Reactive or Proactive

CinemaCon (the new version of ShoWest) is upon us this year and among its various attendees are producers and distributors of giant screen films. They’re here to look at new digital technologies going into conventional cinemas and to discuss with exhibitors and others potential new distribution pipelines of their giant screen projects.

This isn’t something new. In 2005 and 2006, I worked with a couple of giant screen distributors in an attempt to get their product into the then burgeoning digital cinema market, but the time was not yet right. There were not enough digital projectors and digital 3D systems on the market back then to make a difference and alternative content (or ODS) was still in its infancy. Things have since changed.

The current pursuit for alternative distribution platforms for giant screen films goes back to about that same period, when Edwards Technologies and other companies were installing 3D theaters with a small footprint in museums and other educational institutions. Films such as “Bugs!” were provided for these platforms in shortened versions. Meanwhile, companies such as IMAX, MacGillivray Freeman Films, and others, continued their transition from VHS to DVD (and now blu-ray) in home consumer distribution and began looking at other forms of distribution such as HD cable and satellite channels and internet streaming.

What’s about to happen is something completely different.  We are now at the point where convergence between conventional cinema and giant screen has begun and the delineation between the two will become more difficult to ascertain over time.  It used to be that giant screen, or large format, cinema was defined by the type of film and projector used (mostly a 70mm stock with 8, 10, or 15 perforations per frame).  Since the advent of digital cinema, the diminishing size of IMAX screens and their resolutions, and the increase of size of premium conventional theaters and their resolutions (though not quite at full 70mm equivalent), things have become a bit fuzzy.

In an effort to fix this issue, the GSCA came up with the following standard for giant screen theaters:

  • 70 feet (21.3 meters) wide, or
  • 3,100 square feet (288 square meters) in total area for flat screens, or
  • 60 feet (18.3 meters) in diameter for domes, and
  • Place all seating within one screen width of the screen plane.

However, according to the GSCA’s own publicly accessible website, 16 GSCA members did not have screens that met these requirements.  Therefore, I am using my own definitions of giant screen for this piece:

  • For an institutional theater: meets the Giant Screen Cinema Association specifications for giant screen or operates a 70mm projector using one of the three large format perforations.
  • For a commercial theater: meets the GSCA specifications, operates a 70mm projector, or operates a digital premium cinema designed in or similar to the IMAX digital or Cinemark XD layouts.
  • For films: short or feature length films that would, by historical model, play primarily in institutional giant screen theaters.

In the end, there really isn’t much difference in this digital age between a giant screen theater running a Barco 4K projector with REALD XLW and a Cinemark XD theater with the same system.  The lines are rapidly dissolving between the traditional giant screen and conventional models.  Last year’s DIGGS is a commendable attempt to redefine the gap between the two, but like most approaches by the giant screen community to technical advances, it’s a few years too late.  The digital cinema revolution moved into full gear in 2005 when the final DCI specs were unveiled and projectors and servers meeting these specifications were ready to go to market.  The GSCA giant screen specifications and DIGGS are reactive measures to technology blurring the lines and threatening differentiation.  For an institutional theater to succeed in the coming years, it must be proactive rather than reactive, for the coming threat is not in the type of system or size of screen, but rather in the content.

CinemaCon is upon us this year and among its various attendees are producers and distributors of giant screen films.  They will be meeting with various commercial exhibitors, both the large chains and smaller independents, and with the digital pipeline operators for alternative content, such as Cinedigm, NCM/Fathom, and REALD.  Within the next year or two, once a viable business plan has been settled on, these exhibitors will be playing what has been traditionally only available to giant screen theaters. 

Should institutional and standalone commercial giant screen theaters feel threatened by this?

 Yes.

 Let’s say that within a market, there is Museum A, located centrally downtown.  In the eastern suburbs lies Cineplex B, with a premium theater, and in the southern suburbs lies Cineplex C, with three digital 3D screens.  For the past couple of decades, Museum A has had a monopoly on giant screen films and school groups.  Suddenly, Cineplexes B and C are showing what traditionally might be only seen at Museum A.  It might not be the same film at the same time, but it comes from the same catalog.  With the two cineplexes being closer to a number of schools, the museum might see a loss of school attendance (keeping in mind a number of school districts charge per mile for bus use) for their giant screen films, especially for those where the local museum has no accompanying exhibition.

There are two ways to deal with this.  First, is the reactive method, villianizing the commercial theaters and trying everything to prove why the museum theater is the better choice.  This is already happening in a number of markets.  It’s what I call the sour grapes approach (and, to be honest, I’ve taken it myself in the past).

The other option is to be proactive.  Know that the threat is there and take advantage of it.  Certainly don’t blame the producers or distributors.  They’re trying to earn a living off their films.  If the problem lies with these films being distributed to commercial competitors, institutions should take the initiative in having a greater say in the films’ ownership.  In addition to individual film contracts, an additional overriding agreement can be made between the institution and the distributor giving the institution first rights to any film from that distributor in that market.

Institutions should know their strengths and weaknesses and that of their competitors and instead of fleeing in fear should offer to work with the commercial operators so as to use the strengths of both to increase profitability for both locations. 

Most cineplex operators, with a few exceptions (such as Celebration Cinema) do not have dedicated on-site group booking departments.  Some of the larger ones do have them on a regional or national level, but there’s still an opening for institutions to participate.

Even if there is a group booking department for the cineplex or chain, institutions can offer their expertise in booking school groups for these commercial theaters.  Not only will they continue to associate themselves with educators by doing this, but new educators can be added to the institution’s database.  By being a central clearinghouse, an institution maintains control over film bookings and remains in the public eye.  Being in charge of booking will also allow the institution to work with the commercial partner in deciding which films play where.

This service could certainly be a paid one, but an even greater reward may be at hand.  Institutions can offer an in-kind exchange – booking services for free advertising in ALL of the exhibitor’s commercial theaters in that market.

The convergence is upon us.  This April will see IMAX and WB’s first attempt to take on Disneynature’s annual Earth Day film by opening a nature documentary in the same time frame in every IMAX theater, institutional or commercial, where possible.  They are expected to follow this trend for the next couple of years through a partnership with another renowned production and distribution company.

Now imagine that a documentary is made available not just to every IMAX, but to every theater.  Institutions can be reactive or proactive.  This can be yet another action made too late.  Or it could be a profitable one, both financially and promotionally.  The planning should start today.

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