Adjusting to the decline of theatrical distribution

Movies are simply easier to make than they used to be. Everyone and their sister seems to be crossing Boylston and Tremont streets with a DSLR dangling from their neckstraps. 

We all know how important the digital technology revolution has been for filmmakers and film schools. The challenge for a lot of filmmakers — and a number of different fields at Emerson — will be embracing this change to gain an audience. No matter how good a film is, it doesn’t do much good if you can’t show it off.

I find my interest in the future of film distribution growing daily for two reasons. First, I have produced a pair of documentaries, I’m currently working on another, and I want to continue making them in a field where theatrical blockbuster appeal is unlikely. Second, I’ve worked at the Kendall Square Cinema for almost two years.

Landmark Theatre, Kendall Square Cinema’s parent company, is the largest independent-oriented theater chain in the country. It is also up for sale, put on the market in April 2011. Owner Mark Cuban said that his media empire is shifting focus to multimedia broadcasting. 

His film production company (Magnolia Pictures), distribution company (Magnet Releasing), and cable television network (HDNet), continue experimenting with online and video-on-demand (VOD) modes of distribution.

While Cuban told Bloomberg News  that he was “just testing the waters” when news of the sale broke, I think he saw the writing on the wall for theatrical distribution. Ever since HDNet  became the first company to distribute a film (Bubble, an underrated Soderbergh gem) simultaneously in theaters and on demand in 2006, Cuban seems to have understood that while theatrical distribution is still a profitable business, more film and video is viewed online or at home than in a theater.

Movie theaters are losing a significant share of filmgoers, with no end in sight to the trend. DVDs typically come out within two to four months now, half the length of time as just a few years ago. HDTVs, VOD, streaming services such as Netflix, and many other factors are convincing people to stay in rather than go out. Despite an increase in the number of wide releases  and average ticket price  from 2009 to 2011, attendance is down nine percent. Meanwhile, studios continue their quest to flood theaters with prequels, threequels, and Ryan Reynolds vehicles.

As columnist David Erhlich wrote, VOD and online platforms provide viewers with valuable information — the fact that certain movies exist. The tens of millions of people who have frequent access to cable or satellite VOD and streaming services are spending more time browsing lists of movies Netflix recommends or indie releases that are in select theaters (or none at all, as companies including Magnolia and IFC Films  have been releasing movies on-demand before hitting theaters). Nobody should be surprised people are increasingly choosing to spend a few bucks on a 24-hour rental rather than $20 or $30 on parking, popcorn, and tickets at a theater.

Billionaire media mogul and Emmy-winning documentary producer Ted Leonsis wrote in a recent op-ed for, “Although multiplatform distribution deals continue to be announced, it’s clear that digital distribution isn’t just the best way for most films to reach audiences; it will be the only way.” Leonsis  is the founder and chairman of SnagFilms,  a social media site that enables users to share, watch, and comment on documentaries for free.

Sites like SnagFilms, Dynamo, EggUp, and Distrify  are online platforms to distribute work for cheap. The rights are retained by the filmmakers who upload their work to the site, and videos can be embedded in personal websites and blogs, as well as run through Facebook pages. Outlets like these showcase work so esoteric that a museum or festival run would have been the only viable option in the past. If in the future these platforms can become successfully as monetized as theaters have, the traditional cinema  will have another serious form of competition.

As a viewer, it’s daunting to know that more movies are at my fingertips than ever before. But as a filmmaker and producer, knowing that I have an opportunity to share my work with the widest possible audience is thrilling. Though it would be nice to see my own movie — rather than Ryan Reynolds’ — playing at the Kendall Square Cinema.