In the mad scramble to book theaters, it's a sellers' market

When Jack Valenti announced the (since-amended) ban on Oscar screeners late last month, he said the problem of seeing award contenders would be offset by Motion Picture Assn. of America studio members who “will set up double the amount of screenings.”

Easier said than done.

Over the past few years the competition for screening venues during award season has become tantamount to a civil war, with studios battling each other and indie companies for desirable spaces to show off their wares.

It’s literally a seller’s market for the top sites: generally acknowledged to be the Directors Guild of America theater, Harmony Gold, the Acad’s Samuel Goldwyn Theater of the Motion Picture, the Pacific Design Center and the Writers Guild of America theater.

“We definitely have significantly higher client demand for our L.A. and New York screening rooms,” says DGA rep Morgan Rumpf. “We are entirely booked through the end of the year, literally every day of the week.”

24-hour screening people

This seems to be the case for every venue, big or small, on either coast. And it’s not just the primetime evening slots that have been snapped up (most of those were gone by summer’s end): It’s all times of the day and weekend. “We are generally packed anyway but this year it’s gotten crazy,” adds Rumpf.

Studios are making concerted efforts to stage screenings weekday afternoons and are opening their theaters on weekends to hold multiple screenings starting as early as 9 a.m., says Jud Hudgins, Harmony Gold director of theater ops. “On top of what was a full schedule last year, we have probably increased our bookings 35% to 40%.”

With so much competition out there, studios and indie distributors got the jump early. As a result there was heavy booking activity in July and August to secure the screening spots needed for a year compressed by an earlier Oscar date. But getting these bookings can be headache-inducing for those planners who don’t have their acts together early.

“It has become a bit of a chess game,” says Hudgins, who admits some studios will book as many as 40 dates in advance, hoping to hang on to them until plans and talent availability (for Q&As) are finalized.

“We are still holding some slots for studios where we have multiple positions — meaning Disney could be first, Warner second, Miramax third and so on. But now we call and tell them they have to commit or lose it.”

Block booking

Although most studios have their own screening facilities, issues of lot security, geographical location and other uses such as for dubbing make it desirable for many of them to forge year-round relationships with key venues in West Hollywood and Beverly Hills in order to secure priority at awards time. This causes problems for a number of indie companies who suspect the studios may be using their clout and deep pockets to tie up key slots in the best rooms.

“The studios block-book the screening rooms and try to hold on to them for as long as possible, making it too late for us to plan accordingly,” claims one indie company head with several contenders this year. “And the problem is the screening room owners are loathe to pressure them too much to relinquish the rooms because they get so much business from them. They are willing to let them play their games.”

Hudgins says Harmony Gold’s policy is if you want a date you must pay for it up front and they will only hold it for 21 days before letting it go, although he did acknowledge that they loosen those requirements during kudo season as a favor for year-round clients. “We try to be as flexible as possible for our clients short of becoming a 24-hour screening facility.”

Going public

Some companies aren’t willing to get caught up in the game and are renting commercial theaters to make sure their films are seen by the right people. Beginning Nov. 14, DreamWorks will four-wall the Music Hall in Beverly Hills (conveniently across the street from the Academy) to unspool “House of Sand and Fog” twice nightly for guild and Acad members. Berney has tied up the Showcase theater in Hollywood for the month of December for his pictures. And for seven weeks leading up to the Nov. 26 release of “In America,” Fox Searchlight is renting four specially chosen venues (the

ArcLight, AMC Century City, the Sherman Oaks Galleria and Promenade in Woodland Hills) to show that pic every Thursday evening using the ad tagline “See our movie the old-fashioned way — in the theater.”

“We wanted to give voters a convenient way to see our film,” says Searchlight marketing prexy Nancy Utley. “I am an Academy member and I find it quite confusing with all these screening calendars. There’s no consistency as to when you can expect to see a movie.”

Using a commercial house over private facilities might enable Utley more leeway but costs can get pricey, with the ArcLight, for instance, charging up to $4,500 per screening depending on size of the room and time needed.

Prices for other top facilities are comparable, although smaller rooms could be rented at the Aidikoff or Clarity or Harmony Gold (with the top rate of $2,200 for a Sunday) for considerably less — that is if slots are available.

Ironically, in the rush to secure venues, almost everyone agrees it’s guild members who are most likely to turn out in large numbers for screenings. Except for their own official schedule at the Goldwyn, AMPAS members have been mostly no-shows at other screenings ostensibly set up for their convenience.

“The Academy has gotten into the habit of seeing some films on screeners in the past 10 years,” says veteran consultant Tony Angellotti. “You’re asking them to break that habit overnight and go see five films a week? I have talked to some who say they are not going to change their lives just to vote. So the question is will Academy members even go to these added screenings.”

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