A Theatrical Showcase Points the Way

For a very long time, I’ve been proselytizing to just about anyone who would listen about how digital projection could change the way we think about a theatrical release. While most people in the industry focus on cost savings, which can be substantial over time, I’ve been fascinated with the disruptive element–the fact that our entire notion of what constitutes the traditional theatrical model has been built around the economics of shipping these precious items called “prints” around. These assets, once bought, beg to be used as often as possible to justify their cost. Yet, every time the print is run through a projector it is deteriorating, and constantly at risk of being severely damaged. Switching from one film to another in the projection booth is a clunky process of splicing and unsplicing reels, subjecting the prints to even further potential damage. It’s not for nothing that the budgets for theatrical release are called P&A, indicating that the budget for prints has a prominence that is equal to or greater than any other part of the distribution budget.

Institutions that are dedicated to the art of film have always been in a bind in that their mission is to expose audiences to material that is more diverse and more challenging than standard multiplex fare, but the economics of those types of films never allowed for more than a few prints at any given time, and those prints would be in terrible shape after a few theatrical runs in major cities. Distributors of smaller movies would “bicycle” the prints around the country–two days here, five days there, until perhaps a year later, most of the towns that have an appetite for these films would have played it. By the time smaller cities were playing a film, any national press or excitement that had built up around the film would have dissipated.

Enter digital projection and suddenly smaller films could be everywhere at once with very little or no incremental cost. With no hard asset to recoup, a film could play a single show at a location if that’s the potential demand. And if there’s anything I’ve learned from all my years as a distributor, the beauty of old fashioned repertory cinemas is that they get the same number of people in one show (if that’s all there is) that they would have gotten spread out over a week with a traditional theatrical run. It’s just better business.

But what about the “A” in P&A? How do we get attention for smaller films without having the budget of Fox Searchlight or Focus Features? Taking another page from repertory cinemas, I’m a big believer in packaging films together thematically in order to get more attention for the package than one could ever get for any single film. There are many examples of this over the years, from the “French New Wave” to “Dogma 95” to “Mumblecore.” While some of these were more successful than others, they were all basically marketing ploys to elevate a certain type of film and get more attention.

Pulling these ideas together, why not recreate the repertory cinema model for the digital age–program different strands of films on different nights, day-part them if you will. Why not stage national events to showcase those strands and have audiences feel like that are part of something larger–something they can’t get on TV or from a DVD?

At Emerging Pictures, we’ve done some experimentation with these ideas over the last couple of years. We did a showcase of documentaries from the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival at the same time that the festival was going on in Durham NC. We syndicated the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s “Latin Beat” series a few times. We did a series called “Undiscovered Gems” with indieWIRE. We started doing one-night-only documentary events in multiple locations, and had live Q&As broadcast to multiple theaters at once. All of these events worked technically, but they were missing the “A.” There was really no budget to promote them, so while satisfaction was high for the filmmakers, the venues and the audiences, business was meager.

Cut to: Last fall at the Toronto Film Festival. I had a meeting with Sarah McKenzie, Head of Export Unit at the soon to close UK Film Council. In March 2011 the Unit had showcased UK films in digital cinemas across three Indian cities – Mumbai, Delhi and Bangalore, enhancing the entertainment experience with talent participating in live webcast ‘In Conversations’. It was supported by both a traditional and social media promotion campaign that reached 35 million Indians. Sarah had heard that we were doing similar things at Emerging. One thing led to another, and the result was “From Britain With Love,” a series of independent UK films, that will be happening all over the country starting June 11. The difference between this series and others that we have done is that we have a partner with an understanding of the potential of digital cinemas and resources to invest in press and marketing, the UK Film Council, and that has always been the missing piece.

The series has turned into a massive collaboration that to me represents a blueprint of how this might work going forward–a vision of the future of theatrical distribution.

Here is how it came together.

After we worked it all out between Emerging and the Film Council, they put out a call for entries. These were to be UK films that had not yet been released in the US. There was an application process and screeners came in from all over. The Film Society of Lincoln Center agreed to curate the series and to host it as the flagship venue. Scott Foundas of the Film Society embraced the idea and narrowed the films down from the 30 films that were entered, to the six films that now constitute the series. Scott’s programming skills have made for an incredibly strong line up of films, representing the very diverse cultures that make up the current British film scene. These are not your typical “King’s Speech” kinds of films.

The films will be each be shown once at the Film Society’s theaters, including three of them at the new Film Center, and each will repeat for one screening at the IFC Center downtown. All the films will be showing in over 30 cities around the country, in some cases at the exact same time they will show at Lincoln Center. Each of the films will have a live Q&A, the first three broadcast from Lincoln Center and the last three broadcast from the UK. The Q&As will be carried live on the screens at many of the other theaters, and also on the Internet. Questions will be asked via Twitter. Theater personnel will tweet out questions from their own audiences for those who are not yet tweet-savvy. The Q&As will be archived on the web site and available to be shown after any screening of the film–even those that come much later than the live broadcast.

UKFC Export Unit and Emerging Pictures worked together to bring on additional marketing partners that have come aboard. These are BAFTA, Creative Screen Associates, The UK Consulate, Tribeca Films and BBC America. Through those sponsorships, we will be reaching out to great targeted email lists, web sites and social networking channels. Of course, each of the venues will be working their own lists and web sites. We have a great web site at www.frombritainwithlove.org and a great trailer that is on the top of this blog post. The social media campaign is building substantial communities of interest through Twitter and Facebook with even Michael Sheen retweeting out tweets! The best news of all is that we’ve had indications that this could be an annual event, with other UK partners replacing the UK Film Council.  And even better, other sponsors are taking notice of the model and talking to us about other thematic series that could be coming down the pike very soon. Personally, I’m very excited that this has all come together, and grateful to all those that made it possible–especially Sarah McKenzie (now of Creative Screen Associates) and the UK Film Council, The Film Society of Lincoln Center & BAFTA.

I would encourage all of you to come see some (or all) of the films. First of all, they’re all very strong. But also you would be supporting a new model that could help bring a broader selection of films to our neighborhood theaters.

For a complete list of the films and show times near you, check out http://www.frombritainwithlove.org/venues/screening-schedule/

2 thoughts on “A Theatrical Showcase Points the Way”

  1. Love love love the idea! I am all for digital projection (I have work as print traffic assistant and it is not fun to carry those prints ;)) because I feel that it is absurd that in the internet area movie theater screenings have still to be so costly and hard to organize. I especially think smaller national cinemas can benefit from this change and, of course, audiences, who can potentially be exposed to foreign film without having to bear low quality DVD or even digibeta or whatever tape projection. I really admire your work.

  2. I think bundling American opera can have a similar success. In a previous blog you pointed out the danger of an artistic hegemony if opera becomes defined by one company. Agreed. Particularly because most of the exciting new American opera of the last decade has happened outside of New York, thus works you won’t see at a multiplex. And the kicker is these works have been wildly popular–in Dallas, Seattle, Philadelphia, Detroit and out here in Minnesota. They connect with an audience the same way a thrilling new film does, a piece created in our time for our time.

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