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October 28 at 9:52am

The Next 100 Years Are Safe! Exhibition Is Not Under Threat From Netflix

By Ted Hope

by Russ Collins

Why Theatrical?

1)     Aesthetic mandate – for the film to have its full impact or be fully appreciated it must be perfectly presented on a BIG screen in a beautiful darkened room full of strangers full of artistic anticipation and cultural curiosity – the ART demands it. It is also why we go hear live music concerts, live stage and dance performances at theaters and actual paintings, sculptures and other visual art works in museums and galleries and have real art, not reproductions, hanging in our own homes.  Art authenticity is a virtue!

2)     Marketing godsend – reasonable success in theatrical exhibition is the most reliable (but not absolutely necessary) way for a movie to achieve success in all other release platforms. Increasing your odds of  maximizing profits is a good thing!

3)     Fulfilling the primordial Campfire Desire – fulfilling the human urge to experience a story in community, in the dark; stories masterfully told by flickering light. Carl Jung and Joseph Campbell would have loved this reason!


Ted Sarandos of Netflix suggested theater owners are strangling innovation. Please know he may be is talking about large corporate theater owners, he is certainly not talking about the Indie theater owners. Frequently pundits like Sarandos promote a general assumption that theatrical exhibition is somehow out-of-step and needs to be reinvented. Although this has been a constant drum beat in the film business for decades, I don’t think it is true or that it is particularly supported by data.  If theatrical exhibition needs to be reinvented it is very old news which was actually needed way back in the 1950s when television took the theatrical exhibition market from 4 billion admissions annually to 1 billion admission annually.  In response to this 75% decline in business, theatrical exhibition was indeed reinvented in the 1960s and 1970s. What happened was the demise of single screen theaters and the rise of multiplex cinema.  However, in regards to independent exhibition, it has been rather consistent since the beginning of theatrical exhibition in the 19-teens. There has always been and continues to be independent exhibitors who operate along-side the corporate commercial exhibitors – some are successful and many struggle – another consisted fact of independent exhibition.

So please know that I believe the basic dynamics of theatrical exhibition is not in want of reinvention, but rather has been a variation on the same four themes since the 1970s.  Those four themes are:

  • 1) Multiple screen theaters carry the bulk of the business;
  • 2) Dynamic new video/digital/online technologies are expected by pundits to soon kill or radically change theatrical exhibition (but they never do – in fact since the mid-1960s, new movie watching technologies have not significantly altered theatrical attendance);
  • 3) Independent theaters struggle against the monopolistic business practices of corporate exhibition and distribution;
  • 4) Two lies are so frequently repeated about theatrical exhibition business that they are assumed to be true: ONE – Theatrical exhibition will soon be killed by new technological advances and more personal ways to see films; TWO – All the profit in theatrical exhibition come from the sale of concessions.

However, I also believe that responding to change is essential for any business to remain viable. Every business needs to remain fresh and innovative in its approach to business, because change is the only constant in the universe.  So, people who run theatrical exhibition businesses must be creative and open to change and opportunity as they run their businesses.  Change being constant means every business is in a constant state or being reimaged and/or reinvented, however, I don’t think that was the intended theme of this panel. I expect it was the tired old notion that new technologies will significantly impair or change the core nature of theatrical exhibition.

Theatrical exhibition is still a great way for a film to establish a market. Stories told in the space of about two hours are still relevant. Independent theatrical exhibition is built on “curators” (gate keepers) and the “wisdom of crowds” seated in a darken room full of strangers.  This is a proven and highly effective way to discover the brightest, most relevant and/or best of contemporary cinema.  It is not the only way for a film or film artists to find a market, however, it still a good and effective way – and maybe, just maybe, THE most effective way for movies to find a lasting place in markets and in human history.  Time will tell, but that is why theatrical exhibition survived the killing onslaught of television in the 1940s and 1950s and why no other home/private viewing technology or distribution dynamic has significantly effected theatrical exhibition.  Television (programs specially made for viewing at home and/or on an electronic device not at a theater) is a different but related market and market dynamic.  Today, it is the home television – network/cable/streaming/etc. – where there real reinvention is happening in terms of media arts markets and storytelling. Will Netflix rule?  Will television networks survive? Will cable television be relevant twenty years from now?  Who knows?? However, what I know for sure is that twenty years from now – one hundred years from now – there will be passionate and struggling independent theatrical exhibitors out there in cities large and small showing movies by classic, great and up and coming filmmakers to cinephiles in their community in uncountable places throughout the world.

Russ Collins is the CEO of MichiganTheater in AnnArbor, the Director of the Art House Convergence, and the Founder of Cinetopia Festival.

This is reprinted with Russ’ kind permission.  It originally appeared as an email to the Art House Convergence group.

Note: You can read Ted Sarandos speech here.  And reports on it from Variety and Screen International. John Fithian  of NATO and Deadline responded to it here.

And you can watch Ted Sarandos’ speech here: 

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