“More than ever, the dialogue between exhibition and distribution is very open,” says Rory Bruer, prexy of worldwide distribution at Sony, which kicks off its summer with the Memorial Day weekend bow “Men in Black 3” in 3D. “Both sides want so much to make it work and to see these films succeed as a theatrical experience. We’re definitely on the right path together in making it the best relationship it can possibly be.”
That wasn’t the case last September when news broke that Sony would stop subsidizing 3D glasses — yet another irksome turn for exhibs, which is set to take effect when “MIB 3” bows Memorial Day weekend.
Those issues may not be water under the bridge, but exhibitors say they’re open for discussion.
In a conference call just last month, NATO prexy John Fithian, along with MPAA chief Chris Dodd, spoke candidly about the window issue. “I’m pleased to report that the attitude is very different in 2012,” Fithian said. “We’re really determined this year to make progress in new models that grow the pie for everyone.”
Still, the rising costs of producing and marketing a tentpole in a crowded marketplace — so densely packed this summer that “The Dark Knight Rises” and “The Amazing Spider-Man” unspool within 17 days of one another in July — has the studios continuing to flirt with ideas frowned upon by exhibitors. Case in point: Even after last year’s CinemaCon dustup over windows, Universal took a stab at the premium VOD revenue stream with its fall release “Tower Heist.”
The studio was forced to scrap the plan, however, after the nation’s third-largest chain Cinemark and Nation Amusements (No. 9) threatened to keep the Ben Stiller-Eddie Murphy starrer out of their theaters. But such setbacks haven’t deterred execs from wanting to try new approaches.
“I wish they’d have some faith in us to at least test the waters to figure out how we end up recouping the money we’ve lost from lack of DVD sales,” says Universal distribution prexy Nikki Rocco. “I wish there was a way to have a crystal ball to say to everybody, ‘Look, it’s not going to affect ticket sales.’ You’re caught between a rock and a hard place here. How do you prove it if they don’t let you prove it?”
Nevertheless, Universal finds itself on solid footing with its exhibition partners, thanks to its No. 1 position in domestic market share for the first quarter of 2012. The studio’s summer slate looks promising, too, with the latest Hasbro toy adaptation “Battleship” in May, “Snow White and the Huntsman” in June and a new chapter in the lucrative “Bourne” franchise, “The Bourne Legacy,” in August.
“There is always that love-hate relationship between exhibitors and distributors,” says Rocco. “But the truth is if you have a great slate, you’re always in a good position with exhibition. Because they’ve gotta sell popcorn.”
Under the current windows paradigm, studios continue to shell out hundreds of millions of dollars to bring a summer tentpole to the bigscreen, with diminishing returns in the homevid market. Meanwhile, marketing costs continue to skyrocket.
“It’s expensive, and it’s challenging, but it can pay off,” says Chris Aronson, exec VP of domestic distribution and general sales manager at Fox, which has “Prometheus,” “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter” and “Ice Age 4” in the summer mix. “There’s a huge audience for ‘show me something new.’ And no one does that better than Hollywood.”
“New” is a relative term in Hollywood, of course, since the studios have also been supplementing their grosses lately with reheated leftovers in the form of 3D conversions. Such re-releases are relatively inexpensive to market for the studios. And exhibitors aren’t complaining, since 3D successes like “The Lion King” and “Titanic” have filled theaters.
Given the growing pricetag attached to studio films, most agree that distributors will continue to push the window envelope. Despite the “Tower Heist” backlash, Rocco says she would reopen the conversation tomorrow. Others see room for improving the current paradigm. “There will be further experimentation with windows,” Aronson says. “There’s too much dead time right now.”
For their part, exhibitors have poured huge amounts of capital into creating a state-of-the-art theatrical experience that both camps value.
“They’ve done a fabulous job converting from film to digital,” says Warners domestic distribution prexy Dan Fellman. “And they’ve done a fabulous job moving from 24 frames per second to the new format of 48 frames per second, which will be introduced with (Warners’ December release) ‘The Hobbit.’ It is the difference between watching a movie vs. experiencing real life. It eliminates any of the nausea that some people feel watching a film in 3D. It brings it back to what the natural eye sees.”
But Fellman also foresees more erosion between the bigscreen and smallscreen window.
“There have been changes to the windows in the past, and there will be changes to the windows in the future,” he adds. “But we’re talking about these issues in a very civilized way.”
12:45-2:30 p.m. Intl. Day Lunch. Honorees: Paramount Pictures, Timur Bekmambetov, Delfin Fernandez and Jack Ledwith (Palace Ballrooms)
2:30-4 p.m. The Excitement and Challenges of the Intl. Market in the 21st Century; panelists include Warner Bros.’ Millard Ochs ; moderator: Variety ‘s Steven Gaydos (Palace Ballroom III)
6:30-8:15 p.m. Gala, honorees: Dwayne Johnson and Jim Tharp (Colosseum)
8:30 p.m. Dinner (Octavius)
7:45-9:15 a.m. Awards presentation, honorees: Shelly Olesen and Jerry Pierce (Palace Ballrooms)
9:30-11:15 a.m. The State of the Industry: Past, Present & Future; Warner Bros. presentation; DLP Cinema presentation; industry addresses with Sen. Chris Dodd and John Fithian; award presentation for Ted Pedas; and industry recognition for Jack Panzeca and John Evans Jr. (Colosseum)
3 p.m. Digital Cinema Distribution Coalition announces satellite network deployment
3:45-5:45 p.m. Disney/DreamWorks/Marvel/Pixar presentation (Colosseum)
6-8 p.m. Disney feature screening (Colosseum)
8:45-10:15 a.m. Special technical demonstrations (Colosseum)
10:45 a.m.-12:15 p.m. Seminars: An Industry Think Tank and Prioritizing Concessions in the New Digital Environment (Palace Ballrooms)
12:45-2:30 p.m. The World of Filmmaking (Octavius Ballroom)
4:15-5:15 p.m. Sony Pictures reception (Colosseum Lobby)
5:30-7 p.m. Sony Pictures presentation (Colosseum)
7:45 p.m. 2012 Pioneer of the Year dinner. Honoree: Jeffrey Katzenberg (Octavius Ballroom)
8:45-10:10 a.m. Seminars: Today’s Moviegoing Audience, Exhibitors Speak Out and Light Levels (Palace Ballrooms)
10:30 a.m.-noon. Twentieth Century Fox presentation (Colosseum)
2:30-4:30 p.m. Universal Pictures presentation (Colosseum)
7:30-9 p.m. Awards presentation (Colosseum)
9 p.m. Party and reception (Pool of the Gods)
• CinemaCon honorees