Independence Day: Independent Theatres Should Think Independently

First they ignore you, then they laugh at you,

then they fight you, then you win.

Mahatma Gandhi

You are the foundation of the art form and the business known as motion pictures. Independent Theatres emerged at the same time as did the art form we now call motion pictures. Movies and independent movie theatres worked hand in hand for decades. There was an economic ecosystem and it worked well. Each respected each other and each knew the need of the other to make a reasonable profit.

This changed; the relationship became predatory and unreasonable. The studios began to serve their new masters; the cable and digital content aggregators. Competitors in the formal of digital content companies like Amazon and Netflix began a war with the studios and the global conflict called the streaming wars commenced in early 2017. The studios moved their attention away from the movie theatres gradually to the point where the theatres are at most a secondary thoughts and are considered a secondary markets in the eyes of the majors now. The independent theatre, beaten and bloody, lies strewn across the field of battle as the studios gird themselves for the coming battle with Netflix. In the meantime the Federal government, in full knowledge of the Sherman Act and relevant combines laws, are driving the get away car. I have said it before and will say it again, former Senator Chris Dodd is a brilliant man. The Sherman Anti-Trust Act was the first Federal act that outlawed monopolistic business practices. The Sherman Antitrust Act of 1890 was the first measure passed by the U.S. Congress to prohibit trusts. The studios and their master know they are in full violation, but know that they have full immunity in the eyes of all governments since the Clinton administration.

Coupled with the battering done by studios and the ignorance of government, the larger theatre chains are currying favor with the studios by gutting their industry peers. It is a horrible time and a horrible set of circumstances.

It is times like theses when voices arise shouting that something must be done, and if the supposed authorities do not have the political will to do the right thing, then matters must be taken into one’s own hands or simply admit defeat.

I, for one, am not that quick to give up on movies or movie theatres.

It is time to rise up, present alternatives, and present a line of action to evoke change and to initiate an economy where the independent theatre can prosper. I am suggesting the following actions might help in order to re-define and re-establish the independent theatre:

Promote an independent ratings systems, the present ratings system is a method of control established by the major studios. The system is voluntary. Each independent movie producer is forced to pay on average $2,000 to have their movie rated. These funds are partially used to fund the lobbying efforts of the MPAA also known as the major studios. The MPAA is not your friend. It is a monster that should not be fed. The exercise here is to stop letting the studios define you, define yourself. The goal is not to be petulant, but to be truly independent.
Create alliances with the Independent Film and Television Alliance. This is an alliance of 1200 producers who are consistently making product that does not have access to the theatre and would love to have their movies shown on the big screens. Often these producers believe the lie that the only way for theatrical exposure is to work with the studios. Start a program, their president Jean Pruitt would love to chat with you.

Advocate the fact that the VPF in its inception and creation was a tool to control access to the movie screen. Because that VPF integrators and the studios are clever folks They have structured the VPF in a way that has stymied the growth of digital distribution and a wider product distribution. Publish a list of independent theatres that are not stymied by the VPF regime in order to promote the distribution of a more diverse range of products. When VPF loosen their grasp on your theatre, you can begin to take part in a more vital and more diverse movie economy. An economy which opens itself to a wider range of arts, independent and ethnic programming. There has been a blockade against independent production….it has to stop.

Work together, work with film bookers, and think of re-establishing within the offices of the large bookers, a re-invention of the old film exchange systems. A centralization of PR material and DCP masters which allow release schedules to be altered to the needs of the theatre. Theatres begin to determine the release schedule by integrating bookers into this equation. They have infrastructure and deep capabilities which are currently not being used. There is little reason that producers of independent movies should not pay bookers for their more than valuable services.

Look for Deluxe to remove itself from the business of physical distribution. Alternative providers line DCU and ECM should be consulted to develop infrastructures to meet the needs of the independent producer and the independent theatres. Investigate delivery formats other that the DCI spec. To many independent producers this level of complexity and security is redundant.

Experiment with repertory and event models which draw from models created by folks like the Historic Artcraft Theatres, The Belcourt, and The NuArt. By doing your scheduling well in advance along with solid community engagement will provide your screens a base of a steady audience. Do not book any library title for anymore that 35% of the box office or a $250 flat.

Develop and expand currently co-operative business models like the Cinema Buying Group, look at printing programs with groups like Fineline Printing…who do low cost poster printing. The bottom line is that theatres should think independently but buy as a major chain.
Just as the studios have rejected the need of the movie theatres, it is time that the movie theatres reject the impositions placed on it by the studios. They are not your friends, they are controlled by folks who see a premium in your demise. Refuse to do business by their rules, define your own. There are plenty of resources out there to help you towards that goals. My goal is not to diminish the movie studios, just to insist that movie theatres get treated as business equals.

Whether movie theatre lives or dies is based on one thing, your willingness to break the model and begin to define yourself and your business. Remember no one can really hurt you if you don’t give them permission to do so. Your actions will define your priorities.