Of movies and theaters

Posted in .../Blog on 2011-11-14

Do you go to the movies? Probably not – or not very often. At $10 a ticket and maybe $10 of concessions for each person, going to the show can be prohibitively expensive. And one reason it’s so expensive is that not much has changed in theaters in the past 80 years to make things more productive. Sure, sound has progressed from “Academy Sound” (single-track mono in the old b&w’s) to Dolby stereo to digital. And projection equipment has gone from reel to reel to fully automatic, self-threading projectors. But those projectors still run 35mm film at the speed of 90 ft.per minute (24 frames a second) just as it was done in the 1930′s. (About 20 years ago I worked at the Biograph Theater in Chicago – where John Dillinger was gunned down – and I could’ve sworn that the booth equipment I operated was in use the night Melvin Purvis shot America’s Most Wanted.)

Even the distribution system hasn’t changed in generations. A two-hour movie is shipped in two film cans that weigh about 40 lbs each. And the cost of printing each movie at the lab costs thousands of $. Multiply those expenses by 4,000 movie prints, add in advertising and promotion and you get a sense of the monumental risks involved before the first ticket is even sold.

And those boxoffice figures you hear about are deceptive. If a film costs $50 million to make and it has grossed $100 million, it’s a big loser. Roughly one-third of that gross goes to the movie theater, another third goes to the distributer and a third goes to the producers.

There are two ways to change that matrix; make movies cheaper to produce (hence the trend to film outside union-ensconced California) or cut the distributers (the group that bears print and distribution costs) out of the loop. ”Filming” movies digitally instead of using film stock, then mailing out dvd’s to theaters would do exactly that. So what’s stopping Hollywod from going 100% digital? Fear. Producers are terrified that a movie digitally shot will be copied on a laptop and sent around the world before the film’s release – wiping out their $100 million investment. About ten years ago I ran a premier showing for some schlocky horror flick. When the film cans were delivered to my booth they came with their own security guard – who stayed in the booth, watching my every move as I ran the film. (I don’t hink the movie even had a theatrical release. I can’t even remember the title.)

If the producers of “F” rated scare fare are so worried about video-tape piracy, imagine the terror the backers of a “major motion picture” must feel about digital copying. Hence, things in the theater business have barely changed in decades. And that’s a shame becasue technolgy has changed everything else. Home theater systems compete favorable with movie theaters. Movies are now sometimes sinultaneously released into theaters and on pay-per-view. Clearly, unless some major changes occur, the future of movie theaters is in doubt. I believe their demise would be a great cultural loss.

For those of you who have read CRIMES OF A CHRISTIAN, my sentiment here might seem at odds with the crimes I committed. But I fought to save the job I loved. That feeling may not be obvious in the book but to those who have read the book I suggest you re-read page 189 – it was written with the sense of loss and pain one might feel when a love affair ends.