to streaming). Things change. And yes, you can go too slow. You can also go too fast. But just remember… Netflix didn’t kill the DVD market with streaming. They killed it with subscription. And that revenue really hasn’t been replaced (a little with international expansion). Streaming and on demand are absolutely our future. But we will still go to theaters, live and “film,” and coliseums of sport to have a different experience. And we will pay a huge premium to do that. And the home experience will always be dominant because it is easiest and cheapest. And yet still… we will leave our houses.

If you don’t understand this, you don’t understand humanity. Or you just don’t see past the PVOD coming out next week or the pandemic that will give way to another in time. The worst is yet to come. The best is yet to come. Keep on living.

The Blue Mask Diaries: Episode Three – Netflix Does Love

Some of the greatness during this period has been coincidental to the previously scheduled releases of shows. And so has the absolute crap.

It became a project during all this mess, driven by the insane amount of media coverage, to watch the worst of Netflix… which is also, apparently, the most popular of Netflix. No, not Tiger King, though I watched that. (Tiger King is one of the docs that suffer from “The Netflix Stretch”… but that’s another column.) I’m talking about the world’s most horrifying dating shows. And as jokes are always best told in sets of three: Love Is Blind, Back With The Ex and Too Hot To Handle.

I list the shows based on the order in which I watched them. But interestingly, they also lay out in the order of shittiness. (Oddly, spellcheck redlined that word, but has no correction. Same with viewers of these shows.)

Love Is Blind sounded interesting. Remove the visual from the attractiveness engagement. Give the wannabe couples time to really get to know each other without seeing one another. And then, when they leap to the point of insanity – a marriage proposal, sight unseen – let them see each other and then keep them together to watch it all come together or fall apart.

There were some “happy endings” on the show. But like the brutal messes – made more brutal by the aggressive requirement to lower the wall – overwhelmed those “nice” stories. Moreover, watching the reunion show reminds us of what a mess some of those still-together couples are.

You can’t fake the funk, as a friend of mine once reminded me. And conversely, you can’t live on the funk forever.

There was the woman who showed us every reason why she is still alone… and the man who was obsessively committed to landing her. There was the gay man still in denial with no happy possibility allowed for him on the show. There was the woman who was clearly ambivalent from early on and who would have never gotten past a third date with the also very nice guy to whom she connected. And there is the couple that is all genitals with a woman who is so strong-willed that she will not let the relationship with the rugged by weak man fail… until they have a couple kids and he gets every other weekend, which is about as inevitable as the sun continuing to rise over the various distilleries that feed their romance.

Then there are the two happy couples. One is just solid. Congrats. I don’t know that Lauren & Cameron are a lovely, sane pair of people… which makes you wonder how they ended up on this show. It’s not clear that they may not have found each other, were they ever in the same space for more than a couple hours. The other happy story, Damian and Giannina, is another story dominated by the commitment of the woman, but it doesn’t seem like it’s all about not failing for her – like one of the other marriages – and honestly, I felt okay about it… even though (SPOILER) he left her at the fake alter. Really, they are such a weird couple that they may fit just right forever.

I guess what is so irritating about this undeniably entertaining show (the editors deserve a big fat retroactive raise) is that the idea is interesting, but the execution is so simplistic. It’s like watching Michael Apted’s 7Up63Up but with Apted’s IQ reduced by 30 or 40 points. Imagine if the show was serious about understanding these people. I don’t mean to add psychologists analyzing every moment. We have all had relationships and intuitively understand what is going on. But the design of the show leaves no space for more than a simplistic relationship with the material, even as we can see the reality seeping out of the edges like the lost drips of an ice cream cone on a hot summer night.

Back With The Ex also starts with an interesting premise. Can exes who are now single and harbor the hope that a former love can be rekindled make the past into the current?

The methodology of this show is not messed up the way Love Is Blind is. However, it is equally sad and twice as predictable. (SPOILER) All four couples are going to suffer the exact same malady that that ended their relationships in the first place.

In 2 of the 4 stories, there was cheating or betrayal. Cheaters cheat.

In one of the stories, there is a profoundly broken man who has decided he is fixed enough to love someone else fully and the woman who tried so very hard to fix him in the past that she destroyed herself and comes back for seconds.

And the final story, that is most hopeful, is of the 2 fully formed adults. But she tells us from the beginning that she is a control freak. He tells us he is laid back to a degree that she doesn’t quite respect. She is the kind of person who is happy to strip down in front of a camera crew and skinny dip and express her strong sexual urges… but who then freaks out when he tells a story to the other guys about the same. The Dominatrix and The Dude. For that to work, they both need to be clear about what they are willing to accept. But neither is as good at sharing their boundaries with each other as they are with the TV camera. And even though the story ends up happily on the show, it fails after the show, as was destined from the start.

The third show is just a form of gawking at the young, the dumb, and the full of cum. Too Hot To Handle is a combination of Love Island and Playboy Channel’s Foursome. (I’m linking because you should not know that this show exists. It’s basically a double date where they all have sex in a cool house and show the sex on TV.)

What is striking about Too Hot To Handle is that it is so tame, considering what we are dealing with. It is, from start to finish, a big tease. Make no mistake, the show has gathered a group of people who talk endlessly about their urges, show no modesty about their bodies (though the camera does), and make it clear that they are just fine having sex with strangers on TV.

So where is all this sex?

Don’t misunderstand. I am not feeling the need for a new form of porn or even soft-core porn on Netflix. That’s not my point.

I engage most entertainment with a desire for some connection to some kind of truth. As a critic, my first interest in that truth is how it fulfills the intentions of the creator of the content. Then, my personal judgement of that intention comes into the equation.

It is odd to me that Too Hot To Handle is tamer in offering the central theme of the show – sex – than Big Brother is on CBS and all its connected digital opportunities. People on Big Brother (in America, at least) are not encouraged to have sex, sometimes do, and invariably get caught… and the evidence, almost always under a comforter, is shown. Meanwhile, Too Hot To Handle charged the group $8000 for oral sex and all the audience got was a coy explanation from the couple. I am not asking Netflix to stream the sex act. But the claim that “It may have slipped into my mouth,” is one for the ages and there must be some footage and the fine editors on that show should have been able to create a lot of fun for the perv-ing audience, suggesting how things went down, so to speak.

Sometimes a banana is just a banana. And sometimes a TV show is just about people obsessed with themselves and their pleasure and the size and placement of that banana or that flower or whatever metaphor you like.

The Blue Mask Diaries: Episode Two – Some Good TV

Television is so much a part of this experience of being locked down… so I’ll skip to those adventures before getting back to movies.

Let’s start by paying tribute to FX. Devs. Better Things. And Mrs. America. This is some of the finest television of the decade.

For me, it’s Devs over Mr Robot. For many, it’s the other way around. But I ain’t gonna argue. Alex Garland is the closest thing we have to Kubrick. The pace can be glacial. He is not going to give you the easiest characters or easy answers. His answer may be something that requires you to marinate on for weeks, if not forever. He is fascinated by the mundane elements of life, but always is trying to figure out how they touch the face of God.

How do you review a show that, like shimmering interior of DEVS, changes a bit every episode. Looking back from the end, it seems that it was all inevitable. But watching from the start, there seem to be at least 4 different shows percolating. This both infuriating and exciting. Garland has a passion for super-dry performances and gooey moist romanticism. As a result, while Sonoya Mizuno is the lead of the show, it is Nick Offerman who truly embodies the two sides of Garland’s spiritual coin. Muzuno does well in the series, but it is Offerman’s eyes that speak volumes. In the last few episodes, Alison Pill also grows into the embodiment of that perfect emotional schizophrenia.

Pamela Adlon loves a good stunt. But what makes Better Things the best half hour on television in the last few years is what is true and raw.

Hulu seems to like to follow up the most recent episode of FX shows with the start of Better Things, Season 1, Episode 1. Watching that episode, it’s quite remarkable how the show has changed, season by season. The first season was very much a collaboration between Adlon and Louis CK. The pilot was directed by CK. Every episode of Season 1 features Adlon and CK as writers with just 2 episodes sharing credit with others (Cindy Chupak on Future Fever and Gina Fattore on Alarms).

After directing just 2 of the 10 Season One episodes, Adlon took over all the directing responsibilities in Season Two, still sharing writing duties exclusively with CK. Adlon’s directing skills were not as polished as the directors of Season One, but there was a fearlessness and intimacy that took the show to a higher level.

The New York Times story on Louis CK landed on the same day as the penultimate episode of Season Two first aired. A season that should have won award after award after award was muted by the situation and the space that Adlon understandably needed to process the public destruction of a work partnership that I first saw on a live stage in Hollywood as HBO was developing a series called Lucky Louis in 2005 or 2006. (She had one story credit on the series and wouldn’t get another until Louie in 2011.)

Season Three took a little longer to happen than before. FX moved it from a September launch to February. The season starts with, perhaps, the most famous single scene from Better Things… Sam (Adlon) in her closet, trying on clothes that she doesn’t quite fit in in anymore. Simple bra and panties and fearless visual self-examination. Episode Two also starts in her underwear (after she rips off her pants), dealing with (perhaps) menopause, then the first peak at Sam questioning her sexual boundaries, and what would become a recurring theme, a caring but caustic look at older people. Episode 4… unwanted sex dreams. Another big theme would be Sam’s similarly aged female friends at various stages in their relationships. Adlon also brings on writing staff and for the first time, even has episodes that she has no writing credit at all.

And this fourth season has had its own flavor again. Deepening. Deepening. Adlon opens the season with a dialogue-free three-minute sequence, just wandering around the house. The themes of the series continue. Broken relationships. The daughters finding out new things about themselves. More of the women dealing with life as they pass the halfway mark.

I think what I love so much about Adlon’s show is that I don’t know what is coming… but it always feels right… and it always leaves me thinking and feeling and wanting more. This is an exceptional thing in any of the arts.

Another COVID “discovery” was Marcella, a British cop show—of a sort. Anna Friel stars and she is roughly glamorous, and so broken. It’s not even clear what she does in the early moments of the first season. She is a mother. She is recently and painfully divorced. She is a mess.

And as it turns out, she is a top end murder police. The question of “whodunnit” flips on her, as a murder case turns out to be close to home and she, in her current state, has blackouts that mean she can’t trust herself in many ways.

The show airs on Netflix and I binged until I passed out.. then finished Season One in the morning. The cast is great. The twists are really unique. And it’s beautifully made.

Second season… not so much. The thing is, much of what is so special about the show is resolved in the first season. And honestly, I was done. I got four episodes into Season Two and lost interest. But man, that first season!

There is a fascinating and terribly important Frontline episode, which you should be able to bring up on the PBS app or elsewhere, on plastics and how the are being and not being recycled. Plastic Wars. I watched with my jar on the ground. Frontline is such a great show… and this episode blew me away.

I had bailed on Mr. Robot sometime towards the end of the second season. I just wasn’t interested in working that hard as an audience member. I know people LOVE the show. But on a too-tight content consumption schedule, it faded.

Then the final season came and all the superlatives that were flying in Season One were back. One friend in particular brought it up over and over and over again. So I leapt right into Season Four. And you know what… I liked this last season more (once I figured a few things out) that anything else I had seen from the show. I think it was because the actual premise was no longer a secret. And the stakes seemed so much more personal than I had felt watching the show before. It was great.

So if you are someone who fell of the Mr. Robot wagon, I encourage you to get back on there.

Shrill was one of those shows I never quite started with. Frankly, the design at Hulu keeps me from hanging around in and wandering around their content offerings. I am loving FX on Hulu, but it is always a challenged to get me to watch something for which I wasn’t already looking.

But the shutdown finally got me to start Shrill and I found it fascinating from start to finish. Aidy Bryant just falls right off the screen onto your couch. She is accessible and vulnerable and fun and dumb and brilliant. And her Annie Eaton on the show may be her in some ways and others not, but she can transfer that energy to her character and it is compelling in ways you never quite see coming.

It is the part of being open – or politically correct, if you like – that we seek to do “the right thing” for people whom we see as vulnerable, but never quite deal with the imposition of how we see those people. Nor do people find it easy to navigate the idea that people know what others see them as and sometimes they don’t feel it and sometimes they feel it deeply and the nature of both of those feelings is often misplaced, by the observer and by the object of the concern.

In many ways, Shrill is filled with the conventional. And then it just flips. and flips. And flips again. But it all makes sense. It just isn’t about nailing these characters – and not just the lead – down. Her parents! God, I loved Julia Sweeney and Daniel Stern as her parents. And Patti Harrison… holy crap… queen of playing the black notes only on the comedy keyboard.

I’m going to stop now. These review pieces have been sitting on the desktop for weeks and I’m trying to find my rhythm pushing it out. So for now, less is more… with more to come.

How Movie Windows Work

In light of the theoretical showdown between Universal Studios and the exhibition business and the many opinions thrown around, a simple guide to how the current exhibition/distribution relationship works, in the broadest terms, is called for.

Movie theaters are brick & mortar outlets for a small percentage of the content produced by major studios. Via their labels, the majors release around a hundred movies a year via theatrical. They produce thosuands of hours of television each year that are never intended for theatrical release.

Majors spend between $20 million and $60 million domestically to bring a new movie to market. A hundred times a year.

Movie theaters charge the same amount for every movie in each theater, regardless of the cost of production or marketing. Theaters pay distributors, on average, 50% – 55% of box-office gross. The exhibitor’s cut of the gross represents about 60% of the revenue for a movie theater. So while we talk about expensive concession prices, exhibitors cannot run their theaters on $9 popcorn alone.

Exhibitors expand the screen count within each theater to accommodate the expectations for each film… Both their own expectations and the distributor’s. The physical expansion that allows for accordioning was a result of exhibition bankruptcies in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Exhibitors consolidated, got out of bad real estate leases, and started to build new mutliplexes to replace poorly chopped-up multis that were made out of bigger theaters.

This rebuild – at the expense of exhibition – has allowed for bigger and bigger openings over time. Another element of this is a worldwide 2008 co-funded effort between exhibition and distribution to replace celluloid projectors with digital projectors.

The ability to have these huge opening weekends – we have had at least six $100 million domestic openings every year of the last five years – has also indulged the impulse of the distributors to shorten the theatrical window, as a larger and larger percentage of the revenue is being generated in the first three or four weekends. The more distributors can make in theatrical in a shorter window, the sooner they can get to post-theatrical revenues… and they hope, the less they have to spend to market those post-theatrical windows.

This urge to shorten windows is directly connected to the DVD sell-thru market that started in 1997. This accelerated when DVD revenues surpassed theatrical revenues, both in gross and net. Distributors started leaving millions and tens of millions in theatrical revenue on the table in order to get to their DVD window, often driven by quarterly financial reporting (as in, “Get Batman into sell-thru for the Christmas window after a June opening!” or “We took some big losses and need Star Trek‘s DVD sell-thru to make our winter quarter work!” ).

But that financial reality hasn’t been true in more than a decade. Still, the fantasy of getting past theatrical quickly and cheaply lives on in the heads of bean counters.

As cable, then satellite, and then the internet made video-on-demand more viable for a wider and wider audience, the dream of shortened or nonexistent windows returned. But the industry ran into the same problem. VOD wasn’t generating that much money. It might have been cheaper than a Blockbuster rental, but there weren’t big enough numbers to seriously threaten anything. And thus, the fantasy of “fight pricing” – at$35 – $50 a rental for each film, figuring that if three or four people watched, it was cheaper than going out – never became more than a mirage.

Meanwhile, along came Netflix, first disrupting the DVD sell-thru model, and then destroying the idea of fight pricing like Godzilla destroying Tokyo with their streaming subscription model.

Back at the Stable Relationship of Exhibition and Distribution, the rules are changing. Why?

Not because there is a problem with exhibition for distributors. Things haven’t changed much in the last decade, aside from exhibitors spending more money to improve and adjust theaters to current standards and audience expectations of seating and projection. Domestic theatrical went from $10.6 billion to $11.4 billion. The cost of a domestic movie ticket went from an average of $7.90 to $9.16.

Internationally, theatrical exhibition has boomed. In 2010, it was $21.2 billion. In 2019, it was $30.8 billion. That has been a big change, to the benefit of both exhibition and distribution.

Likewise, digital has boomed in the last decade. As DVDs have subsided, the digital market has grown, with MPAA citing Digital passing the overall gross for Theatrical for the first time this year since the DVD boom ended a decade ago, with almost $49 billion worldwide. But keep in mind, this figure is dominated by subscription streaming.

DEG puts the entire domestic single-sell digital market (VOD and rentals) at just $4.6 billion a year with the streaming subscription market at about 3x that. In 2019, that single-sell digital market was down 6% on the VOD side and up 5% in rentals from 2018.

Domestic Theatrical: $11 billion
International Theatrical: $30 billion
Domestic VOD/Rentals: $5 billion
Estimated International VOD/Rentals: $4 billion
Estimated Worldwide Subscription Streaming: $30 billion

VOD is a declining market in a rising digital world. So why are distributors so hot to bet on it?

VOD delivery companies (iTunes, Amazon, etc) have no more vested interest in selling or supporting movies than they do music or toilet paper. Unlike the exhibition industry, there is no investment on the part of consumer-facing digital distributors that connects them to distribution.

Movie Theaters exist almost exclusively as a distribution portal for movie distributors. That is their design. That is their purpose. They are a fruit stand in a world of big-box grocery stores. Those big boxes used to be cable and television. Now they are streamers. But the economies of scale remain the same.

If you own a fruit stand and one of your half-dozen primary distributors decides to stop distributing a certain kind of fruit, you need to fill the space at your store. If it was a popular kind of fruit, it will probably affect your bottom line. And if it was a whole category – say, citrus – it may affect you so much that your store is in danger of closing.

In the current market, keep in mind that Fox is all but gone and that will already reduce inventory by 10% – 15% a year. They may have mostly delivered boring old Red Delicious apples, but those things are still a staple product, no matter how many Neon Asian Pears or A24 Guavas With Teeth we are selling to the cool kids.

To stretch this analogy past sanity, when you find out that your distributor is cutting out the citrus to your fruit stand because they have a new customer closer to their warehouse and hope to save 10% on gas, even though that new customer is a new fruit stand in a neighborhood where others have been closing… It might piss you off. And you may decide that you don’t want to carry that distributor’s fruit salad, which you sell so well that you represent 20% of their worldwide fruit salad business… because all you wanted was the same citrus you have been selling for decades, which is part of what stabilizes your fruit stand revenues.

Yeah, you might be willing to open a fruit-salad-only store, but that would require that you sublease three-quarters of the store you have and the profits would be marginal and once you have shut down most of your old store, your distributor might well see that it has an advantage and squeeze you for more money per fruit salad, like Disney did. After all that, you’re out of business anyway.

Okay. Enough fruit. (But really, it’s accurate.) I don’t think Universal or Jeff Shell are evil. I don’t think they want to drive theaters out of business. I don’t think they want to sell just fruit salad. But while AMC and Regal and Cinemark aren’t mom-and-pop retailers, they spend a lot of money to maintain and operate a nearly single-revenue stream business. And Universal has decided, after a LOT of private talk, to try out something over their partners’ objections. They had a modest success with a single movie under one unique circumstance that encourages them to keep experimenting.

But only one side of this couple is satisfied. Exhibition and Distribution aren’t dating, they have been married for decades. For better or worse. For Pete Davidson or James Bond. And what either side of the relationship thinks is a sweet experiment may not be so good for the other side.

Reading about this disagreement, you would think that only one half of the couple matters… or in fact, that they aren’t really a proper couple. Distribution is sexy and powerful and rich and Exhibition is homely and needy and desperate?

But if you think that you aren’t doing the math. In business, no one cares who is sexy and who is homely… they care where the money is. Exhibition does desperately need the big hits to pay their leases. But you can’t find another math equation that leads to any movie getting to a gross net over $500 million with VOD as the primary revenue stream in anything but the most fluky of circumstances, much less an equation that will take over a dozen movies there each year (which we had last year).

The problem is that when you come back to the relationship and expect to get the parts of that relationship you love after “experimenting” in ways your partner finds degrading of the relationship, the problem is real. And it’s not always going to be rational. It isn’t all on one side, “failing” to accept the other’s choices.

If Noah Baumbach is writing it up, it will all work out in the end. Both sides will grow and learn and find their next love. But I tend to imagine it will end more like a David Simon script. A truce forced on both sides after a lot of filthy language has been uttered and gallons of blood are spilled.

Let’s hope HBO Max cancels this one before it gets to air.

Returning To The Church of Cinema: Part 1 – The Festivals

It’s April 23, 2020. New York seems to be over the COVID-19 hump. The, uh, president is encouraging “reopening” America while simultaneously hedging so that he won’t be blamed for encouraging this when people start dying in states that reopen too recklessly. The threat of a rekindling of the pandemic in America looms heavily over the fall and winter.

But for now, let’s discuss how we might get back to the movies.

First, we need to start being brutally honest with ourselves and each other.

Cannes is great. Venice is great. But outside of exciting a thin swath of film critics, writers, and industry types who go to Cannes every year, the loss of this festival does not affect the American cinema. Almost all of the festival films that are purchased for US distribution at Cannes go into the International category for Oscar and will not get a theatrical platform of any size in America until the following year. Most of the films that show in theaters and festivals in America in the fall of any given year go into the festival with a US distributor. There are exceptions. But not many.

Venice has even less impact on the US market, aside from as a marketing platform.

I love festivals. I love the communal experience of seeing movies, unencumbered by the predispositions that marketing and publicity create. I go out of my way not to know about the films I will see at any festival, aside from friendly recommendations and loglines in the festival guides.

There is an enormous rush of power in the moment when you are one of a very small group of people who have seen a movie play in a room and interested parties clamor for your insight (to embrace or toss aside). But this moment should not be the key to the future of any film. It has been. Especially at Cannes. But it should not be.

But that strikes at a key element of the festival universe: the marketing and publicity value to distributors. Festivals are often used as a launching pad as much as anything else. But the direct cause and effect — outside of New York City, where the Times and a couple other outlets with popular critics can key the success or failure of a small film — is negligible. Festivals are bait for press coverage. And that works for both sides (to the degree it works for either side). But marketing and successful publicity is still required for a small film to do over $1 million in theatrical or better on VOD. And for a wide-release movie, it’s all about marketing, no matter how well a film does at a festival.

So why are we anxious to get back to Telluride, Toronto and New York this September?

Because we love movies. Because of the rush of the new. Because losing the revenue from the festivals themselves for these organizations would be devastating financially.

But first… Do no harm.

My first major suggestion for the fall festivals hoping to have a footprint is to take the media out of the equation. At least, in person.

There is no major distributor without a secure streaming system of some kind. Take the entire media experience of these festivals to the web. Show the movies. Set up digital interviews. Set strict review embargo dates.

This is a huge opportunity for the distributors. They can expand the base of writers who see these films and to an increasing degree, control when they write about them. The good and the bad of a place like Telluride is that a few loud voices are going to define your film going into Toronto and even beyond. If you win those people over, you win. If you lose those people, you may never recover. Again, a power rush… but not one worth gambling on.

Toronto has a ton more film writers attending than Telluride. It is heavily a media festival for premieres. These festivals compete for premieres. That doesn’t have to change, either.

Distributors could set up the same system for media that it already has. If your film premieres at Telluride, only allow writers who have passes for the festival see and write about the film in that window. Then, widen the audience for Toronto and get that second wave.

The point is, the media element that launches award season can be controlled and, surprisingly, improved for the distribution side.

The next step is the festival itself. And here is the thing… this is the most fragile element of any notion of having a fall festival. Putting people in rooms together.

The weather in Telluride is late summer/early fall, with temperatures that swing between 45 and 85 degrees over a weekend… usually with rain. The altitude is high. People have trouble breathing as it is. I have no idea whether this is a problem with COVID-19, but I do know that people who issues breathing have a bigger problem with the virus. Where is that line?

Toronto tends to be warmer, rarely dipping below 60 at night or getting warmer than 85 during the festival.

Telluride is a festival mostly of visitors to the glorious mountain town. Toronto is a festival with the vast majority of tickets purchased by locals with a large contingent of people coming in from out of town as press or industry. But they are very different challenges.

Toronto seats somewhere between 25,000 and 35,000 people in theaters each day at the festival. Telluride has fewer than 3000 attendees in total. So I see very different plans for both festivals.

Here is the benefit for both of these festivals, as opposed to the shuttered SXSW and Cannes: Neither is a sales festival. There are some titles and that might have to change. But while the idea of a South By film looking for distribution accepting a position in the online film festival being co-sponsored by Amazon, the stakes are very different at Tell&Tiff.

Also, the idea of making festival films available openly to non-fest participants is a non-starter for either of these situations.

For Telluride, I would start with the assumption that 20% of the pass buyers are not showing up this year, no matter how much of an all-clear sign is given. It could easily be more. Young people come to the festival, but the majority of attendees are over 50.

Then I would take the four-day long festival and cut it into two three-day festivals. They already got approval for an extra day. But what is needed is to cut the thing in half and let people decide which identical half they want to attend… First come, first served.

Things need to be a bit more aggressive on the cleaning side. But the volunteers — another issue — are amazing at the festival. Cut the crowd in half and everything will feel safer. Movies already screen multiple times to allow everyone to see them over the weekend. Great. The biggest house is the Werner Herzog Theater with 650 seats. Now 325 seats.

Take your temperature. Wear your mask. If you have a serious cough, stay in your rental. If you are sneezing moistly, stay in your rental.

Reconsider the “Q” system, encouraging people to get their Q early and to come back to enter the theater in time-specific groups. We are all in this together.

How much would it cost to set up a wellness center to support responsible participation? Probably nothing. I can’t imagine that some insurer or healthcare company wouldn’t jump for the chance to reach high-end customers.

When I first started going to Telluride, there was a local cable channel that became the Telluride Channel for the weekend of the fest. It would offer additional programming relevant to the festival. There was also a cable channel for TIFF back when. If you want to do the events that they now do in the park, with four or five filmmakers and a moderator discussing the issues of the moment, great… do it however you choose, Zoom, Skype, whatever, and post it to the web so festivalgoers can get access live (maybe) and post to YouTube so the entire world can engage the conversations. Welcome to 2020.

Again, I would consider leaving the media out of the equation. Distributor preferences would have to be discussed with festivals. But another 100 – 150 people off the top, with a plan to give the entire group access to the films in play, could not hurt.

There are, of course, a hundred details I am not working through. Julie Huntsinger and Tom Luddy are very smart and have smart people with whom they can work this out. But this is the core of my suggestion… expand the dates, reduce the crowds, control the media. And sorry… lose the reusable water bottles.

But the thing about Telluride is that it is really about the cinema as church. No one is going to be upset because there are no tributes for a year. Or no celebrities. And of course, people can be brought to the theater via the internet… which has been done a number of times at Telluride just because someone could not make it to the mountain.

There is the possibility that a fresh outbreak could happen in the weeks before the festival and the whole thing would have to be stopped. But if that is not the case, there could be a Telluride that is not what we have been used to for so many years, but which remains faithful to the ideal. A win for all who love film.

But if that is the case, there could be a virtual version of the festival as simple and complex as putting the 30 films or so on a secure server that passholders would be able to access for three or four days, not unlike the way things are set-up with The Academy. Unlike The Academy, Telluride could force the issue in terms of platform. (Many Academy voters didn’t partake of the Academy streaming access because they didn’t have the Apple TV hardware or more specifically, the current generation of Apple TV. If you can pay all that money for a pass to Telluride, $150 for an Apple TV is not asking too much.) If the festival has to be cancelled on the mountain, have it on your TV. There would be many people making noise about this being impossible, but Telluride’s audience is less than a third as large as the Academy membership. It’s doable. Would everyone rather it be on a screen in the glory of Telluride? Hell, yes. But… COVID.

The Toronto International Film Festival is very different. At least 100,000 people going to see over 150 feature films.

The challenge, by comparison, is mammoth.

I would start by eliminating the press element without regard to what eventually plays in the physical theaters. Or coming from a different angle, setting up a complete TIFF Press Event online without press screenings or junkets of any kinds at the festival.

This would assure distributors that the publicity and marketing goals of the festival would still be achieved, no matter what happens in the real world of Toronto.

The next step is to deal with the Industry section. And there is a very good chance that this could just be cancelled. The whole point is to engage other people face-to-face. Festival as convention. If industry people need to see movies, they should be able to get access from the distributors.

But if you rethink the Press and eliminate the Industry, you’re down to locals and maybe the greatest festival for locals in the world. And that is a giant effort that is well beyond my pay grade. How scores of thousands of Toronto residents and the management of the festival feel about all of this is not something I can project upon reasonably.

But what I suggest, perhaps for both festivals, is to keep the public element intact. Media will be even more focused. Seeing more films would be possible. And all the complications of moving talent and titles around a city would be reduced.

It would be a massive piece of work for all the publicists at all the distributors. But they are killing themselves at these festivals already.

And coming out of these festivals, the product of these festivals that distributors use for a week, a month or the whole award season, would be intact. And the future for these films would still, most likely, be a roll of the dice… but not at the festivals. That, they could control and use as they always do.

And if these festivals end up shutting down in total? The distributors are brought up short and there is no clear opportunity to progress.

Finally, The New York Film Festival, which has traditionally been a festival of festivals, heavily invested in bringing Cannes debuts to America, but with premieres in recent years.

New York has the most interesting opportunity of the group because Cannes isn’t happening and New York can work with Cannes and Venice to bring a lot of that product that may be less commercial and less about award season to New York and America.

I am less comfortable about New York gathering to watch movies in the cathedral than in either of the two other cities. Who knows? But they have another advantage in that they can wait to see where Tell&TIFF settle and decide whether to act in a similar or dissimilar way.

There is also a significant variable in that these are, generally, arthouse films… and that means a different kind of distribution. There could be a radical version of NYFF in which the festival takes place in sync with a VOD availability for the films being played – or not being played – in New York.

If there is a single theme in my thinking, it is to make radical choices. We are in a moment, of being shut in while having a level of technology that was not been available before now, in which it is not only possible to change the experience of these events significantly for this one year, but is, in fact, necessary.

The least successful answer in all cases is for nature to take an ugly course and to leave no footprint for these festivals and the films that intend to use them to the fullest. You can’t ostrich your way out of it. You can’t bravado your way out of it.

If these festivals take difficult action to manage one area of this likely problem, they will be on their way to having building blocks for the rest of their events.

And what does this mean to The Academy Awards? It positions the films in a similar, if not improved way to the norm. And the details of qualifications should be adjusted as needed… not immediately… but in the light of time. The Academy should not be the first to act. That is the cart before the horse.

Let’s keep that cart safe and clean. And next year, hopefully, we will have a vaccine and we will all be so excited to go back to the wonderful traditions of all of these festivals.

The Blue Mask Diaries: Episode One

I’ve been in lockdown pretty much since March 9, when I returned from the great and glorious True/False Doc Fest. Thirty-seven days. It’s not really that much, but it feels like forever at times.

But when I am on the couch/chair/bed watching something great, time stops and the world is my oyster.

There has been a lot of expected viewing. News, news, news. Junk I like on Bravo as an alternative to electroshock therapy. Binging and waiting for weekly episodes.

My favorite part of this the freeform connection between films that has appeared so often during lockdown.

I went from Once Upon A Time … in Hollywood to Once Upon A Time in America to searching for other Tuesday Weld performances to a long-lost film that I loved as a kid in 1980 called Serial, in which Ms. Weld co-starred with the great Martin Mull and a load of familiar TV faces, because the director was an old-school TV guy named Bill Persky.

Set in late-70s Marin County, where swing was the thing, the film was based on a “novel” by Cyra McFadden that was bound like a school notebook, as I found out years later when I got a copy at a used book store. (Sigh… used book stores.)

The movie, which I paid $12.99 to own, was much as I remembered it. Beautiful people acting stupid in the way I remember friends of my parents acting in Miami Beach in that decade. Sally Kellerman swinging her breasts, Bill Macy as the put-upon middle-aged man, the woman from “Hogan’s Heroes” and another from “Dynasty” and Jerry The Dentist from “Bob Newhart” and Tom Smothers and Peter Horton and even the recently in-the-news Stacey Nelkin as the big-breasted 18-year-old sleeping with Bill Macy who doesn’t look like Woody Allen, but works as a cultural stand-in for the moment.

The film is flawed in many ways. The script and the acting are too often TV glib, even though the atmosphere is highly sexualized… including a turn by the rarely-in-a-comedy Christopher Lee, playing the leader of a biker gang, with then-unexpected tastes. But it was also smart and funny and horribly current on some level. A not very deep rewrite could easily turn this into a thoughtfully funny and raunchy Seth Rogen movie.

But one of the things I remember from the swinging 70s and some of the 80s is the comfortable use of sex in movies. It’s gone. And yes, women were certainly the object of objectification, but if Tom Cruise and Kevin Costner were being honest, they would tell you that their asses were a big part of their appeal in the 80s.

Another movie from that period that was very sexually casual and which I came back to was California Dreaming, a John D. Hancock piece of almost-arty pulp starring Dennis Christopher in the same year as Breaking Away as well as indie legend Seymour Cassel. But most importantly, and the person who guided me back to the film, Glynnis O’Connor, who became a topic of dinner discussion because of “The Boy In The Plastic Bubble.” When this movie came on HBO in 1980 (I was 15 or 16), there was that sweet teenage girl from “Bubble” as well as Ode To Billy Joe and Baby Blue Marine casually dropping her bikini top.

But the film was more than an ingenue being naked on camera. It still fits into that pervy teen movie thing that was at its start and would be resurrected by American Pie in 1999. There was the notion of there being something, uh, European about the whole thing… until Porky’s and The Last American Virgin took over. Remember, La Cage Aux Folles was an arthouse sensation in 1978 and back then, it was sexually edgy. Herzog’s Nosferatu the Vampyre was also in arthouse theaters, showing a Dracula with a much more realistic bite, leading Hollywood’s Warren Beatty from Julie Christie to Isabelle Adjani.

Oh my GOD, I need to find Camille Claudel with Adjani, a movie that moved me to my core. But I digress… which is kinda the point…

The Hunger. Tony Scott’s first feature-length film. What fun watching that one again. Tony is dead. Bowie is dead. Those women. Power and sex. Deneuve at 40, a goddess and a bad-ass. The whole experience is like eating the richest piece of cake ever, covered with drunken whipped cream, with a popper on the side.

This one was Criterion Channel’s fault. It was siting there like your favorite piece of candy, ever, when you are trying so hard to diet. It took me a moment to realize/remember that it was the great Ann Magnuson giving her all in those first seduction and blood scenes.

(Watch Making Mr. Right, which has one of the great comedy performances — as I remember it — ever by Laurie Metcalf, a goofy, sexy turn by Glenne Headly, The Great Magnuson (a downtown legend who got a brief mainstream window), and of course, Malkovich, in one of his first truly goofy performances, as both an uptight nerd and the perfect robot man. A lot of people hated the movie back in the day. But I loved it so much more than Suddenly Seeking Susan, which was the movie that got Susan Seidelman the opportunity, before she crashed with Cookie and She-Devil. ALlthough that reminds me… the BBC version of The Lives & Loves of A She Devil is prime binge viewing with a stunning lead performance by Julie T. Wallace. I so hate the idea of anyone watching any of these things on YouTube. I may have a UK DVD of She-Devil in the garage. Making Mr. Right is an Orion title, so I don’t know when it will turn back up, aside from an overpriced DVD on Amazon.)

Getting further sidetracked before returning to The Hunger, another movie I love, Louis Malle’s 1992 Damage, with Jeremy Irons as its amazing center and Miranda Richardson giving what should have been an Oscar-winning turn as his wife… plus Juliette Binoche as the object of agonized desire and a glorious spin by the then-60-year-old Leslie Caron as her mother. I bought the film digitally on Apple or Amazon and… agony. It looked like a VHS conversion instead of even being made from a print or negative. And it was in the old TV square format. Such a beautiful, subtle piece of cinematography by Peter Biziou, who was between 9 1/2 Weeks and Mississippi Burning on one side of this film and Loncraine/McKellan’s Richard III and The Truman Show on the other. Why Criterion has not done its magic on this one, I don’t know.

The Hunger took me right back to the 8th Street Playhouse where I saw it as an NYU student, young and juiced enough that I could imagine such an adventure, but never nearly hip enough for that room. And all these years later, it is amusing as hell to notice John Pankow and Willem Dafoe as “1st and 2nd Phone Booth Youths.”

And I love watching the lines of clear progression between this film, which is so unique in so many ways amongst Scott’s sixteen feature films, and the world that was to come. Tony Scott was in his late 30s making this first feature, seven years younger than his brother Ridley and six years behind Ridley’s first feature, The Duellists (and Alien and Blade Runner). His films would define the 80s — for better or worse — while Ridley stumbled until Thelma & Louise in 1991.

I could take a bite out of The Hunger… Ten-to-fifteen minutes on a pretty regular basis. I don’t need every frame. I don’t need Cliff DeYoung, who was really kneed in the balls by the rest of that cast and young Mr. Scott. He never had a chance. And Bowie… going after Alice, played by young Beth Ehlers. Amazing.

Another note: Take time to watch Merry Christmas, Mr Lawrence all the way through. I think I watched that film like five times in a couple weeks at one point. It was like meditating.

Criterion Channel — yes, I know that many cannot get it in their countries — remains a joy. I had never seriously watched The Bad & The Beautiful until a few months ago on Criterion. And then I got to watch Two Weeks In Another Town, which was a much better Vincent Minnelli behind-the-curtain movie for me. TB&TB is a classic idea of Hollywood power corrupting. The Two Weeks story feels so much more like the Hollywood I know… mental breakdowns, once-greats hanging on, dumb-asses on sets, the distractions that should be easier to see past… dirtier… messier.

I also realized that I had never closely watched Contempt, although it has been at every revival house. Did I write about By The Sea without watching the unofficial original?

Loved It! Of course I did. Loved Fritz Lang in the film and Jack Palance, who was so out of his depth and so not. I’ve never really been a Godard guy. He’s not as smart as he thinks and I’m not as dumb as he thinks. But I am happy to bunk in with most of his 1960s and 1970s films.

And now, my family has driven my train of thought into a tree. So until the next episode…

Fact-Based VOD Updates

As we head toward the premiere of Trolls World Tour tomorrow, a wholly different experiment than the rest of the adjustments that have been made to the VOD window in the last month, let’s get some idea of where we are.

The number of titles that have been released in the change-of-plan direct-to-paid-streaming or window-shrinking paid-streaming is almost exhausted unless more are added. Blumhouse’s Fantasy Island lands next Tuesday and that is pretty much that for films that had theatrical runs. (That movie got 4 four full weekends at the box office and was pretty much played out by the March 1 box office cliff.) There is a wave of December titles that would be coming out now regardless of the virus and there hasn’t been a significant change in the pricing or timing on those.

The most dramatic experiment, until tomorrow, the Rental-Only class, which has been Comcast with one film from Lionsgate. None of these titles are currently in the iTunes Top 30 Revenue Producers, while six catalog titles are in that 30, including a package of the 10 pre-JJ Star Trek movies, The Patriot, and Cast Away, all of which are on deep discount.

The Invisible Man, $20 Rental Only 3/20
The Hunt, $20 Rental Only 3/20
Emma, $20 Rental Only 3/20
I Still Believe, $20 Rental Only 3/27
Never Rarely Sometimes Always, $20 Rental Only 4/3

I would love to know the numbers for these releases, but they can’t be very good, in this context.

Second, the group of films with oddball pricing. There are four titles with cheaper Own prices and one title with a one-dollar premium on rental pricing.

The Fittest Sale 3/24 ($12.99), Rental
The Gentlemen Sale Only ($15) 3/24, Rental 4/14
Dolittle Sale Only 3/24, Rental 4/7 ($5.99)
Downhill, Sale Only 3/27 ($9.99), Rental 4/10
The Call of the Wild, Sale Only 3/27 ($14.99), Rental 4/10

Dolittle is the #3 revenue producer on iTunes today, primed by new rental money… Although it has been Top 10 for most of its release. The Fittest, at this lower price, was a Top 10 title on release as an iTunes exclusive and is now off the Top 30. The other two are not Top 30 today.

The third group of titles are those with sped-up dating, but with traditional VOD pricing and rental schedules. Sale Only is $19.99. Rental is either currently or advertised at $4.99 or could vary for still unreleased for rental titles.

1917 Sale Only 3/10, Rental 3/24
Onward Sale Only 3/24, Rental 4/3
Birds of Prey Sale Only 3/24, Rental 4/7
The Way Back Sale Only 3/24, Rental 4/14
Bad Boys For Life, Sale Only 3/24, Rental 4/21
Bloodshot Sale Only 3/24, Rental moved up from “June” to May 5
Sonic, Sale Only 3/31, Rental 4/28

So, 1917 wasn’t off schedule by much when it was released. The film grossed $156 million by March 1 (10 weeks in theatrical) and the virus probably cost it $5-$10 million in domestic. More internationally.

As you can see throughout this list, March 20/24 was the moment when the VOD dating dam broke.

Birds of Prey and Onward, which added Rental revenue this week, Bad Boys For Life, and Sonic (newer, in its second week of availability), are Top 10. The Way Back and Bloodshot had some success charting in their first week.

There is no “evolution.” There is no wave of significant change. There are studios trying things under stressful circumstances. Some will work. Some will fail. But so far, not a single thing has happened that suggests that this changes anything in terms of the traditional windows of theatrical release, no matter how many people dream of it.

“Are We There Yet?”

Today, we are two-and-half months from the first death from COVID-19 in Wuhan. And things are beginning to start up again in Wuhan and across China.

The first death in America from this virus was on February 29, in Washington state. California: March 4. New York: March 14.

The arc will vary, but two-and-half months means May 15 – June 1 and, one hopes, the first sense of normalcy should return to these hot spots. Another month of finding our feet, and July 1 seems like a reasonable guess at when we can go to a restaurant and maybe see a movie in a theater.

Thing is, America is a big country. And most of the country is just getting their invitations to this horrible, horrible party. Easter is 18 days away and the rotten eggs won’t take that long to be found. Easter seems to be a likeley target date to expect the first deaths in much of the country and for the U.S. toll to blow past the 5,000 mark. (We will be lucky if it’s that low in 18 days… it could easily be double that if New York or L.A. or San Francisco hospitals are overwhelmed.)

That would put much of the country at a July 1 first break date and an August 1 start of relative normalcy.

In the meanwhile, anything that speeds up the process, from any part of the globe, is incredibly welcome. Anything the preening peacock Donald Trump does that helps… incredibly welcome. I am relatively safe and comfortable. But people are dying. People sick with other things will not get the attention they need. Women are giving birth alone in hospitals, scared to death that, no matter how careful, they or their child will be infected. Businesses are closing. Employees who can’t afford to pay for home delivery and tip others are anxious and already eating less than they should. Schools are working to stay connected to the kids, but it is hard. Rents and mortgages are due for many in less than a week as the last paychecks to be expected for a while go out almost as quickly as they come in.

But what about show business?

Even the Chicken Littles are tired. After all, how many times can the sky fall in a month?

Early VOD efforts at increased pricing—$20 for a rental—started last Friday and the fantasy that this could be the New Normal seems dead after just one weekend. (Sky Up!) A lot more on this later in the column.

Exhibition pled its case to Congress to get a carve-out in the $2 trillion stimulus. (They appear to have succeeded.) The dynamic of the future of theater owners is somewhat different now than it might have been 30 years ago with all the consolidation. But no one really wants to see a large percentage of theaters go under, including the landlords and loaning banks. Like so much of the business world, the balance is delicate and not all on the side of the people who have the power to say, “no.” If they say “no” too much, then the people they answer to start saying “no” as well.

The ongoing flaw in the Death of Theatrical argument is that millions love going out to the movies. And those people spend more per person than movies can generate in any other delivery system.

Period.

I often wonder whether media has come to deny this $30+ billion in annual revenue as significant because we, in the media, have become so obsessed with clicks that we now value quantity over quality almost exclusively. If it was argued through, copper would be better than gold, rhinestones better than diamonds, and endlessly rewritten content from the rare journalists who actually do the legwork would be valued over… well… journalism.

The television and streaming business will start having trouble come the fall, not so much this summer. That is when content flow will dry up. As others noted, there is an opportunity to clear out the crap. But expect a fresh wave of game-show reboots and reality shows to have an oversized footprint in September through Thanksgiving, maybe until 2021.

The biggest question in the industry right now is whether HBO Max and Peacock will launch in the midst of this. Theoretically, they can move forward. But like a show about to open on Broadway, there is a lot of shaking down to do once you get into the theater and start selling tickets.

Under these very unique circumstances, both HBO Max and Peacock should launch for free for everyone for their first three months. Simple as that. Limit content to some degree. Don’t launch originals, or instead launch very selectively. But open the gates. No credit card. No period leading to the moment you get charged for a month and forever more. No games. If you can get the app, you can get the content. Just sign up and watch. Until America is feeling like America again and you have created goodwill with 50 million households.

And when the three months is over—say August 1—offer an aarray of ways to join. Meanwhile, they would have harvested a load of intel about who watches what and why they love or don’t love the service.

Thing is, no one wants another hand in their pocket as the well threatens to run dry. The first 10 million customers won’t care. They are still paying for AOL dial-up every month and have no idea. But the next 50 million are paying a lot of attention. Some are cord-cutters. Some are not. But there is one thing that makes everyone happy… free.

What’s scary about this strategy is that Amazon has over 100 million Prime members in America and fewer than 20% use Prime Video, which one of the subscription’s benefits. But both Peacock and HBO Max have more marketable bait than Amazon Prime, even with “Maisel” and “Hunters” and “Boys.”

But we are all locked down with the TV. Something fresh, even if it’s only a well-remembered library, wlll be embraced. Especially for free.

The company with the most to benefit is, yes, Netflix. People aren’t going to cancel their subs, even if finding something you want to watch after spending 40 hours on the app in a recent week will get harder and harder. But better, this is a way for Netflix to not spend a couple billion on production without anyone pointing fingers. And that is the smartest thing the company could do right now. If anyone is in line for a budget haircut, it’s Netflix. This is great cover.

Another potential winner in this situation is… taa-dah… industry unions. The pressure on WGA to figure it all out is off the table, as no one is allowed to sit any anyone else’s table. The SAG/AFTRA contact comes up on June 30. This is the perfect opportunity for the two unions that have a desperate need to re-set the storyline with The Man to sync things up. Of course, the industry-friendly SAG leadership team would have to be willing to get into the fight in a real way. And while the opportunity to make that happen is kind of thrilling, the likelihood of the SAG majority showing any grit on this is kind of depressing.

Over at The Academy, I expect that Dawn Hudson, bolstered by a new contract through at least May 2023, as well as a raise in the face of many failures, will remain reactive instead of proactive and screw things up even further.

Oh, it’s going to be a sick-making day when the HPFA takes a step ahead of AMPAS in the legitimacy of its methods and practices. But all this ruckus about significant changes in the face of Coronavirus goes right up there with the “Popular Oscar.” Why does The Academy Board of Governors insist on appearing to be a bunch of out-of-touch old people who are so desperate for their grandkids to watch the show that they are willing to pay them for their attention?

These are really smart, savvy people. The only rule that should remotely be considered is a one-year abeyance of the rule about screening before being shown on post-theatrical media before qualifying theatrically. And that variation should end six weeks after theaters open up widely again.

As for the 2021 show, I suggest that they spend the next two months begging certain people to produce. (But they spent six months this year begging certain people to produce to no avail.) The problem is growing because it used to just be a time suck. Now. having your name on the show makes you a target. I believe that serious discussions about how to change the whole process should happen, and not just stunts to get someone through their next CEO contract.

The studios have other things to worry about beyond their movies. Disney has a giant problem with Parks. That is their Achilles heel. Big time. Comcast and AT&T have to protect their cable and satellite businesses… although I believe people are change-averse in moments of extreme tension. Paramount and Sony are in wheel-spinning mode, as they too often have been this last few years.

There will be another side to this. Human nature will not be transformed. Selling people stuff isn’t going to become a unique new effort.

But lockdown is a weird sensation. I was traveling a lot around 9/11. Domestic and international. And it is nothing compared to this. There were fears and odd looks and limited availability of lots of things. The feeling after 9/11 will be more like the fear next fall about a recurring wave, still pre-cure. But this… months shut in… good and bad… messes with the mind. About this, the president/fool is correct. But his response to it is childlike and not adult, much less like a leader.

We aren’t close. But let’s not throw people out of the boat now for fear of running out of food next week. We’ll get there. As. my mother used to say, “It’s an experience!”

And now… a more detailed analysis of this past weekend on the VOD side.

We don’t know the actual numbers behind the iTunes or Fandango Top Ten lists. Suffice it to say that the gross numbers are less than you are led to believe. Perspective is offered in that The Gentlemen, The Fittest, and Dolittle are all in the top 8 on iTunes.

But even in the broader picture, here is the point… the only $20 to rent only title to make the Top 10 was… nothing. The Invisible Man (a terrific film, see it!) was the highest ranking film at #13. None of the other $20 to rent titles made the Top 20. And that #13 showing was with the film coming in as the #1 and #2 box office movie in weeks past and as the most headlined title in media story after media story after media story.

I don’t know if Universal will be shy about it, but the financially sound choice would be to flip it over to $20 to buy and $6 to rent this Friday. I would even consider converting the rental buyers from last week to owners. Because this experiment just didn’t work. Disappointment all around, but in the big picture, it would be have the best financial upside for the studio. (I would also plan for a funky theatrical re-release on 200- 500 screens when things open up again… “See the movie that Coronavirus didn’t want you to see with an audience!”)

What was working on iTunes last weekend? $20 to buy. Nothing too unusual. Onward was #1, sale only, coming out early, though 1917, which has been out for sale only for 2 weeks, added rental on Tuesday (3/24) and pushed past Onward immediately. Birds of Prey is the current #3, coming to digital early, offering a $20 sale price only (rental on April 7, delayed from March 24, according to Vulture). #4 is Bloodshot, sale only, no rental until June. Closing out the Top 5 is The Gentlemen, which set a lower sale price at $15 with no rental until April 14.

I’m not suggesting there were not benefits to opening early for these films. But most of those benefits can be attributed to the theatrical marketing campaigns that had either been going for a while or were in the heat of pre-release. But the goal is not to be #1 on iTunes… the goal is to make the most money with your product. (My chop-up of the iTunes Top 20 is at the bottom of this piece.)

Warner Bros. has one of the experimentally dated releases now in digital, The Way Back. It’s #10. $20 for sale. Rental scheduled for May. It’s one of those titles that was not ever going to be a theatrical high flyer, unless it was an awards title, which the studio chose against months ago. I don’t know if the film sold 50,000 units ($1m) or 100,000 or 250,000. But I can read the tea leaves and estimate that it didn’t do much more in digital than it would have in the normal window model.

Whatever my tea leaves say, after one weekend of that experiment, the question of whether Wonder Woman 1984 would try to go direct-to-streaming was answered. “NO!”

I welcome the April 10 release of Trolls World Tour direct-to-digital, in some part because I expect it to confirm the flaw in the thinking in another segment of this discussion. If I were advising Universal for money, I would be begging them to take the one win that is really left for this movie, which is to become a hero to movie exhibitors and kill the digital release. I don’t think they need to be responding to threats by the National Association of Theater Owners. The movie was borderline before, is borderline now, and it will be borderline if they delay and wait for a theatrical release. But they have a chance to really change the story and make the future for theatrical – which they are dependent on – a bit brighter.

That leaves the third tier of day-n-date waiting for a brave sucke… uh, soul to try it out. A big, wide release movie going straight to paid streaming. And for everyone trying to make this a one-size-fits-all, Paramount selling off a movie they didn’t know how to market to Netflix. That ain’t a paradigm shift. That’s as old as the hills. (Anyone want to discuss Slumdog Millionaire?)

It will make my friends in exhibition crazy, but BRING IT ON!!! How I want to be in those numbers, when day-n-date comes marching in!

It used to be the thing that was going to far to compare someone to Hitler. And now, as he prepares to smother thousands of New Yorkers in their hospital beds, calling someone “Trump-like” is a nasty thing. But man, the people who really, really, really want to be right about The Future are very Trumplike. No matter how the facts are stacked and restacked in front of them, they insist that things must change because… well, people have been making these arguments for decades.

You know what? If the world is really ending, great. Let’s all go Wall-E and survive as best we can.

Here is a rundown of the value proposition amongst todays iTunes Top 20 today (3/26):

$20 to buy
Onward
Birds of Prey
Bloodshot
Dolittle
The Way Back
Star Wars 9
$20 to buy, $6 to rent
1917
Jumanji 2
Knives Out
Just Mercy
Spies in Disguise
Ford v Ferrari
$20 to rent
The Invisible Man

$15 to buy
The Gentlemen
$15 to buy, $6 to rent
Bombshell
Uncut Gems
$13 to buy, $5 to rent
The Fittest
$10 to buy, $6 to rent
Midway
$10 to buy, $4 to rent
Contagion
Charlie’s Angels

Elisabeth Moss, Her Smell

A Quiet Place, John Krasinski

The Shape of Water, Guillermo del Toro

A Little ******* Perspective, Please

You know how you were 12 and the entire world was going to notice that zit on your nose and never see you as anything but a troll forever and ever?

That is the spirit that the authors of most of the coverage of Hollywood’s COVID-19 problem are embracing.

I mean… yes, the entire world could end and we could all end up in oxygenated cubbies with skin as pale as our genetics allow, eating highly nutritious meals out of vacuum-packed packages like toddlers. It could happen!

And every major exhibitor could be forced to declare bankruptcy… for the first time since the early 1990s… which is when the multiplex as we now know it took hold, because those exhibitors got out of leases through bankruptcies and rebuilt theaters with a lot more screens with big screens and fewer seats with better sound. How tragic!

For the record, movie theaters have gone through two further paradigm shifts, with digital projection and then enhanced seating pushing the ball uphill, not to mention the emergence of IMAX and the coming, and mostly going of 3D.

For movie journalists, the world is forever on the edge of high drama, because as the old joke goes, the stakes are so low.

And the stakes aren’t low for the people who make their living in whatever area of the industry at whatever time they are under attack. I don’t want to take the suffering that may/likely-will occur lightly. But… perspective.

Disney is the king of the theatrical jungle. Well, last year. But undisputed champs. $11.1 billion in revenue, including $4.7 billion in theatrical rentals on nearly $13 million in worldwide grosses.

So Disney has the most to lose in this COVID-19 drama, right? Probably so. Still, The Parks generated $26 billion in revenue last year. The company’s cable networks generated $16.5 billion. And ABC added another $8.3 billion.

Disney Parks have the very real possibility of losing billions, if not more than $10 billion during this. One month of revenue, even an off-month like March-into-April, is probably $2 billion.

Cable and ABC may actually increase earnings over this period, as there is no other game in town for advertisers, although obviously, the overall amounts being spent will surely be lower, especially for retailers. So maybe breakeven. Maybe a small loss.

Which brings us to the Movie division, which is facing a disruption, at minimum, of four rescheduled movies (Mulan, Black Widow, Artemis Fowl, Soul) which cost about $850 million to produce, would cost about $700 million to market worldwide, and were expected to generate more than $3 billion at the box office between them. At that low end box office estimate, the four films would break even in theatrical and generate profits in all post-theatrical revenue streams, plus ancillaries, plus having great pre-established value, eventually, on the streaming platform.

So of course, the obvious response would be, “Uh… just throw them on the app!” (Did that sound like a brain-damaged Cro-Magnon? It was meant to.)

Let’s do the simplest math. How many subscriptions would Disney+ have to sell to make up for the production cost alone, staying signed up for six months for these four titles? That would be about 18 million.

As far as I can tell, Netflix has never added more than 16 million subscribers in any two quarters… and they are selling to almost every country in the world.

Let’s move on to the “Put them on Pay-per-View” argument. Not a new one. Universal is trying it with Trolls World Tour. But do you know that no film has ever grossed as much as $50 million in PPV/VOD? Not one. And this has been a format for over a decade… and VOD has has a multiple week head-start on DVDs for years now. And yet… no.

But there are people who believe that Trolls World Tour – four years and a bunch of Netflix content since the modestly successful original film – will just casually triple that figure. And how about this comp? Angry Birds surprised a lot of people with a $108 million domestic gross. Three years later, the sequel did $42 million.

Of course, not all the VOD money comes back to the studio either. I’m just being petty.

And magic could happen. Teb million people could pay $20 million for Trolls World Tour and Universal would gross $200 million without spending nearly as much on marketing as with a theatrical release. Nothing close to that has happened in the history of films and streaming. The biggest boxing match in PPV history had five million sign-ups. Only three have ever had more than two million sign-ups. But maybe I am holding up the future with my Luddite ways.

But here, my friends and foes, is something closer to reality. Universal did the math. The cost of holding the DWA movie and doing a theatrical at a later date was probably a loser, with whatever hopes of profit being pretty iffy in either situation. So, they have a brand name—however low-end—and a moment in history, so why not take the chance? Eat shit now or eat shit later. Maybe they make magic. The two bets seem, even from the outside, pretty similar. If they lose $20 million or $50 million… well, who cares? Filmed Entertainment was a $6.5 billion segment of a $34 billion revenue company. $50 million a 1/10 of one percent of Comcast’s revenues last year.

And like Disney, Comcast has a bigger fish frying… their cable division that produces $11.5 billion a year, which is under assault from streaming. They will probably be safer for this period thanks to COVID-19. People are not anxious to change things up when they are under pressure. It is possible that this notion is flipped on its head, especially if we are still stuck in our homes in July. But for now, no one is out installing or uninstalling anything in your house real soon.

The truth is, I am looking forward to hearing the numbers on this VOD effort. The $20 price point is significant. The fantasy of “fight pricing” is completely over. The hope is that “just a little bit more than the cost of a movie ticket in a big city or two tickets in smaller cities/towns” will make people forget the are spending $20 for an iffy sequel while they are also paying $10 or $8 a month for tens of thousands of hours of family entertainment. And people with money to burn will do it. And I may buy The Invisible Man for my wife to watch without reminding her how absurd paying $20 to watch TV is. But I suspect that buyers will be on the margins. And there is no better way to find out than to test it. This is a test. And whatever the results, there will be an answer. Not playing theatrical is highly unlikely to be that answer…. like 10,000:1 against.

I don’t want to beat this to death. I suspect that I will be beating it some more very soon. But, the premise that this is some kind of opportunity for studios to hop off the theatrical window train is nonsensical. It makes sense if you believe in your heart that they all want to get rid of theatrical and were just waiting for the opportunity.

But for all the talk-talk-talk-talk-talk of studio execs and agents for, literally, decades, about saving the cost of marketing (anyone who talks about P&A like prints are a major part of that budget line for a wide release film anymore cannot be trusted) and going direct to consumer, it has never made economic sense.

The problem is not, as people will tell you, that getting people to spend a large amount of money—compared to home entertainment—to go out to movies that are no longer quite the way we remember them from the 1970s and 1980s is too hard and too expensive. But it is hard. And it is expensive. And it is unpredictable. But it is unpredictable in the positive and the negative direction.

The film industry with a theatrical window, a Home Entertainment window, and a permanent streaming window is one business. Creating content for streaming into your home is another. The financials are very different. And the consumer target is completely different. If you can’t see the difference, you shouldn’t be writing articles about it, confusing an easily confused nation of content lovers.

Individual sales of content died as a primary revenue stream about three years ago. Dead. There are still hundreds of millions of dollars in that business. Last year, there was over a billion. Sixteen years ago, $30 – $50 billion.

The Theatrical Window world and the Streaming world are not interchangeable because the math is not interchangeable. Just isn’t. No more than broadcast TV and theatrical… or streaming, for that matter. But media has a very bad habit of not thinking it out. It’s all just another two hours of entertainment to most.

I had a similar conversation about Sundance and other big fests and the streamers. If Amazon or Netflix is spending $6 million an hour for a TV series, why does anyone thing they would flinch with a $12 million bill for a two-hour indie movie? (The question of how long their model of TV episodes at $6 million a pop will last is another discussion.)

Bottom line is that hundreds of millions in produced movies being delayed is not going to close any of the major studios. Not even close. And it certainly isn’t going to make them change their theatrical model. Universal. the studio experimenting with Trolls World Tour, is also the studio that moved one movie eight months and another 13 months to find clear worldwide theatrical windows. But it’s f-ing Trolls that defines the future of theatrical? Are you nuts?

These studios are part of giant companies. None of them want to lose money. Disney is the most vulnerable because of the parks, which will lose a lot of money that will never be recovered. Mulan and Black Widow, with due respect to those who are going to make life-changing amounts of money from those films, are not only a financial blip on the Disney radar, they are troubles with a very good excuse. But Disney doesn’t want an excuse. They want MONEY. And so, they will wait.

But deadlines don’t wait. So media feels compelled to stir up hysteria. Some even believe this horseshit. But only because they refuse to open their eyes. It isn’t a huge challenge to figure out this math.

Is there a day in the future when there will be no movie theaters as we know them now? Maybe. Possibly. But most likely, only at the end of the cycle of original content that costs what is seen as—at whatever moment—a lot of money. When every movie is shot on an iPhone or some tool that is similarly inexpensive, the lines will blur. When the studio business is primarily spending, say, $50 million to release a $10 million movie, the lines might blur. But until then, Universal (and Warners) are making a freaking fortune doing theatricals of Jason Blum movies with budgets under $20 million… a fortune that doesn’t exist in VOD or streaming.

And here is the kick… after studios make money on a release, they have a post-theatrical piece of content that has much more value than a piece of new content almost ever will. To wit, would you rather have Get Out exclusively to sell your streaming service or 20 hours of Jordan Peele’s The Twilight Zone?

It is possible that COVID-19 is the end of the movie world. Or the theatrical world. Or whatever fantasy your local ink-stained wretch is selling.

But we are nowhere close to that being even a real discussion. Not even close.