I’ve been spending the last few days recovering from and catching up after my trip out to California for SCMS, so I haven’t been able to follow some of the recent debates about new directions in film distribution as closely as I would have liked. So consider this pot to be a quick recap and reflection on some of the conversations that are taking place. These notes tend to ramble somewhat, and there isn’t really a thesis here, just an attempt to make sense of some of the ongoing discussions that have been taking place in recent weeks.
First, I think that David Poland is on target in his reading of the debate over Alice in Wonderland as a case study for narrowing the theatrical distribution window. A number of people, including Patrick Goldstein, have made the case that Alice’s impressive box office haul is proof that the three-month window will not significantly affect theatrical attendance, with one studio executive smugly concluding, “Case closed.” Although I remain agnostic on whether the three-month window will matter, Poland is certainly correct to point out that a single example (of a film that is riding the very top of the 3-D wave, no less) is not sufficient evidence to make a decision about how audiences might respond to shorter windows. Poland is also attentive to the fact that shortened windows will likely do little to affect DVD sales, which is where the industry seems to be struggling most right now.
Poland also has an engaging critique of some similar comments from Edward Jay Epstein in an interview with The Wrap, whose most recent book, The Hollywood Economist is sitting on my nightstand now. Like Poland, I find Epstein authoritative and exasperating, often in the space of a single sentence. I’ll have more to say about the book later, which I’ve often found to be recycling relatively ancient conventional wisdom–anyone who follows the entertainment industry closely knows that for movie theaters, popcorn is where the profits are. Poland is rightfully skeptical regarding the potential for digital home delivery to replace DVD revenues (global DVD sales are projected to decline by 12% in 2010), leading him to conclude: “where they lose me is the leap to the idea that at some tipping point, consumers will be willing to pay premium prices for convenient, but inferior delivery systems.” This is a point I’ve been thinking about quite a bit as I look ahead to my next project, the idea that people will be willing to pay for fast and hypermobile. As Poland infers, most movie consumers are casual fans, a fact that often gets underestimated in fan studies and, perhaps, in some industry analyses. Many movie consumers likely look at the choices in their Redbox kiosk, conclude that the new Sandra Bullock movie looks good, and grab it. There are certainly fans breathlessly awaiting the new Harry Potter or Twilight movie, but there is also a less visible audience that isn’t in any particular rush to see something, especially if it means paying a premium for that content.
More recently, Goldstein has reported that a number of exhibitors, including some AMC theaters in New York and Boston, have made plans to increase ticket prices for 3-D films by as much as 25%. It’s not easy to guess that moviegoers’ patience will wear thin quickly if they are expected to pay such high premiums for 3-D, especially when the novelty surrounding this generation of 3-D, what Goldstein refers to as the “shock and awe phase” of 3-D, begins to wear thin, and 3-D no longer seems like an “event,” but a normal part of theatrical exhibition. Even if James Cameron can argue that technological innovation can “reinvigorate” cinema entertainment in the face of a variety of digital threats, including piracy, individual innovations, such as 3-D (or even this bizarrely fascinating update on interactive cinema through the use of cell phones), won’t always seem like new experiences.
On the other end of the spectrum, we continue to see new modes of experimentation that seem to be shaping the distribution of independent and do-it-yourself (DIY) films. Tribeca has joined Sundance and South by Southwest in making some of its films available on video-on-demand and in other formats, extending even further the idea of the film festival as distributor. Similarly, Anne Thompson reports that Franny Armstrong and the team behind the self-distributed climate change documentary, The Age of Stupid (my review), have gotten behind a new film distribution platform called Good Screenings that assists people in organizing what the Guardian film blog calls “public screenings of low-budget social justice films.” Similarly, Jon Reiss has posted video of his “Copenhagen Manifesto,” in which he calls for a further integration of art and commerce, arguing that the challenge for today’s DIY filmmaker is not a problem of distribution, given all of the freely available channels, but one of marketing, of making your film known in an increasingly crowded marketplace.
Again, no over-arching conclusions here, just an attempt to illustrate the volatility of current practices at both ends of the film distribution spectrum.