Some Video Stories Need Big Screens More Than Others

Content Insider #788 – Big Time

By Andy Marken – [email protected]

“Let me explain something to you. Um, I am not “Mr. Lebowski”. I’m the Dude. So that’s what you call me. You know, that or, uh, His Dudeness, or uh, Duder, or El Duderino if you’re not into the whole brevity thing. – The Dude, “The Big Lebowski,” Polygram Entertainment – 1998

Look, there is no one who wants to see the big theatrical window and big red-carpet events return than the folks in and around Dalton, GA.

They make 90 percent of the wall-to-wall carpet in the whole wide world!

Every film festival, awards banquet, film unveiling, any excuse for a big party uses their stuff … lots of their stuff. 

But they’ve gotten over it, moved on, so maybe the entertainment industry can.

Folks blame everyone for the declining interest and seats in seats 

It’s true, the pandemic messed up a lot of things. However, budgets, prices and viewing/entertainment options have been rising for decades; and while everyone wants to be involved in a project that has a $100M budget, they don’t make the industry hum.

No Guarantee – Dropping more money on a film/show doesn’t mean you can count on it being a profitable venture.  Good storyline, great shooting/post, credible acting count more than dollars, pounds, euros, rupees.  

Most of them don’t provide profit or ROI (return on investment) for the studios, backers.

It Depends – The theatrical window has always been something flexible and depends on a lot of things including quality of the project, audience interest and other entertainment options.  

Theatrical release windows have been shrinking for years as studios and content backers weigh their options – TV, airlines, discs–oh yeah, and streaming.

Actually, one of the most profitable projects was never even shown in a theater.  Behind the Green Door. It cost $60K to make and the last time anyone tallied its total sales (2007), it had raked in $25M.

One of the most profitable horror films, The Blair Witch Project, cost $60K and made about $250M.

Obviously, how much you invest in the project doesn’t guarantee how many screens the film will be seen on or how many seats will be in seats.

Still, the more than 208,000 movie house screen owners couldn’t have asked for a much better second half of 2022 – Top Gun, Black Adam, Black Panther: Wakanda Forever, Ticket to Paradise (Surprise!), Halloween Ends, Woman King, Avatar (re-release), Avatar: The Way of Water, and dozens of other projects large and small that were seen regionally or globally depending on the budget.

More Than Seats – Having a good showing in movie houses is nice for a film but there are a lot of things that go into making it a loss leader, break even venture or real profit maker.  

Whether you drop $10M or $100M plus on a film, you want to squeeze every bit of profit out of it as possible, which is what theater owners are counting on to sell more popcorn. Studio owners, project managers and folks with skin in the game are also pushing for their backend paychecks as well as street cred for the next creative offering that comes their way.

Look, there are very few folks in the film industry who call their own shots and lay down their own rules; but for most industry workers, money talks and BS walks.

Theater First – Tom Cruise (l) and James Cameron are just two of the industry’s stalwarts who insist their projects be shot for and shown in movie theaters.  Top Gun: Maverick and Avatar: The Way of Water proved their commitment to the big screen paid off…again.  

We admit, there are a whole lot of good writers, producers, directors, actors, shooters and postproduction folks in the industry.

There are fewer great ones.

And there are talents like Tom Cruise and James Cameron who say, “I’m doing this project and here are the rules.” And investors say, “Yeah, whatever … here’s the check.”

Not that they’re that good, but they have a backlog of credibility in being able to deliver a film that delivers.

They’ll deliver people back to theaters no matter what and put seats in seats. Back when things started to return (about mid-year), 58 percent of the theater owners and operators were sure things would return to normal within a few months.  

Yeah right!

Downward – Admissions to movies have been trending down for years largely because studios and movie houses rely on formula productions (it worked before, do it again) rather than drawing in more folks – young and old.  

Jeez folks, the number of people going to the movie house has been on a steady downhill trend since 2002.

 If it weren’t for the fact that theaters charged more for the tickets and jacked up the prices on the greasy/salty popcorn, sweet drinks and assorted empty-calorie junk food, more than just Cinemax would have filed for Chapter 11 or worse.

The majority (two-thirds) felt that ticket sales would never get back to the good old days.

Hey folks, the good old days weren’t that good!

But that’s beside the point.

The real issues are that:

  • Most films/shows today are funded/produced by folks who own streaming video services – Netflix, Disney, WBD, Paramount, Amazon, Hotstar (Disney), iQiyi (Baidu), Youku (Alibaba), Tencent, Apple, Sky, BritBox, Canal, Iroko, Vodacom, Safaricom, KIWI and 600 plus others.
  • Streaming services are pushing to steadily raise their subscription numbers and increase their MAU (monthly average users), which requires a never-ending stream of new, fresh, increasingly expensive content.
  • Day date releases to theaters and the streaming service customer base is a dumb idea (there, we said it)! But not all of the content “deserves/needs” a big screen because they were envisioned, created, produced for the small screen and throwing them on the big, big screen is a disservice to the creative crew and audience.
  • Streaming content – and the fading pay TV stuff – is created for the masses to attract and hold – for a while – as many eyeballs as possible.

Personally, we believe streaming services and studios need a theatrical window – 7-90ish days – depending on the project’s investment because:

  • Attendee and “critic” noise builds excitement and anticipation for a project before it gets wide distribution.
  • Theatrical presence adds a certain amount of added credibility that the movie is really a movie.
  • As dumb and outmoded as the award events rules are that a film has to first be seen for X days in Y movie houses before it’s eligible for a statue, streamers have to live with it. After all, the statue gives the project even more noise/viewer interest and yes, it makes everyone on the team feel really, really special.

Forget about seeing Top Gun: Maverick and both Avatars. There are others that you’ll see streamed to your screen after some theatrical window.  

They may be streamed, but boy will you be disappointed.

They were envisioned as giant screen spectaculars from the get-go and watching them squeezed down to your 75-in screen or the 6-in screen in your hand would be terribly disappointing.

Spruced Up – If you haven’t caught a movie in a theater for awhile, you will be pleasantly surprised that owners/operators have invested a lot to improve your experience.  

We can’t blame the disappointing movie-going experience too much on the theater owners because most invested in their theaters while you were away – upgrading audio-visual technology, making seats more comfortable and introducing consumer-friendly subscription.

However, over the past 10-15 years, only about 40 percent of the films that racked up decent ticket sales were original.  Most were adapted from existing work, sequels, prequels, spin-offs, remakes or reboots.  

According to more than a few film analysts, only about 15 percent of the top grossing films passed the originality bar.  

Instead, the new Hollywood focuses on bigger…bigger production budget, bigger marketing budget, bigger noise during the news cycle, bigger focus on the gross – $1B plus worldwide – even if it’s not a five-star or deemed Fresh on the Rotten Tomatoes scale.

Studio executives strutted big time when their superhero sequels, prequels, spin-offs had a decent run this past year.  

Horror films have become edgy, scary thrillers rather than a horror films.  

Super technologies during shooting, editing, production have built anticipation and excitement, surprise, replacing fumbling blood and gore in the projects.  

For the most part though, both genres suck for the older movie-goer and don’t inspire the youth.

Surprise – Sometimes a film can surprise the critics and the studio by being something folks really want to see.  Romcoms haven’t been real popular until Ticket to Paradise.  

The George Clooney/Julia Roberts Ticket to Paradise movie surprised everyone in the industry probably including Universal and the Roberts/Clooney duo because rom-coms just weren’t supposed to suck seats into seats like the film did – young/old, male/female.

Spoiler – expect to see a new group of rom-com adventures being offered on all of the screens in late 2023, but don’t let ultra-paid studio/streamer bosses, prima donna producers or bulldozer actors kid you.

Sure, they take credit for the hits and fire someone/anyone for the misses.

And guess what?

They’re missing one very important point – 15-24-year-olds make up the biggest portion of movie house audiences and a decent/influential chunk who watch the streaming stuff.

Young Crowd – The best thing theater owners can hope for is highlight films that appeal to the younger crowd – male/female – because they influence the older crowd and hey, they’ll be around longer.  

British film theologist (our title for him, not his) Stephen Follows pointed out some years back that these are the folks that cram their seats into seats. 

They’re the ones who influence the older crowd to catch a flick, movie or show.

In addition, age is on their side.  

If they’re 20 and the 40- to 50-year-olds they influence go to a bunch of movies or sign up for a given streaming service, it means they have 20 plus years to spend watching your stuff than the older crowd.

Viewing, entertainment habits form early and usually stick with us as we get older, so industry execs need to plan now for tomorrow’s seat-filler/viewer or plan to retire before…

People Need Entertainment – The pandemic only reinforced that people around the globe need entertainment to give them at least momentary relief from the drudgery, drama of the world around them.  

This photo taken at the beginning of the pandemic best explained video entertainment needs to survive and grow regardless of the obstacles.

The major streaming services are investing in a breathtaking amount of new content – across all genres – to sign up as many of the 500M – 1B subscribers as possible.  

Combined Disney, Netflix, Amazon and WBD are investing more than $80B.  

While they’re investing heavily in their own projects, there is a significant expansion in the acquisition of indie content, which accounts for more than 60 percent of the world’s film/show production.

Production Everywhere – Every streaming service is investing in new, different content to add to their libraries but they’re also acquiring global indie content to add variety and spice to their offerings.  

The disparity in true subscriber numbers is something no one is really certain of.

No one has verified if they’re counting individual subscriber households or if a household with five subscriptions is counted as five separate customers

It does and doesn’t matter because industry analysts are all saying that by 2025, we’ll have 1.6B+ subscribers.  

But if the households average five services each that means everyone is chasing after a smaller potential audience.  

We know it doesn’t really matter but we’d like to know how many people are really on the other side of the screen.

It mattered in The Dude’s household in The Big Lebowski when he told the film/streaming service analyst, “Do you see a wedding ring on my finger? Does this place look like I’m f****ng married? The toilet seat’s up, man!”

Yeah … that’s a good sign but a little bit too much oversharing! Even more than the carpet producers want to know.

Andy Marken[email protected] – is an author of more than 700 articles on management, marketing, communications, industry trends in media & entertainment, consumer electronics, software and applications. An internationally recognized marketing/communications consultant with a broad range of technical and industry expertise especially in storage, storage management and film/video production fields; he has an extended range of relationships with business, industry trade press, online media and industry analysts/consultants.

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