Sunday, 30 January 2011

Hollywood Babble On & On #667: Sunday Schoolin'

Welcome to the show folks.

My recent post answering Blast Hardcheese's question about the costs of distributing a movie really only scratched the surface of the issue of film distribution. I've dug up an excerpt of the book-in-progress I'm writing about the film industry to help scratch a little bit more off this surface:


Any idiot can make a movie.

That's a fact. All you need is money and equipment, and you can make a movie. It doesn't mean that your film will be any good, but you can get it made.

However, distributing a movie is beyond the pay-grade of the average idiot, because it takes a special kind of idiot to do that.

Distribution is one of the most important stages of the movie business. You can make a film as art, seen only by yourself, or your friends & family, and give yourself a nice old pat on the back for being so brilliant. However, if you want to make a film to be seen and appreciated by others outside your immediate social circle, and hopefully make enough money to help you produce another film, you need distribution.

Distribution can be boiled down to being all about getting movies into theaters, but it's not the whole story. Any idiot can make a movie if they have the money and the time, but you need more than money and time to distribute a film effectively. You need knowledge and experience to be a distributor, the sort of knowledge and experience that can answer these questions:

1. When's the best time to release your film?

As in comedy, in distribution timing is everything. You can't just dump your movie into theatres without putting any consideration into the exact moment when you release it, or you'll lose your shirt, and your probably your pants. You want the best time to attract your target audience, where your movie can stand out the best among the competition. So you have to consider your competition, eligibility for awards, and the availability of theatres you can book the film in.

f you've made a sincere drama about angst in suburbia, you might not want to release it in summer-time among all the big comic book action films, but in winter where it will be fresh in the minds of Academy voters. Movie releases have their own seasons, and any good distributor has to know what seasons suit their movies best.

2. How many theaters should you open your film in?

Basically this comes with knowing the target audience of the film you are about release. Is it the type of film that would have people lining up down the street and around the block on the opening weekend? Then maybe a huge nationwide release of 2,000-4,000 screens is right for it. But if it's a sincere little indie drama you might want to consider a smaller opening.

As a distributor you have to be very careful when deciding on the number of screens you are going to use, because prints costs money. A lot of money. Now the studios aren't exactly forthcoming about the actual costs of these prints, but you can rest assured that it's pretty expensive. A major nationwide release involving thousands of screens could add literally millions to the costs of the film. So any distributor has to take this into account when figuring out just how big they should go.

Ironically, the practice of releasing movies in thousands of screens simultaneously, which is now most associated with the big studios was actually started by an independent producer. Back then they would open a movie, even big budget ones, in only a few hundred theaters at a time, allowed word of mouth to spread, and would gradually expand with fresh prints, or have prints travel from city to city. This changed when Tom Laughlin, the man behind the Billy Jack movies of the 60s and 70s, grew dissatisfied with how his hippie action-revenge pictures were being handled, and managed the first modern style blanket mass release on his own. When it made money, a lot of money, and made it really fast, the majors soon followed and made it standard practice for the big blockbusters.

Now there are also tactical considerations about reducing the number of screens a film debuts on. When advance buzz for Stephen Spielberg's Jaws was really hot, Universal's distribution department considered opening it at a then massive number of 800 screens. Universal boss Lew Wasserman said "No, make it 600 theaters."


He wanted news reports on the massive line-ups and extra screenings being added shown on every TV channel and in every newspaper, thus giving the film even more publicity, and all for free.

3. Do you screen the film for critics?

Some films are destined to be beloved by critics, and some films are not, regardless of their actual quality. Horror films, and low-brow comedies, are probably not going to do well with critics, so advance screenings are often avoided unless the film in question is considered an groundbreaking work of staggering genius. Most distributors only do advance screenings for movies they're pretty sure will deliver at least 50% or more good reviews. They're often wrong, but they're human, mistakes happen.

4. Where are the theaters we want to play our movie?

Location, location, location. This is important when you're not releasing a major blockbuster type picture. Smaller films need a certain amount of care. Media attention, critical praise, and awards are critical to put them above the fray, and build an audience. The usual strategy is to put them in limited release in major media centres, like New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago, and have critical buzz, and word of mouth build that audience for them. Sometimes it doesn't work, and small films just fail to catch on and win that important wide appeal, but everything in show business is a gamble.

5. For how long should they run in those theatres?

This question is asked by the distributor, but it's the exhibitor who actually answers it. Basically, the exhibitor will run a film as long as it puts popcorn munching, soda-sipping, people in their theaters, and if it fails to do that, or to cover their "nut" (explained in the next section) then the film will not have much of a chance unless the studio somehow does something to make it worth their while.

During the Golden Age of Hollywood they really didn't have to consider these questions. The studios owned the theaters, and since all but the biggest hits usually only ran for a week, they would just put whatever they were releasing on as many of their "first run" screens as they could and see what stuck. The first run screens were in the big population centres, and were generally large and impressive movie palaces. After about a week, the movies would then pass to the second run theaters in the outer neighbourhoods and smaller towns, and then after that, they'd be rented to re-release companies to play in the low rent "grindhouse" theaters in the less reputable neighbourhoods, and roadshow screenings going from one rural backwater to another.

That all changed when the studios were forced to unload their theaters by the federal government. The newly independent theater chains then had to deal with something called "block booking." That's where if the theater chain wanted the new big studio A-Picture with big stars John Wayne and Maureen O'Hara, they had to book another, less promising, picture. Despite some urban legends the practice really didn't have much of a shelf-life, and it's highly unlikely that the studios would be doing it these days. Costs are too big, and profit margins too thin to risk everything with a feud with one the mega-theater chains that could potentially deny them the theaters they need to screen their films, and that's not even considering the possible legal ramifications such a stunt would bring about.

Once the distributor has figured out the answers to the major questions to the best of their ability, and booked the appropriate number of theaters, in the appropriate places, at the appropriate time of year, it then becomes a matter of money.

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