Movie Theaters Can Co-Exist With Netflix, Filmmakers, Executives Argue

Movie theaters don’t need to be locked in mortal conflict with Netflix, a panel of exhibitors, filmmakers and studio suits argued at the Toronto International Film Festival on Friday.

In fact, films such as “The Outlaw King” and “Bright” are welcome in multiplexes, National Association of Theatre Owners CEO John Fithian maintained.

“The movie theater door is open to Netflix,” said Fithian, who is the exhibition industry’s chief lobbyist. That invitation comes with an important caveat: Fithian wants Netflix to release its movies in theaters before offering them to their subscribers.

“Respect the models that work,” he said, noting that the box office is currently breaking records at the same time that Netflix’s stock is on a tear and subscription services are more popular than ever.

Fithian was joined on stage at Toronto’s Glenn Gould Studio by 20th Century Fox domestic distribution chief Chris Aronson, “A Fantastic Woman” director Sebastián Lelio, “The Front Runner” producer Helen Estabrook, and Cineplex CEO Ellis Jacob. The group argued that in the era of peak TV and binge-watching, cinemas are still vital.

“Filmmaking has always been about inspiration,” said Lelio. “I want to come out of cinema inspired. I want to be more hungry for life. I want to feel that energy.”

Aronson noted that movies have always been challenged by emerging forms of media — from television to video games — without ever dying off.

“Things have always changed, but they haven’t changed as fast as they are changing now,” said Aronson. “I look at streaming as yet another challenge. That challenge is one that we should be up to meeting…there is no tolerance for subpar films.”

Many of the people on the hour-long panel had skin in the game — they put a roof over their heads because people go to the movies. They maintained, however, that releasing a movie in theaters raises awareness and makes them more of events.

Though the panelists were supportive of the cinema experience, they had positive things to say about streaming services. Estabrook argued that the new platforms are enabling movies, particularly smaller films, to find audiences

“It has opened up ways for seeing more content,” said Estabrook.

As competition has intensified for audiences’ attention, studios are finally beginning to get the message that diversity can be a valid business strategy. The box office success of “Black Panther,” “Ocean’s 8,” and “Crazy Rich Asians” has demonstrated the power of casting women and minorities in starring roles. Lelio argued that “A Fantastic Woman,” which depicts a young transgender woman in Chile, was able to attract a bigger audience because it told a story that hadn’t been seen before on screen.

“For me, diversity should be the new normality,” said Lelio. “We should embrace the complexity of life, and diversity plays a big role in that.”

Despite the increased emphasis on having diverse casts, the panelists acknowledged that foreign films still struggle to connect with audiences. A big problem, they said, is the subtitles. People don’t want to read them.

What you’re seeing, Aronson argued, is “…the dumbing down of the audience.”

“When you look at the current political landscape, you understand that,” he added.


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