Looking For Something New: Pondering A Theatrical Netflix

As the Streaming Wars ramp themselves up, it is becoming evident that in this increasingly crowded field consumers might be left out in the cold. Services like Netflix and Amazon are quickly beginning to see that consumers are not that crazy about all this new short form series that are being offered them, but do like series that had previous play on traditional television. Consumers like the on-demand dexterity of Netflix and Amazon, but like the old stuff. As an aside I think this also applies to retro movies.

This is good news for theater owners as it indicated a need for nostalgia, a need for the traditional. It is becoming obvious that cracks are beginning to show in the streaming juggernaut.

About five years ago, a couple of seasoned theater professionals and myself were at a mutual friends house for dinner. These professionals also happen to be good and respected friends, Gina DiSanto and Bruce Taffet. We were at Rick Ferrell’s, house an established real estate developer. We had all just finished an amazing dinner prepared by the so talented, Emily Ferrell. If you know Bruce and I, put us two characters into a room and deep conversation quickly erupts. That night, some very passionate movie people and the guy who worked on some of the biggest movie complexes in Manhattan started pondering where the movie exhibition industry was going. As we all were all sitting around kibbitzing we collectively came up with the idea of an industrial Netflix. At first we were all intrigued with the concept and Bruce being an energetic thinker, started drilling down on the mechanics for such a concept.

What if theaters owners for a flat fee per month could have access to say five hundred movies which they could program Sunday to Thursday on an ongoing basis. Make the cost low enough so you could start building audiences. If you had enough variety of movies, would it work? We considered what kind of mix would gain some market traction. Ethnic, retro/classic, alternative and music were the first genres that came to mind. If these genres were programmed into various day slots so someone could start fitting a night at the movies into their increasingly busy schedule.

There was something in this idea, something that would turn the threat of streaming into a chance to infuse theater with diversity and choice.

Then discussion led to the price point that would make this make sense for the movie theater. Collectively we went back and forth on this one. Gina being conservative by nature and a passionate advocate for independent theaters brought up the point that it had to be reasonable and it had to have a measure of flexibility. Gina suggested a baseline of $60 per night and always a fair businesswoman, also commented that if the movie took off then the producers should share in the benefit.

In 1994 I was involved in the initial streaming trials in Churchill County Nevada, The Dominican Republic, Chile, and Mexico. In 1999 I launched a streaming service for deployment with a real estate investment trusts who owned massive amount of apartments. I quickly realized the frailty of technology and the supremacy of marketing. I think the current plans for OTT rollout is making grave errors, especially the lack of the inclusion of the theatrical dynamic.

We all knew something was there and something dynamic could evolve . A few had tried it, Emerging Pictures, Specticast and right now My Cinema. But the issue is that they never really supported the marketing aspect of distribution and entered the market with some solid offerings but did not providing themselves enough content to present a continuity play. I ran this idea by Buck Kolkmeyer, a veteran of the independent theater game, and a passionate and committed man as well. He thought it would work but felt whether it would fly or not would be dependent on ease of use and a decent marketing plan.

Buck is in the trenches and I often count on him to give me a down to earth pragmatic view on theaters from the independent perspective. He told me that all of these services had high ideals going into the market but had little concept how theaters worked and what they needed. He said all of these services went into a theater with a set top box, the set box was cumbersome and awkward to use and the theater owners quickly grew frustrated. He also added that other than a poster and some weak social media advertising none of these service providers offered a compelling marketing program.

One of the real inovators in this business, who has now sadly passed was Joe Chabot. Joe was involved with a small circuit in Michigan. He was an independents independent. Joe, a very clever man said that any form of alternative programming was going to have a tough time of it unless you did the following, take a grouping of three movies and run them for 3 weeks. One week a movies plays at the 9:30 slot, the next week the matinee and the following week the 7:00 slot. That would deeply increase the word of mouth on a movie and this would naturally increase the box office. Joe proved that it worked.

Bruce, Gina DiSanto, and myself sought out a network vendor who claimed that he had a product set that would work. We arranged to do a test at Bruce and Gina’s Philadelphia Theater. We got the equipment and installed it on one of the theaters DCI projectors. The front page came up, showed us the movie offerings and then nothing. We worked for days trying to get this set top box to provide a clean and steady stream for the projectors. Nothing worked, we came to the conclusion that the fellow who made these representations did not know what he was doing. We were more than disappointed . We soon discovered that projection booths across America had thousands of set top boxes that did not work from various service providers.

I am still haunted by the potential of this idea. There are “distributors” who are still making the same mistakes we did five years ago. A quote which I really like states “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” . Money is still being thrown at this way of distribution with little thought to technology impediments and marketing. The business knows what they are doing is wrong but do not have enough vested in them to really care about helping them to correct their thinking.

Due to the rise of cloud gaming and the better management of video packets, this idea I believe can be launched without many of the issues facing the current purveyors of alternative cinema. Technologies which can provide much more programming that just movies. I think an constant stream of alternative programming into the theaters could result in increased screen utilization and increased revenue

What I am really hoping is this sort of idea could be advanced under the management of a group of independent movie theater professionals. These people know the market, know the challenges and and if they wish can will into being a new day for alternative cinema.

We need something and we need something soon.