They Just Don't Get It

May 31, 2011
A thought by James Berardinelli

I thought it was about time to write a new blog entry, given that it has been more than a month since my last one. The joys of fatherhood and keeping up with an increasingly less-inspired batch of new theatrical releases... At some point, I may even get around to reviewing The Greatest Show on Earth - not that I'm overly excited about that chore. The Greatest Show is universally derided as one of the three least-deserving Best Picture winners. Cecil B. Demille got this as a "lifetime achievement award."

I have been attending "regular" screenings more frequently this year than in the past, in large part because many advance press screenings occur on Monday and Wednesday mornings or on weekday afternoons (all times when I am unavailable). Many of the reviews posted on Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays are the result of my plunking down $10 like everyone else and sitting through a regular showing. I have a number of thoughts.

Recently, there has been a hue and cry by theater owners about plans by some studios to shrink the so-called "window" between theatrical release and pay-per-view to one month for "select" (non-tent pole) movies. Several of the big chains, like AMC and Regal, have declared that they will not play any title with such a short theater-to-home period. Luminaries like James Cameron have pounded their pulpits in support of this. Sorry, but I'm not about to join them. First, a little history.

Once upon a time - back in the '80s, that is - movies arrived on VHS roughly 6-8 months after their theatrical runs. (They showed up on HBO/Cinemax/Showtime after a 12-month wait - so big summer movies in theaters were big summer movies on HBO, only one year later.) Such titles were "priced to rent," meaning they could be purchased to own, but they would cost about $80. If you really loved a movie, you could own a VHS copy on the day it was released, but it was very expensive. (I paid the "price to rent" only twice - for Star Trek IV and A Fish Called Wanda.) Roughly a year later, the cost was reduced to a more reasonable "priced to sell" tag of $15-30. That's when it started showing up in mall chain video stores (Suncoast).

In 1987, for example, the life cycle of a movie looked something like this: Theatrical release -> Add six months for expensive VHS release -> Add six months for HBO/cable release -> Add six months for inexpensive VHS -> Add six months for network TV broadcast (high-profile films only). Obviously, things have changed since then. Now, the average window between theatrical release and the DVD/Blu-Ray/download home video release is 3-4 months. No more waiting 18 months for an affordable copy to be available - today's market would not support that. Piracy, already a problem, would be much worse.

Several indie distributors - particularly IFC and Magnolia - have pioneered the "day-and-date" philosophy whereby a movie is released theatrically and on pay-per-view at roughly the same time. Most theaters will not play these movies, but the Landmark chain will. Those art house venues are owned by Mark Cuban, who also owns Magnolia. Anecdotal evidence indicates that the box office for these movies is not being hurt. Nevertheless, theater owners are deeply skeptical of this model.

However, the problem isn't the "window," it's the fact that theaters aren't providing a compelling reason for people to leave their homes and venture out to a multiplex. I freely admit that if I could see everything at home, that's what I would do. Even the best theaters, influenced by budget cuts and staff limits, are at best adequate places to see movies. Most multiplexes don't have trained projectionists on duty - God help audiences if there's a problem with a digital projector. At the recent press screening for Thor, we sat and waited for 75 minutes only to be told that the hard drive was "corrupted" and the movie couldn't be shown.

The quality of the theatrical experience is lacking. Movie houses used to have three big factors in their favor: screen size, superior sound, and the "shared" experience of enjoying something with a couple hundred strangers. Over the years, screens have gotten smaller - fake IMAX screens, widely touted as state-of-the-art, are smaller than the "regular" screens in the old 2000-seat houses. At the same time, home theater screens have gotten much bigger. Now, it's not a question of seeing something on a 70-foot theater screen instead of an 18" TV. It's a choice between going out and seeing a movie on a 20-30 foot screen or staying home and seeing it at 5-10 feet. When one considers that the brightness and color are typically better calibrated and regulated in a home setup than in a multiplex, it becomes difficult to champion the movie theater visual aspect. Likewise, home video sound systems have become so sophisticated that they typically equal, and sometimes exceed, their theatrical counterparts.

So the only thing left in a theater's favor is the "shared experience." When one considers how rude and inconsiderate many patrons are, it's game, set, and match for staying home. And I haven't even discussed things like convenience and refreshment quality/price. Theater owners are rightfully scared by the danger posed by a one-month "window." They have so degraded what it once meant to "go to the movies" that nothing short of a huge cash outlay (for monster screens, brighter projectors, properly calibrated sound systems, an experienced projectionist, and one friendly usher per auditorium) will allow them to compete with home viewing. Hoist by their own petard, as the saying goes. Or, for those who prefer the Bible to Shakespeare, "as they sow, so shall they reap."

Which brings us to 3-D, which many multiplexes see as their salvation, despite the fact that 3-D is now beginning to creep into the home market. Never mind, that's an issue for 2013, not today. The problem is, the bloom is off the rose. When it first re-entered the market a few years ago using new technology, 3-D was embraced by studios and theaters alike. Viewers were enchanted - for a while. Now, as the catalog of disadvantages grows and the very limited list of positives remains static, people are turning away from 3-D. Is it because they're sick of blurry action sequences, unintentionally desaturated colors, dim lighting, and eye strain? (Try watching a 3-D IMAX presentation from the far left or far right and see whether you can avoid double images and/or a headache.) Is it because the el cheapo 3-D glasses are unpleasant for those who don't normally wear spectacles and cumbersome for those who do? Or is it because they're paying $3-5 more for what could legitimately be considered an inferior product?

My money is on the latter. The experiment would be easy to perform: eliminate the surcharge, offer 3-D and 2-D showings at the same time in like auditoriums, and see which one is better attended. Right now, with the surcharge in place, 2-D has moved ahead of 3-D. The 3-D mania erosion began last summer and is in full swing this summer. Both Thor and Kung Fu Panda 2 are doing more business in 2-D than in 3-D. I have my own stories to add. After the press screening debacle, I was forced to see Thor at the midnight opening. My local multiplex was offering it in both 2-D and 3-D. I elected to see the 2-D version. There were 24 people in the theater. On the way out, I asked one of the guys working there how many people attended the 3-D version. "About 10," was his response. With Kung Fu Panda, there were 13 of us seeing it in 2-D. At the end, I peeked into the 3-D auditorium (it started 10 minutes later, at 12:11 instead of 12:01) and it was EMPTY. Either everyone had left early or no one had bothered. Hollywood and multiplexes have hooked their wagons to horses the audiences are gradually rejecting. Better get rid of that surcharge fast.

The problem is that none of the people making corporate decisions are taking the time to put themselves in the position of a patron. These man and women should put on their weekend clothing and see a few regular multiplex showings. Wear the scratched, uncomfortable plastic 3-D glasses and see the movie in an auditorium full of teenagers who spend half the time texting. Peer through the gloom of an underlit image and try not to gag on the stench of fake butter and processed cheese spread. Maybe then they would begin to understand why many older viewers have already rejected multiplexes and why younger viewers are losing their infatuation with 3-D.

It's remarkable to me that they don't get it. No matter how many articles have been written, no matter what the statistics are showing (with the 3-D:2-D viewer preference ratio falling from 3:2 to nearly 2:3 in less than two years), no matter how unpleasant the full-house movie going experience has become, they don't get it. The studios' answer is to create a new model with a very short "window." Theater owners cry "foul!" but don't offer an alternative. Is the multiplex experience suddenly getting better? If it is by you, you're one of the few lucky ones. Are 3-D surcharges being cut? By me, they just went up from $3 to $4.

Sorry, Mr. Cameron. I appreciate that there are a few directors like you who recognize that the full spectacle of your movies can only be appreciated in a grand venue. The problem is, the experience you're championing doesn't match the experience most of us have when we go to the movies. You too should perhaps take the time to see what we see and then maybe you'll be aware of why a one-month window is still too long and why Mark Cuban's model is the one with the most merit.