Leadership, true leadership, is a very rare thing. Extolled in art and in literature it is so rare that it is something to be celebrated and to be cherished. If you look for leadership within our society it will soon become apparent that it is more than scarce. Leadership in today’s society withers under the harsh light of modern media and in the face of manipulative and self-serving press. Under today’s pressures and under the constant scrutiny leadership has drifted into the realm of the callow and the sociopathic.
The words conformity and security in many ways have become very dangerous to the growth of our society as a whole
The business of motion picture exhibition is no exception to this trend. Leading this industry is far more challenging than herding cats. We have two organizations who represent the interest of the business of motion picture exhibition, NATO and the ICA. NATO is pulled in many directions and is tasked to lobby and to provide analysis and trending of the current state of affairs within exhibition. NATO is often forced into that bear pit that is lobbying, often having to compete with the likes of Jack Valenti and Chris Dodd. The MPAA or now the MPA has the clout and the bank account to hire legislative ninjas who have the pedigree and the favors hanging out of their back pockets in order to achieve the will of their masters. Often the job of a skilled lobbyist is to sow deep confusion in the heart of the Congress and the Senate so that it becomes so confusing that the legislators move on to the next pressing issue.
Any organization whose mandate is lobbying is placing itself on a hamster wheel. It becomes a process, and in today’s world process often dilutes intent. That is what has happened with NATO. They are some very nice well intentioned people, but as an organization, they probably are unable to transcend the nature of this organization they have constructed.
With the removal of the Paramount degree and the Sherman act of 1890, there are only two laws that have within them the ability to wade into the murky waters of antitrust. What is left is the Federal Trade Commission Act, and the Clayton Antitrust Act. I am not a lawyer and have no aspirations to be a lawyer, but I and others have felt for a very long time that some of the studios actions wade into the waters of antitrust. What I find exceptionally galling is that when concepts are advanced regarding the formation of collective booking groups to advance deeper industry control on the part of the independents, I hear the siren call coming from the exhibitor’s own industry advocates trotting out the anti-trust boogie man. It’s an attempt to shut down innovation.
I think it is time for the independents to stop focusing on the current industry associations and look to forming a group which is dedicated to finding economic solutions to meet the needs of the independent theater owner. New times demand a new solution and frankly a newer voice.
I am going to seem wacky for a second, but I am drilling down on a point. I am going to attempt to explain why independent exhibitors should start thinking about working under a co-operative structure when it comes to studio relations, general programming, and technology purchases. It’s time the independents truly took charge of their own destiny by any means necessary.
Ocean Spray, the cranberry people, is really Ocean Spray Cooperative made up initially of growers from Wisconsin, Washington, and Oregon. Formed in 1930 by three innovative cranberry producers, they are currently made up of a membership of 700 growers. This cooperative is member owned, the profit is equally split amongst its members. It’s not socialism, it’s free enterprise folks. Ocean Spray became the first producer of cranberry juice drinks and cranberry jelly. As farmer-owners, the members are returned 100% of the profits from products made from their fruit.
A cooperative is defined as an autonomous association of persons united voluntarily to meet their common economic, social and cultural needs and aspirations through a jointly owned and democratically controlled enterprise.
Here are some other examples of cooperatives;
A membership cooperative of more than 6,000 citrus growers in California and Arizona. It’s the largest fresh fruit shipper in the U.S., and one of the largest land-owners in California.
True Value Hardware
A retailer-owned cooperative with more than 5,000 member-store-owners. Each hardware store is independently owned and operated. True Value members are supplied by 12 wholesale distribution centers around the country.
A dairy co-operative made up of 1,200 family-owned dairy-farms in the Northeast.
A Minnesota agricultural dairy cooperative made up of 1,000 cooperative dairy farms and about 3,200 independent producers. It’s one of the largest producers of butter and cheese in the U.S.
One of the largest hotel chains in the world, and it’s a co-operative (well, a “nonprofit membership organization”) of more than 4,000 independently owned and operated hotels in 100 countries.
There is precedent for the independent to form a cooperative. It is time. There is also the need to ignore the counsel of staid industry organizations whose sole focus is not members but the perpetuation of their own existence.
Now the established cooperative that I feel can provide inspiration for independent theater owners is the National Cable Television Cooperative. It was founded 37 year ago by the 12 members of the Mid-America Cable Association on the premise that rate savings could be achieved by aggregating their cable subscribers. Today the NCTC membership consists of over 700 independent cable and broadband companies that connect and negotiate with various programming networks, set pricing, and work with technology companies to provide the power of collective buying. The NCTC acts in the best interest of its members, creating programs to reduce costs, implement emerging technologies, gain access to programming content and to introduce new revenue generating opportunities or products as well as facilitating knowledge and experience sharing among its members and suppliers.
I was at one time a member of this organization and it works well, especially in regards to collective bargain programming rates. Quite intelligently in 2003 the NCTC asked for an opinion letter from the Department of Justice and received a response that firmly stated that with the model that the NCTC put forward did not concern the department in regards to the issues of antitrust. The key issue behind their comfort was the voluntary nature of the purchasing program for both technology and for programming and the NCTC was exceedingly thoughtful of how all membership agreements were structured to avoid a lack of compliance with Antitrust laws.
I strongly believe it is time that a new form of organization arises to service the needs of motion picture theaters. It is time for thoughtful action. It is a time for theaters to become masters of their own destiny. The most important relationship a theater should have is with their customers. The focus should not be the organization that is supposed to support the lobbying effort, you need an organization in the truest sense of the word that serves the popcorn interests.
This is not a new idea, people have seen the need to band together to properly set forward a set of actions that solves deep common problems. It began with the Grange Movement in Minnesota starting in 1867 then expanding to over 800,000 members. It was formed to battle the monopolistic powers of the grain brokers. This cooperative actually gave the Government awareness of the need to put in place antitrust legislation.
On Thursday of last week I was asked to present American Graffiti to an audience. 110 people showed up and I had a blast. What was amazing was to see the honest and passionate transactions between theater owner and movie goer. There was a genuine transaction. It was refreshing and brought back the truth in moviegoing. It is time for theaters to abandon the swamp of Washington bureaucracy and become grass roots again.
I am going to the fridge now to pour myself a glass of that Ocean Spray Cranberry Cocktail and maybe grab a piece of that Cabot Sharp Cheddar.