Movie Theaters Need to Stop Caring About Exclusive Content

By  · Published on October 27th, 2013

Yesterday a fight broke out over who is killing movie theaters. Throwing the first punch was Netflix chief content officer Ted Sarandos, who gave a keynote address at the Film Independent Forum in L.A. “I’m concerned that as theater owners try to strangle innovation and distribution, not only are they going to kill theaters, they might kill movies,” he said regarding the industry’s protest of VOD releases being day-and-date with theatrical openings. Soon after, National Association of Theatre Owners president/CEO John Fithian countered with a weak blow of: “Subscription movie services and cheap rentals killed the DVD business, and now Sarandos wants to kill the cinema as well.”

As a former longtime employee of the movie theater industry, I can say with some certainty that the most lethal enemy of cinemas is cinemas themselves. Sure, there is a lot to say about the convenience of lazily staying home and clicking the remote on our cable box or Roku or Xbox or using our smarthphones or tablets to watch a brand new movie in our beds with no pants on. But at some point Fithian and the rest of NATO’s scapegoating curmudgeons need to realize that going to the movies isn’t necessarily about the movie on screen. It hardly has been for the better part of a century, in fact. Moviegoing is an experience. That’s what NATO should be focused on, and much of that focus will always be on pressuring its theater chain partners to maintain a better quality experience at least most of the time.

Last night I went on Netflix and got the following message: “The Netflix website is temporarily unavailable due to scheduled maintenance.” That’s something we see way too often. I also put up with a ton of unexpected pauses or glitches when I stream the service on my TV. Some of that might be bad wifi, while some is definitely Netflix’s faults. We continue tolerating and enjoying Netflix, though, because for its buck it does normally offer a good experience. It’s not just because of what exclusive movies and TV series it has. Because exclusivity it worthless if the content and delivery of the exclusive is terrible. For instance, FSR could have an exclusive interview with the ghost of Stanley Kubrick. But if all we ask him is, “What was it like working with Tom Cruise?” then what’s the value?

The hypocrisy of NATO is that they’re so concerned about having the major studio releases exclusive to theaters while they themselves are making supplemental income from delivering a lot of non-exclusive content. I’m talking about Fathom-type events, which are a huge part of the cinema industry today. One of the things they do is screen concerts, operas and other stage productions for audiences who can’t get to the actual live shows. That’s a terrific service that doesn’t really hurt ticket sales for those concert, opera and stage production venues or threaten to kill those businesses off. Premium VOD, likewise, mostly delivers movies to people who can’t find those movies at their local multiplex, which is why it works so well for indie titles, and could do the same for people who are too lazy or disinterested in the moviegoing experience to venture out to a cinema. It doesn’t mean those who do (or want to) enjoy the theater experience will always stay home.

Why is the upcoming Doctor Who 50th Anniversary special going to be available in movie theaters nationwide? Part of the draw is that it’ll be in 3D on the big screen. But there’s also the draw of seeing the TV program on a big screen, and on top of that there’s most importantly the draw of seeing a fan-oriented TV program in a communal venue with other fans. People are going to attend this thing in costume, probably. That’s something you don’t get at home. Hopefully, the theaters they choose to attend will respectfully take care of them in this experience. Not have a broken projector. Not have a dirty auditorium. Not have ushers that are napping atop bags of popcorn in a storage room rather than monitoring for distracting chatter and smartphone usage in the theater.

Yeah, there are a lot of people who will always choose the small screen home experience. I witnessed the usual complaint this week about short release windows when someone tweeted frustration about having just paid money to see Blackfish in the theater only to find out it quickly debuted on CNN for “free.” And as we’ll officially hear finally from John Sloss of Cinetic Media/Producers Distribution Agency today, VOD figures for films like Escape From Tomorrow are huge compared to their box office grosses. But there will always be doc geeks who want to see something like Blackfish with a crowd or even just a date in order to passionately discuss it afterward. And something like Escape From Tomorrow will still generate hundreds of thousands of dollars on a limited number of big screens in spite of it also being available on the small screen in your home.

As long as the moviemakers create stuff like Gravity, audiences won’t let the movie theaters go away, but the movie theaters have to do their part. They have to not be the place I saw a friend complain about on opening weekend screwing up the exhibition of that movie – which is being marketed as theatrically necessary – and sending everyone away. Managing the presentation of the movie should be the bare minimum for these theater owners. But instead for them it’s just about putting the name of that movie on their marquee and feeling an entitlement to an exclusive on that product. To blame another carrier of said product for putting you out of business is the worst sort of evasion of responsibility there is. And it’s time for Fithian to own up to his industry’s own problems and do something about them.

Christopher Campbell began writing film criticism and covering film festivals for a zine called Read, back when a zine could actually get you Sundance press credentials. He's now a Senior Editor at FSR and the founding editor of our sister site Nonfics. He also regularly contributes to Fandango and Rotten Tomatoes and is the President of the Critics Choice Association's Documentary Branch.