The Future of Film Exhibition in Philadelphia

I’ll begin with an e-mail I received last night from Arcadia University’s Dr. Chris Simmons, I recently corresponded with him regarding his plans for a Philadelphia-based art house/repertory theater (a concept that I’ve heard pitches for about three times in the past year and a half).  Dr. Simmons has been introducing the $10 DVD screenings that the Cinematheque Internationale of Philadelphia host at that bagel shop off of South Street and it’s safe to assume that the future physical space that the Cinematheque’s Executive Director hinted at in her interview is the very same one that Dr. Simmons has in mind.

REDACTED ON DECEMBER 21, 2011 : Chris requested that I remove his e-mail message as it was “intended as a private communication” and I have done so in the spirit of the holidays (though it’s worth noting that his request was to remove a previous request, I should set up a hotline for him).

He seems like a good guy, right?  I think so, which is why I don’t think he’ll mind my responding to his e-mail in public.  I rarely let my true thoughts on issues be known (ahem), or rather I usually hide them behind clever phrasing, mockery via oblique paraphrasing, and a self-imposed degree of journalistic integrity, which can be frustrating at times.  And with that said…

I just went back and re-read the introduction piece and I actually found it to be quite appropriate, it’s a rather kind introduction to the organization that is written in a hopeful manner.  I expressly stated that Cinedelphia (I) would not personally endorse the digital screenings of easily acquired DVDs with $10 admission fees (it’s worth noting that I do include these screenings on our Listings page regardless) and that the public can choose to spend their money however they’d like.  I stated that “they may currently lack creative programming” (easily attainable common films on DVD, check), “a functioning website” (the Cinematheque’s website changed drastically mere days after my posting, gone is the information about their $170 yearly membership rates, the contact information if you need to hire a videographer, and the dozen+ content-free subcategories…more on this in a second), and “a general grasp on the Philadelphia film community” (I won’t touch upon this one, I’m not looking to hurt feelings).  Now to backtrack for a second, when the previous website was up and running there was information everywhere about the 6 month $85 membership fee, which was extra inflated considering that the organization has only held a single screening a month for at least the past two months.  In fact, the whole website screamed get-rent-money-rich-quick, money was quite obviously the motivating factor behind the organization (a reaction shared by many as I forwarded the site around just as it had been forwarded to me).  That has all now been erased from the website, presumably as a result of the Cinedelphia post.
The post gave way to a great deal of discussion (including a must-read thread on our Facebook page [11/29] in which some of our city’s most-respected film programmers weighed in with their thoughts), but I found it unfortunate that most of the reactions were based around the topic of screening licenses.  Frankly, I don’t care at all about licenses and I explicitly stated in the post’s introduction that “yes, according to Amber they do acquire screening licenses.”  My personal issue is with the basic concept, but again, people can spend their money however they’d like.  If I had $10 to spend this week I would personally skip tonight’s Cinematheque screening of Battle of Algiers (available on Blu-ray and DVD from Criterion) and instead head to Thursday night’s screening of Burn!, a film from the same director, at Mt. Airy’s Video Library (or, if I wasn’t already a member, I would spend it on tonight’s Richard Kern showcase with Kern in person at the I-House, but for comparison’s sake…[also, an I-House yearly membership runs you $50 and they hold 12+ events a month including films projected on actual film]).  Admission for Burn! is $7 and programmer Adam Lippe will be screening a homemade version of the film that has never been seen before, a little added incentive for your money.  Actually, Adam’s program provides an interesting comparison:  Cinematheque shows widely available films, acquires licensing fees, and charges $10.  Adam Lippe’s Medium Rare Cinema shows unavailable or one-of-a-kind films, does not acquire screening licenses, and charges $7 admission (I believe he once told me that he tries to acquire licenses, but the rights for his types of films are usually impossible to locate).  And for a further comparison, take a look at all of the universities, nonprofits, and local screening series that are consistently written about on Cinedelphia that charge no admission fees and obviously don’t acquire licenses.  Just yesterday I posted the 2012 slate for Andrew’s Video Vault, a perfect example of someone who legitimately cares about community, free screenings in a public space.  Screening permissions for his yearly series of double features would run $10,000+.  I don’t really have an answer for what’s right and wrong, but I personally feel that no one should charge money for a digital screening of an easily attainable film, screening fees paid or not, and I would promptly endorse the Cinematheque if there wasn’t a door charge and if they weren’t projecting the image of a corporation or nonprofit organization (which they are neither, they are a club).
Why can’t you just find a location and show a movie for free?  You can.  You just have to be a little punk rock about it.
So I’ll just keep the post’s introduction as is.

And that’s that…for now.  Let’s move on to a recent exchange I had with Phoebe Titus of Lansdowne’s CInema 16:9.  It was actually the Cinematheque post that prompted Phoebe to write me at length concerning the challenges of running a digital theater in this day and age…I’ll edit the e-mail slightly for politeness’ sake.  And if you’re unfamiliar with Cinema 16:9, read this and keep in mind that they screen first-run indie cinema (for example, this Friday they’re hosting the Philadelphia run of the superb Tyrannosaur, a film that won’t make its way to the Ritz Theaters until January, if that).

Hi Eric,
I’ve been thinking about your post on the Cinémathèque Internationale of Philadelphia…it strikes me that one of the biggest issues that people have with the concept is the fact that the films are readily available for home viewing at a similar quality.  This is the same issue that indie theaters such as Cinema 16:9 are facing with the dawn of day & date VOD and pre-date VOD.  Why make the trip out to the theater when you can watch a decent HD version of the film at home for slightly less?  Sure the projection and sound quality are much better at the theater, but if you’ve got a good home system, well, eeh, it’s like vinyl v. mp3.  People make the sacrifice in quality in favor of convenience.  Magnolia (which is owned by Mark Cuban who also owns Landmark so he doesn’t really need to worry about indie theaters boycotting his films) has been releasing most of its films to VOD nearly a month before the “theatrical” release.  IFC (which also doesn’t have a business model that relies on in-theater “theatrical” release) has been doing day & date for awhile and many of the other small indie distributors have been experimenting with it as well.  This is eating huge chunks into the in-theater box-office revenue of these films.  Recently there have been reports of VOD “saving” indie film, filmmakers, and distributors, but very little has been said about the effect on small independent exhibitors beyond “well, they’re obsolete, move on, nothing to see here…”  What are your thoughts on the eventual cost to the indie film industry of devaluing their product by focusing so much on day & date?  If theaters can no longer afford to show films because they are easily available on TV, won’t that deal a huge blow to the credibility of these films by branding them “made for TV” or little more than HBO (no offense to HBO, but most people see a big difference between what they’d go see in the theater & what they’d expect to see on TV).  This won’t immediately or necessarily affect the multiplexes since NATO has put its foot down for now, but it will hurt and is already hurting the (non-Landmark) indies.  At our theater we have chosen not to use a film booker (which gives us more flexibility if slightly less access) and we now think looong and hard before agreeing to book a film that’s day & date since we’ve seen how it eats into our market.  We’ve had too many experiences of putting a lot of effort into marketing a film only to hear “Awesome! So glad you’re going to show that, I can’t wait!” then a couple weeks later “I loved it!  I saw it on VOD the other night!”  We’ve been trying to figure out how to embrace VOD and accept it as the new normal, but it seems as though there is very little long-term thought going into what this will do to the industry.  VOD could easily re-name indie “theatrical” as “something you watch in your living room” rather than “in theaters.”  People say “Why would I pay to see something in the theater when it’s readily available to watch at home?” implying that there is a huge perceived devaluing of a film once it’s not exclusively in a theatrical setting.  Yet people love going to the theater in theory.
Theaters have persisted through TV, VHS, DVD, Blu-ray, etc. because people enjoy getting out, they enjoy seeing something projected beautifully on a big screen with excellent audio, they enjoy having someone pop their popcorn & get them a soda.  We work hard to make our theater experience one to leave home for with the idea that yeah, I can cook a great meal at home, but going out for a nice meal is a great experience.  We try to make the theater experience our big selling point, but part of what people want when they go to the movies is to see something they couldn’t otherwise see, why would I go out to dinner to eat the same mac & cheese I make at home? That experience doesn’t have the same value to me & neither does going out to see a movie I could just stream at home.  Do you think filmmakers and distributors are thinking about these things?  Do they realize that doing a day & date “theatrical” opening is trying to get the prestige of “theatrical” on the backs of theaters, and not the “big, bad theaters”, but the small hip, awesome, indie theaters that film lovers love?  Or do they only see the potential payoff?
Anyway, these and other industry thoughts are heavily on Dave’s and my mind at the moment as we do our 3yr assessment of the business.  We love what we do, we want to keep on doing it, yet if day & date VOD and pre-date VOD are going to be the wave of the future for indie distributors, I’m not too sure we can do it.  It would be a big shame if the only movie theaters left in 5yrs were multiplexes.
-Phoebe (aka – Dave’s wife)

Phoebe raises a lot of interesting points and unanswerable questions.  I’m afraid that multiplexes are the future of film exhibition and that the smaller movie houses will eventually drift away as the younger generations enjoy their convenient handheld access to cinema.  I wonder if independent filmmakers already find VOD to be a more valuable distribution outlet than theaters as it allows their work to reach a much wider and less discriminating audience…  I’ve learned to not judge a film based upon how I access it, be it IMAX, Netflix, VOD, or YouTube and I think that said generations are of the same mindset and that they’ll never value the moviegoing experience as much as us veterans.  As for the distributors’ mindsets when pursuing these new avenues, I can only assume that the accountants and algorithms that they employ are just and sound.

Now to quickly summarize a follow-up e-mail, Phoebe discussed her worries concerning a local venue that recently started holding free screenings of movies on DVD.  She visited the venue and brought up the issue of acquiring screening rights with a higher-up who stated that “we’re not charging admission and so we don’t.”  Phoebe is worried that the venue will take audiences away from her own theater and is thus planning on approaching the venue about the illegality of their actions in the most polite of manners (she expressly stated that she does not want to get the venue in trouble).  And thus we’ve almost come full circle…

Showing a movie in a public space without permission is illegal (I think).  But can you imagine what it would be like in Philadelphia if everyone adhered to this rule (assuming it’s true)?  There goes Andrew’s Video Vault, Medium Rare Cinema, Guerilla Drive-In, Rave Cinema Classics, The Chestnut Hill Film Group, and Shooting Wall (to name a few).  These are all organizations that provide public entertainment free of both charge and screening licenses (as far as I know).  How about the Secret Cinema, they charge admission fees for (most often rare) films projected on actual film, do they need to get permission for what they show (maybe you can ask them yourself tomorrow night at the International House where they’ll be screening indie surf classic A Swingin’ Summer on 35mm with Richie Rotkin of The Rip Chords in person [EDIT: $9 GA, $7 student/senior, free for members])?  I’m not sure if the rules are different if you actually own a physical copy of the film, I would assume not since then the Cinematheque could just show the DVDs that they own sans permission.  Here’s an example closer to home:

Cinedelphia programs the six-week, biannual Unknown Japan series.  Admission and popcorn are free, I select Japanese films that have never received distribution outside of Japan, it’s held in a meeting room at the Bellevue.  So let’s say that the next installment of the as-yet-to-be-announced series (kicking off February 8, 2012 on the 7th Floor of the Bellevue at Broad/Walnut) includes a 1967 anti-war film from one of the masters of Japanese cinema that stars famed Italian puppet Topo Gigio.  It’s understandable that you’ve never heard of it and now immediately need to seek it out.  Can this film be shown to the public without a screening license?  Should the people of Philadelphia be deprived of such a rare oddity?  I’m unclear of the legality of it all and frankly I don’t care.  It’s a free event, it’s a film you would never come across otherwise, and I’m more than happy to put in the time programming and hosting a series like this with no monetary compensation (if you think that’s noble, don’t forget this past summer’s Piazza-held AwesomeFest in which programmer Josh Goldbloom used funds out of his own pocket to host a season’s worth of free screenings and provide special guests).  And at the end of the day, it’s all about fun, isn’t it?  Which brings me back to the introduction I penned for the Cinematheque post, perhaps it was indeed a bit critical with an insidious undercurrent of my personal opinions.  Like the rest of us, they’re just providing the public with some fun, and there’s nothing wrong with that.  And why not charge admission if adherence to the rules is required and the public is willing to pay?  To paraphrase one of the great showmen:  go right ahead (P.T. Barnum).

And by the way, Fear and Desire (1953), Stanley Kubrick’s rarely-seen film debut, makes its world television premiere tonight at 8:00 pm exclusively on TCM, watch it from the comfort of your living room.

Author: Eric Bresler

Eric is the Founder/Site Editor of whose additional activities are numerous: Director/Curator of the Philadelphia Mausoleum of Contemporary Art (PhilaMOCA), founder of Tokyo No Records, the brain behind Video Pirates, and active local film programmer including the Unknown Japan screening series. He’s served as a TLA Video Manager, Philadelphia Film Society Managing Director, and Adjunct Professor in Cinema Studies at Drexel University. He is shy and modest. Email Eric.


  1. This is quite a lot to chew on. Thought I’d make a quick correction: Secret Cinema @ IHP on Thursday is $9 general admission, $7 is student/senior price, free for members. Those are our standard prices for films at The Ibrahim Theater.

  2. Phoebe,

    I think it’s sooo daman cool what you and Dave have done. I grew up around 69th st and eventually moved to Drexel Hill on the Lansdowne borderline in high school. I would have killed to have had a theater like yours in the area. It was a personal dream of my own in highscool (the mid 90’s) to run my own Roxy style theater. Hey, remember when the Roxy was the coolest theater in the city?!!! My heart breaks for you, I have numerous friends who bought small art house theaters in small towns who are all going bankrupt. I fear that indie film presentation is dead, in fact, I think middle tier indie film as a whole business will soon be absolete in its entirety. The future of cinema is a system of extremes. Gone will be the days of polished, ambitious 1 to 6 million dollar independents. From here on in, you’re going to have self distributed vanity project features shot for $50,000 by rich kids who can afford such an investment with no garunteed return and star studded Hollywood vehicles. Neftlix and VOD have given indie cinema a larger audience, that is TRUE. But Netflix and VOD has killed indie theaters and hard media rentals & purchases. Netflix, IFC, and Magnolia mostly pay pitifu streaming rights fees/aquistion offers. Most films not only fail to generate substantial profit, but even 75,0000 dollar films released for the VOD/ Neftlix market are now unable to even recoup their production costs. Say what you will about Blockbuster video, selling hard copy DVDs/VHS tapes for rental was how much indies made their money.


    lolololol. Oh boy. First you try and get Cinematheque shut down and demanded proof of Amber’s professionalism because you used to program films for a college program and that makes you an authoratative figure for all film programming in Philly and anyone doing their own thing are required to placed under your scrutiny? HA! And now you’re demanding an apology from Eric to reammend the article. lolol. The Philly film scene is a strange place.

  3. Really great article Eric. I think you touch on a lot of the issues going on in cinema distribution right now. The biggest issue in all of this is really Hollywood and their overwhelming control of all aspects of filmmaking (production and distribution). Hollywood is who makes it difficult for truly indepdendent theaters to thrive. Another problem, unfortunately, is that film is such an INDUSTRY in every sense of the word. Film has become a consumer product to a disgusting extent. This is true in Hollywood and even in so-called indepdendent film. There is no longer a difference between mainstream and independent; they are both interested in the bottom line and the bottom line is money. If there could be some system of filmmaking and distribution separate from the monstrous cpaitalism system, then things may change and truly original and independent cinema and theaters will be able to succeed. It saddens me to say, but I don’t know if it’s possible for small cinemas and repertory houses to survive unless we change the system in some way…

  4. Josh,

    No matter what, films cost money, lots of money. Film is not the same as painting, music, or literature. It requires the hard work of lots of people. People who deserve to be paid for their effort, time, and expertise. Of course money is the bottom line for ALL film projects, and there is nothing inherently wrong with that. They need to make money for theaters to make money. Making film out of passion for art is great and all, but until you’ve spent a few years working 18 hour days in production for low/deferred pay, or put a personal film in the can that you can’t sell, simply bashing capatialsim is naive. Of course Indie film is an industry! Entertaiment is commerce. duh. Hollywood sucks, but they’re not some great evill. And using Hollywood as some abstract construct/ scapegoat for everything is disingenious. Shitty movies come out of Hollywood because the mass majority of people like shitty movies. Hollywood supplies for a demand but they don’t really create it. Scott Pilgrim was Hollywood trying to provide supply for the nerd demand, and it failed miserably, meanwhile, Jack and Jill has raked in a solid 25 million already. We have no one to blame but the general populace. We have no one to blame but ourselves. All these “film” supporters constantly talk about the films in their netflix que. Here’s my question, how many of you saw Let the Right One In, in theaters? Oh, it’s everyone’s favorite horror film now but Magnolia spent a shit ton of money marketing that thing and getting it into theaters. I saw it in Lacaster and it eventually opened even in Harrisburg. Magnolia and a lot of passionate programmers worked very very hard to get that movie to open wide. Every major paper, even the local paper in fucking Harrisburg gave that film a 4 star review. I don’t know ANYONE who saw it in theaters except for my mother, myself, and my ex girlfriend who I forced to go. 2 years later, you netflixed it and loved it but Magnolia already lost a lot of money and now they’re not bothering to push foreign genre releases into theaters.

    1. Angry Film Kid,
      Yes film does cost money, however, the cost of production has decreased to such an extent that your argument holds very little validity anymore. I do not speak of Hollywood in abstract terms, but Hollywood and its output in concrete terms. You can see what they do on a regular basis. Hollywood is the abolsute problem and you can keep defending it if you like, but it does no good. Hollywood is not a scapegoat. I will blame people for watching bad movies, yes, but if that is the only product they are given, then what else are they supposed to do? And why should film be seen as only entertainment? This is the fundamental issue here. If we look at cinema as merely entertainment, then I suppose it is fine to consider this commerce, but why must this be the only kind of cinema that exists? Yes, I believe Hollywood does more harm than good, but I am not saying we have to get rid of Hollywood, as it has its place, but I think Hollywood as this behemouth that controls literally ALL entertainment not just in the USA, but also in much of the world is a problem. It is rather strange to seriously believe Hollywood creates based on demand. It is very easy for companies to create demand. It is very easy to blame people when they have very little choice really. This has always been a myth of capitalism. And I have worked on many films and am a filmmaker myself and have completed many films which because of the way the system is set up makes it difficult to screen or sell. This makes me have less faith in the system and believe that we must create alternatives. You are the one being naive here by subjecting yourself to 18 hour days and trying to sell your film into the system, which it is merely an uphill battle which you will not win. It is no concern of mine if you wish to participate in a system which treats you so badly, but do not complain if you actively do so. I believe we can create an alternative to this system. And this is the point. The point is that there is no reason for ANY industry whether is be film or otherwise to exist in one, uniformed capacity. Why should any of what you say be a given? Why should we roll over and take it as a fact or inevitable? Why let Hollywood or those with money continue to control our destinies? I just don’t really understand that.

    2. I saw it in theaters based on a reviewer I liked championing it. Didn’t see it the first week, but it seems unlikely it would have ever made a big splash at the box office anyway (the only foreign, subtitled film in recent years I can think of that may have was Pans Labyrinth). I then rented it as soon as it was released on DVD to spread its awareness more as well as to watch it again myself… But then it turned out they had used some other, not as well translated subtitles for whatever reason (never really did hear an excuse for that) and then blockbuster never ended up getting the correct version and I couldn’t recommend it to customers anymore and to this day I don’t believe you can safely buy the film online since those copies still exist and they just reissued it with “Theatrical Subtitles” written in that tiny little box on the back. I guess it’s good they eventually got the right version on Netflix it seems.

      1. I guess in case it isn’t obvious I should have mentioned I’m referring to Let the Right One In. Still glad I got to see that one on 35mm with the closer to intended dialogue scribed across the bottom of the screen, since I’m supposed to like subtitles.

  5. More in a bit but I just want to clarify a couple of things about film rights:

    There are tons & tons of different arrangements that can be worked out legally. Copyright law is complex & I assume that many/most of the groups mentioned in the article do seek out rights when applicable. My main concern about the local venue playing films without rights (aside from a slight grumble of “you can’t compete with free”) is that they could very easily end up with a hefty fine &/or lawsuit if the distributor finds out. The rights to the film are held by a distribution company that charges for screenings like that. Just having the showtimes posted on their website could, potentially be seen as a violation if someone affiliated with the distributor happened upon them. I’m not too sure how big their compliance dept is, but it’s a risky thing to do.

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