Theater owners’ reactions to Netflix’s ‘Beasts of No Nation’

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A very illuminating article from Wired about Netflix’s first full length movie.  The theater representatives quoted have several things to say about the film’s appearance (or non-appearance) in their chains.  Somehow, I don’t think they really fully thought their comments through, because what they say is pretty telling in ways I doubt they truly wanted to admit publicly.

“Netflix is not serious about a theatrical release,” says Patrick Corcoran, vice president of the National Association of Theatre Owners. “There isn’t a real commitment.”

“Netflix says, ‘This is about consumer choice,’” says Corcoran. “Well why aren’t they then available on DVD, Blu-ray, pay-per-view? It’s exclusive in the home to Netflix, because exclusivity is important.” Theater owners get it. As with Netflix, exclusivity is how movie theaters make their money, too.

What Corcoran is saying here is theater owners only want to do business with companies that are willing to give the theaters exclusivity.  What’s wrong with that?  Well, for starters, it means the theaters are only competing on the exclusivity.  That the restricted window of time where the theater is the only option for audiences to see the film is the only thing that theater owners are willing to support.

As an aside, Netflix’s strategy of ‘exclusivity’ has only come about as the rest of the industry has begun using it against them.  Studios and license holders have stopped signing deals with Netflix; most of them in favor of signing others — exclusively — with outlets they control.  Hulu is a good example; consumers hate Hulu.  But several studios have a financial interest in Hulu, so they want their content on it.  HBO is one; HBO refuses to license its original content out, and definitely won’t be changing that position anytime soon now that they’ve joined the streaming game either.  Netflix has begun funding its own original productions as a defense measure; to own content that can’t be taken away just because a former business partner changes its mind.

But let’s move on, because this article isn’t about Netflix.  It’s about the foolishness of theaters.

Competition is a contest between two or more entities for something.  In modern capitalism that so many hold as holy, competition usually is defined as allowing the ‘best’ option to win out.  Most of today’s consumers use metrics like cost, quality, pleasure-of-the-experience when they judge and select between competitors who are eager to win them over.

I didn’t hear Corcoran mentioning any of those things.  What he did mention, several times, related to a lack of competition.  That the business of theaters only works when they have a monopoly.  And not a fuzzy one; but a concrete one.  They want to be the only game for the content, period.  If the content can be obtained elsewhere, they’re not interested.

It’s a fundamental admission they’re on the way out the moment they lose the ability to lock the content stream down.  And I think most pundits in the movie industry feel theaters are not an iron clad lock to still be with us as we move into the future.  No one’s saying theaters are about to instantly vanish, but even a little looking into what trends and comments in the industry are starting to indicate reveals some concerns over whether or not theatrical distribution will stay as strong as it has up until this point.  Some people already feel it’s in significant decline.

Why do I care?  First, it’s resoundingly similar to a lot of the complaints and difficulties the traditional side of the publishing industry is having; now that they have lost their lock on the way into the content stream, they’re struggling and floundering to adapt.  Second, I actually do like movies.  I don’t hate theaters.  But they need to wake up before they die.  And their current course means they will die.

The number one complaint I hear about theaters is pricing.  Everyone hates the pricing.  An extremely close second is the theater’s environment; rude audience members and unkempt auditoriums.  And in third place are complaints about technical problems; things wrong with the screens, projectors, or speakers.  Oddly enough, these three things can be controlled by the theaters.  They can be competed on.  Nearly all theaters just choose not to.

Where I live, there’s not an Alamo Drafthouse.  I so wish there was.  Seriously.  This is a chain that is interested in winning in the modern theater market; not just competing.  They play to win at the Drafthouse, and it bugs the hell out of me every day they haven’t opened one anywhere near me.  Drafthouse sells themselves in several ways that are markedly different from the rest of the theaters around them.  They pride themselves on offering maintained and excellent facilities, from the screens and projectors and speakers through to the seats and auditoriums.  They use their no-tolerance policy for audience disruptions as a specific selling point in their advertising, going so far as to use voice mails from entitled audience members that have been kicked out for violating the policy in ads.

And if case you didn’t notice, the above Youtube is on Alamo Drafthouse’s official channel.  That’s not someone else who recorded and posted it; that’s Drafthouse themselves posting it.  And they run that same Public Service Announcement in their theaters before movies.  That’s a real customer pitching a fit over the phone, and Drafthouse really does boot people for not respecting the environment.  No talking, no phones; shut the fuck up and watch the movie or you’re gone.

If only every theater did that.

Other things Drafthouse is doing include offering the same kind of menu you’ll see in most bars and quick-casual restaurants, delivered to your seat as you’re in the auditorium.  This includes wine and beer (because the license for those is more forgiving to obtain than a hard liquor one).  Yes, at the Drafthouse they’ll serve you beer as you watch the film.  And, finally but not necessarily lastly, they have returned the business of showing movies back into an event.  At Drafthouse, they don’t specialize in ‘exclusive’ new movies.  They do show those, but they also — regularly, and across their entire franchise — offer showings of existing films.

A good and very simple example was when The Avengers (the first one) was coming out.  Drafthouse had the other movies in the Marvel Cinematic Universe playing in order, so audiences could see them again on the big screen, with big sound and a respectful audience.  Because, remember, if you’re disruptive at the Drafthouse, they toss you.  And, wonder of wonders, it worked.

This is such an obvious notion it’s amazing it took a small little chain like Drafthouse to bring the concept back to the fore.  Seeing movies in the theater can be a lot of fun, as long as the experience is good.  Maintain the equipment, control the environment, and cater to your audience; and they show up.  Disney seems to have gotten on-board in a big way, because they rolled a nationwide package out for Avengers 2 Age of Ultron.  It wasn’t just Drafthouse, they pitched it and placed it in theaters all over America.  Starting with the 2008 Iron Man film, right through to Guardians of the Galaxy, you watch every film that leads up to Age of Ultron.

Now, as good of an idea as I think themed marathons are, even I will admit the AoU lead up was excessive.  I’m not going to redo the math, but those ten films are something close to thirty hours of consecutive running time.  Maybe when I was a 20-something I could’ve managed that.  Actually, my first several DragonCons — when I was a 20-something — I did the whole weekend awake.  Compared to that, a ten movie marathon is nothing.  But I think most of us feel that’s a bit too long.

Disney is continuing the ‘experiment’ with The Force Awakens.  News broke within the last two days that they’re going to be offering a marathon of all six Star Wars films to lead up to the new one.  What a great idea.  How sad that we have to consider something so obvious as a novel concept for them to have stumbled across.

My point is, Drafthouse has been doing marathons and themed rescreenings like this for the whole of their existence; and that it’s a fucking great idea.  Even when they were just a single theater that Harry Knowles from Aint-it-cool-news used to talk about, they would do daylong Saturday sets of monster films.  Back-to-back (and back-to-back-to-back and more) showings of Friday the Thirteenth or Nightmare of Elm Street or other appropriate franchises around Halloween.  Pixar retrospectives, or actor-centric festivals (like three Billy Murray movies in a row, or three Arnold Schwarzenegger films as a trifecta; things like that).

Drafthouse is competing, in the proper sense of the word.  They’re leveraging what they have to offer — the theatrical experience — honestly and in a way that makes audiences happy to attend.  Sure a lot of us have big televisions and 5.1 sound systems at home; but even with that, even if you’re someone (or know someone) who has the kind of home theater that costs into the five figures, there’s a certain something about going to the theater.  When the environment is controlled to make the audience complementary — rather than disruptive — it can be a lot of fun.

I’ve seen the Star Wars films dozens and dozens of times.  More.  A whole lot.  I watch them all the time.  Even back in the 90s when Lucas announced he was rereleasing the Original Trilogy to theaters, I had already seen those movies often enough to quote them nearly perfectly.  And I still went to the theater and saw A New Hope, Empire Strikes Back, and Return of the Jedi.  And it’s collectively one of my fondest theater experiences.  The audiences were really into seeing them with me.  We had so much fun, hundreds of us Star Wars fans watching our favorite movies together.  And I’m going to see them again in December in the new marathon leading up to The Force Awakens.  Actually, I mostly only want to see the three OT movies again; but if they won’t let me buy tickets to just those three, I’ll probably buy the package anyway and just skip the unholy disaster of Phantom Menace.  That’ll bring my marathon down to 12.5 hours, and then another 2.5 for the new film.  I can probably manage that.

That’s the plane theaters should be competing on.  Not “we’re the only game in town”, but “we’re the best game in town.”  They’re supposed to be in the experience business; where they offer a unique experience.  Great screens, amazing sound, everything tuned and turned up and maintained.  Nice comfortable seats.  Clean facilities.  Offering something I can’t get at home unless I’m some sort of exceedingly wealthy film fan who’s built an actual theater at home, rather than a consumer-grade home theater.

Theaters are dying because Mr Corcoran of NATO (yes, it’s unfortunate their acronym is identical to the international NATO, but what can you do) and most of his fellow theater owners don’t understand their business.  They think just having the theater is enough; that they’ve built it and now we should have no choice but to come.  If they’d just spend even a small amount of effort understanding what drives film fans, they wouldn’t be having the problems they are.  They could be working with newcomers like Netflix to further leverage what theaters are supposed to offer.

The chance to see great movies in a great environment.

Instead, they’re threatened by every bit of progress that comes down the audio-visual track.  Anything that changes the dynamic of “audiences have no choice but to come here” is bad as far as they’re concerned.  If it were up to them, TVs wouldn’t be sold larger than 30″, and 5.1 Surround Sound setups would be outlawed in the home.

If that’s their attitude, then I want them dead quicker.  Because if they’re going to act like that, the sooner they go bankrupt and some innovative and modern minded investor can take over, the better.

Or Drafthouse can keep expanding.  Please Drafthouse, please come near me soon.