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).
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).
Eric is the Founder/Site Editor of Cinedelphia.com 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.