Here’s How Movie Theaters Will Survive the Next 10 Years: Exhibitors Speak Out

The movie business is always changing, but these days it can be difficult to tell the difference between struggle and outright decline. The 2019 box office is down nine percent from last year, and soon the theaters’ Netflix battle will be joined by  Disney+, Apple+, WarnerMedia, and more. Even Hollywood is worried: Last week, when The New York Times assembled a sprawling collection of influential figures from the film industry to assess the state of moviegoing. The result was a multifaceted collection of alarming messages.

Among the musings that reporter Kyle Buchanan pulled together: J.J. Abrams wonders whether meager returns on “Booksmart” raise the question of “how to protect the smaller films.” Jessica Chastain asks, “What happens to these beautiful, small, dramatic stories?” Jordan Horowitz says, “I don’t feel particularly optimistic about the traditional theatrical experience, especially for independent films.” Ava DuVernay calls the theatrical release “a privilege.” And Joe Russo says, “You’ve got so many options for viewing content that there has to be a need for you to leave your home. What is going to drive you to do that?”

However, even as multiplexes face an existential threat, a 2018 Arthouse Convergence survey of some 22,500 moviegoers found that 65% of them considered their local art house theater valuable to their overall quality of life. That’s what the article failed to note: Of the 24 voices in the story, there were only four distributors that release non-studio films and all of them — Sony Pictures Classics, Fox Searchlight, Netflix, and Amazon — are attached to much larger businesses. Absent was any representation of the exhibition community, people who make a living booking independent theaters around the country, or smaller distributors who a range of films from around the world.

We decided to give them some space to respond. Here are some edited highlights.

Adam Birnbaum Nova Theatre Circuit president and director of film programming, Avon Theatre: Why is the voice and opinion of the exhibition side of the industry completely omitted from the New York Times article?  The media’s failure in this case to provide any analytical feedback from those who are closest to the ground and in touch with audiences is sadly rather reflective of the cloistered silos in which our production and distribution counterparts too often exist.

Michael Tuckman president, mTuckman Media No large chain, no art house chain, no mom and pops. Crazy.

Ted Mundorff president and chief executive officer, Landmark Theatres We have gone through theatrical slumps forever and we always recover. Some bloggers love to talk about attendance going down every year. Well, attendance goes down at baseball games and football games. You want to name a place where attendance is going up? It’s not. Our $10.5 billion-$11-billion-a-year business is very strong.

Ryan Kampe president, Visit Films I believe the traditional theatrical model for “smaller” films is certainly broken. A few films break out each year, but a majority don’t get a theatrical release in the U.S. or fail to crack even $30,000 at the box office. Fewer films are selling for VOD and/or TV; as such, there is often no incentive to spend the money to release the films in theaters. What used to be a negotiation for a final sale price has turned into a role of the dice to see if any deal exists at all. This is especially true in the foreign-language space, where the vast majority of films do not find a deal that pays at a profitable level following the theatrical release. When major partners are all clamoring for genre fare or cast-driven titles over $5 million, where can the movies that we work on go to find a home that, at a minimum, pays back investors?

Neal Block head of distribution, Magnolia Pictures Some of the “flops” that everyone’s giving their apocalyptic hot-takes on were seriously overambitious — these were wide releases for smaller-scaled films without stars. Everyone’s done it — it’s not new, and it doesn’t portend anything other than that we’re occasionally doomed to repeat our own mistakes. It’s easy to pontificate on trends and bemoan the loss of something, especially something as singular and personal as moviegoing. It’s our job to listen to audiences and meet them on their terms, however mercurial and foreign those terms may seem to an industry that has done things roughly the same way for a very long time.

Dennis Lim director of programming, Film at Lincoln Center The takeaway from the New York Times piece is not that movies are dying, it’s that Hollywood is in trouble. If Hollywood is struggling, maybe it is time to reframe this tired discourse and remind us all that cinema is about a lot more than Oscar movies and summer tentpoles. I watch hundreds of new films from around the world every year, and I find it hard to be pessimistic about cinema as an art. Maybe a more relevant and less cynical question to ask is how an art form might sustain itself or even thrive while the business around it flounders.

The Walter Reade Theater in Lincoln Center

Mettie Ostrowski

Eric Hynes curator of film, Museum of the Moving Image Time and again, Hollywood can’t conceive of people getting into a car and sitting in LA traffic to see a movie — as if that were the universal experience, as if people didn’t also live in smaller towns or cities with public transportation where they want to leave the house and want to share an experience with other people, and want to experience 35mm, where communities actually exist and independent films and documentaries are sought out.

Richard Lorber CEO, Kino Lorber We have to broaden the conversation about the “future of cinema.” The world inhabited by the “indies,” including the distributors, arthouse exhibitors, and independent filmmakers is a different planet from the Hollywood universe. There remains a passionate and vital community of interest supporting the “theatrical experience.” If the voices in the [NYT] article were gospel truth, it would be hard to explain the economic and cultural incentives driving a proliferation of new art house screens in cities like New York and Los Angeles, as well as the improving health of so many exhibitors in smaller cities.

Gina Duncan associate VP, Film, BAM: I’ve just spent 11 straight days in cinemas watching 28 completely different sold-out audiences go crazy for the “beautiful, small, dramatic stories” some are lamenting the loss of. Yes, some of the films in BAMcinemaFest will end up on streaming platforms, while others will find their way to the big screen. This is not a bad thing! Streaming and cinemas should be able to co-exist — the issue is how?

Alison Kozberg managing director, Arthouse Convergence Instead of questioning if theatrical and home viewing can coexist (we know they can), we should consider how and when films succeed theatrically. Conversations with exhibitors who contributed to the theatrical runs of “Black Panther,” “Crazy Rich Asians,” “Lady Bird,” “I Am Not Your Negro,” and “Won’t You Be My Neighbor” would offer valuable insight into the ongoing vitality of moviegoing’s social and cultural attributes.

“Won’t You Be My Neighbor?”

Andy Bohn CEO, The Film Arcade: How often have all of us in the movie industry heard someone say, “Why would I pay $15 to go to the theater when I can watch something on Netflix for free”?  Obviously, steaming services aren’t free, but subscription services eliminate the cost-benefit analysis of seeing an individual film. While the economics and third-party status of MoviePass may have never allowed it to be sustainable, let’s not forget that it was the fastest-growing subscription service in history for two reasons. People love movies, and they love value.

Joana Vicente executive director and co-head, Toronto International Film Festival and TIFF Bell Lightbox: While it is easy to assume that theaters will principally become arenas for studio tentpole films, we believe there is still a vital need for places like TIFF Bell Lightbox — places where one can discover distinctly original and diverse voices, and be transformed by the experience of seeing a film. For years, people have been declaring the death of the publishing industry, the death of the novel. But the publishing industry in North America has never been more robust. We believe the same can hold true for the kinds of films we show at the Lightbox. Sure, books like “Twilight” and “Harry Potter” will always be blockbuster tentpoles for publishers, but that has not gobbled up high-quality literature. They just work on different scales and economies.

Dennis Lim: As someone who programs festivals, retrospectives, and theatrical releases year round in New York City, there are still sizable audiences here who value curation and engagement, and for whom the cinema experience remains central or at least part of a balanced media regimen. At Film at Lincoln Center, where we just celebrated our 50th anniversary, 2018 was our best year attendance-wise across the board [and] we’ve had our most successful retrospective ever (Visconti) and our most successful revival run (Sergei Bondarchuk’s “War and Peace”). Despite a few high-profile closures, the NYC repertory and art-house ecosystem is as healthy as ever, and in fact offers more, and more variety, than it did a decade or two ago.

Rajendra Roy chief curator of film, MOMA: I’m a perennial optimist. My experience at MoMA — and what I am witnessing at many arthouses in the New York area — has demonstrated that you can rejuvenate your audience with re-energized programming and direct engagement with filmmakers. Hard work for sure, but really tangible and exciting results possible. “Tea leaves” are sometime just soggy plants. I don’t think anyone can tell the future… you just have to follow your gut and keep yourself engaged.

Ted Mundorff The question people are asking now is whether these films are being released right. It started with people questioning what happened with “Bookmart.” Now, when you see “Late Night” go out, it’s astounding. Just because one pays $14 million for an acquisition doesn’t mean it should go into wide release. The amount being spent on acquisition or production doesn’t change the character of the film. If it requires nurturing, then it should be nurtured, not blown out on 2,000-plus runs. That type of wide release ensures that the film will fail. I can’t speak for Bob Berney, but I can tell you: Bob Berney did not think that film should go wide.

“Late Night”

Emily Aragones

Adding 2,000 runs on “Late Night” after the initial platform release took the screen average down to $2,300. Last week, it went to $1,100. Let’s put some perspective on that. “Last Black Man in San Francisco” had a $5,7000 screen average in the same week. Even a little film that’s been around even longer, like “Biggest Little Farm” — a nice documentary — was a $5 difference in its screen average than “Late Night.” That’s what kills independent film. The last four or five films I’ve seen, I’ve really enjoyed. It’s not like we have awful product. We have awful release patterns.

Neal Block: This spring has been tough for everyone — specialized distributors and exhibitors both. We’re in a marked downswing, and it’s gone on longer than usual. But more new screens have opened, or are in the process of opening, in Manhattan and Brooklyn than any time in recent memory.

Toby Leonard programming director, Belcourt Theatre (Nashville, TN) Are people freaking out because it was a light spring? Our biggest competitor is a beautiful spring weekend, and there were no shortage of those this year. And they’ll be back again in September and October before awards season kicks in. The Belcourt screens a healthy mix of first-run and repertory, and 2018 was our best year on record.

Mike Stevens executive director, Moxie Cinema (Springfield, MO) We’ve never been in better financial shape. That is not due to booming ticket sales; indeed, our 2019 box office to date would be generously described as anemic. No, we are secure and sustainable because our community stepped up to help us transition to a non-profit arthouse in 2010. Every year since that, financial support has grown. We are thriving by showing a wide range of critically acclaimed first run movies and repertory. We aren’t going anywhere.

Rachel Jacobson executive director, Dundee Theater (Omaha, NO) We are thriving with a mission-based, philanthropic model with more than 3,600 member households and diverse revenue streams that allow us to prioritize the community-building around the art of film over box office. Both of our cinemas are open daily, but we depend on box office and concessions for less than half of our operations. I am hopeful that the theatrical experience will always be viable commercially. Either way, nonprofit arthouses will continue to be vibrant hubs like museums and public libraries, creating wonderful experiences for diverse constituencies in cities large and small.

Cameron Bailey co-head, TIFF: There’s no mass audience anymore, which is a relief because there never was. Now’s a good time to pay more attention to each person watching. What motivates them, what rewards the time they spend with us? Big streaming companies can do that with data. Those of us running festivals or independent cinemas need to use both data and a more personal touch.


Raymond Nutt CEO, Fathom: Documentaries are a great example of Fathom’s business model. We give life to content that may not otherwise be seen theatrically by making an event out of it. “They Shall Not Grow Old,” “Emanuel,” and “The Dawn Wall” are some recent examples that cross very different genres (military, inspiration, and sports, respectively) and have all proven to be successful. We carved out space in our upcoming programming schedule to show more documentary content in movie theaters.

Michael Tuckman: The decrease of local reviews is nothing new, but it used to be a film would get a wire review run in most major publications. That’s not happening as much anymore. As a result, distributors take advertising funds they might have spent on those outlets and instead use them for targeted digital advertising. And let’s be real: Is there is better return on investment when you target your demo with the accuracy that such ads allow? But what results is a system where we are just chasing our bases and not having culture discussed on widely shared media. It also creates a tough circle for exhibitors: if local press coverage is not supporting these films, then they don’t do as well at the box office, and it makes it more difficult to open these films in the future — and easier to take a seventh or eighth screen of the new blockbuster that week.

Joana Vicente: The onslaught of large amounts of content, combined with large platforms’ personalized curation, makes it all but impossible to discover new voices through traditional distribution. It is becoming harder and harder to stumble upon a film that ends up changing one’s life.

Eric Hynes: For a long time, I’ve felt the model we should be looking at is film festivals, where people are often very enthusiastic about the new, eager to take chances, and participate in cinematic culture. And I’m not talking about New York City. I’m talking about smaller towns all over the world where moviegoing remains passionate and vital, and it’s not about previewing the new Avengers movie. The audience is out there. The audience is not dictating that not everything is theatrical. That’s been forced upon them by business concerns that aren’t concerned with their experience — or their passion for film culture — at all.

Dennis Lim: There is clearly something about cinema that brings out the doomsday rhetoric. How many times are the movies supposed to have died by now? This is the invention that one of its inventors declared to be “without a future” and that has faced successive existential threats from the arrival of sound, television, home video, digital technology, corporate consolidation, and so on. And cinephilia, if you believe Susan Sontag, is long dead and buried.

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