Sunday, August 19, 2012

Movie Theaters' Struggle Mirrors Indie Film Struggle

Just as indie filmmakers are struggling to survive, movie theaters are having a tough time too. Especially the theaters that can't afford to upgrade to digital projection, which comes with a pretty hefty price tag of over $100k. Ouch! That's like starting a new business entirely.

And I can only assume that there are a number of theaters that struggle to break even each month, much less have an extra $100k to $200k lying around for upgrading.

I had an insider's look into the world of theaters this year when I had to plan a small theatrical (due to having no money to pay for someone else to do it) - indie guerrilla distributing at its best. I had no clue what I was doing and just called hundreds of theaters begging. It's amazing what you can do if you just do it.

We played a number of theaters and actually made some cash to help us get over the hump until our revenue could come from our digital distribution. It's not a lot of revenue (let's not get crazy) but when you have a small film, a little goes a long way.

Anyway, I was surprised at how many theaters I called who still couldn't handle digital projection. Granted I didn't have a fancy, shmancy (and expensive) DCP or Digital Cinema Projection, but some of the theaters couldn't even project my poor-man's DCP - the Blu-ray. So when I read this week that certain theaters were facing extinction due to digital projection, flashbacks to the demise of the drive-in theater entered my mind as well as the eternal struggle of the indie filmmaker.

In my lifetime, I have witnessed the demise of the drive-in theaters - which to this day hurts - and witnessed the launch of movie rentals, starting on Beta tapes that we rented from Highland Appliance (a whole city away), then VHS, then DVD, and now Blu-ray and the internet.

While it's all very exciting, it also leaves a lot of hard-working people in its wake. People who made a living in the old world and now have to figure out where they fit in the new world.

My heart bleeds for those theaters who can't survive. It brings to mind the tiny theater I used to go to almost every night when we vacationed on Lake Huron when I was a kid. It was the one touch of reality during the lazy days near the lake shore. Or the $1 theater near my hometown, where I saw Top Gun for the first time and about twenty more times after that.

These small theaters are likely hanging on by a thread now. Just as indie filmmakers are. A new technology emerges and theaters can't afford to embrace the new technology and they fold. For indie filmmakers, a new technology emerges and we struggle to figure out how to monetize our work with it - often with lots of failed attempts.

No one wants the theaters to go away. Just like no one wants to see indie film go away. But it's a reality we struggle with daily. We are all working toward a fix. Toward the day in which an independent filmmaker will be a viable career choice. And a day that theaters and the digital world can work together to help make a film profitable for everyone. That will be a day to rejoice!

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