Putting on the Brakes

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Tue, 03/13/2012 - 20:00 -- Nick Dager

This is a pivotal time in the motion picture business and unfortunately most of the people who are feeling the brunt of these changes are in the worst position to have any real influence on what is happening. This is true of the filmmakers who hope to have their movies seen on a big screen in as the phrase goes a theatre near you. But the situation is even worse for the people who currently own many of those theatres. Next month in Las Vegas the motion picture business as a whole will gather for two of the largest and most important industry events of the year. First comes the National Association of Broadcasters convention. There many of the attendees will be independent filmmakers looking for the last digital production and post-production tools which keep getting more powerful and increasingly less expensive. This is the positive news. Meanwhile at CinemaCon which takes place a week later many of the attendees will be studio executives and major exhibitors discussing the latest in digital cinema technology; the independent theatre owners who do attend will simply be looking for a way to survive. We have two very special guest columns in this Report both by experienced and knowledgeable industry veterans who bring unique viewpoints to these issues. One is by cinematographer James Mathers; the other is by independent distributor Ira Deutchman. Although the key executives at the major Hollywood studios have heard similar versions of both stories many times before they would be well advised to take heed this time because we have reached a critical moment in the century-long life of the motion picture business. History suggests that in the long term Hollywood could be the one to suffer the most if things don’t change. It’s time to put on the brakes. Deutchman has been making marketing and distributing films since 1975 and has worked on more than 150 films including some of the most successful independent films of all time. He was one of the founders of Cinecom and later created Fine Line Features—two companies that were created from scratch and in their respective times helped define the independent film business. Currently Deutchman is managing partner of Emerging Pictures a New York-based digital exhibition company. He is also a professor of Professional Practice in the Graduate Film Division of the School of the Arts at Columbia University where he is the Chair of the Film Program. Among the more than 60 films he acquired and released at Fine Line were Jane Campion’s An Angel at My Table Gus van Sant’s My Own Private Idaho Jim Jarmusch’s Night on Earth Robert Altman’s The Player and Short Cuts Roman Polanski’s Bitter Moon and Death and the Maiden Alan Rudolph’s Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle Mike Leigh’s Naked and the award-winning Hoop Dreams until recently the highest grossing non-music documentary in history. The impetus for Deutchman’s article which was originally published by Tribeca Film's Future of Film blog on February 29 and is used here with their permission was what has been referred to in the blogosphere in recent weeks as the Searchlight letter. “The letter simply stated that in eighteen months Searchlight would no longer be making 35mm prints of their releases ” Deutchman writes “and so if a theatre is to continue to play Searchlight’s product it will have to upgrade to a specific type of digital projection system. The Searchlight letter may have been the final warning bell but everyone in the film distribution and exhibition business has known this was coming for a while. NATO (no not that NATO; the National Association of Theatre Owners) has been on record predicting that this would be the last year of 35mm prints for at least the last several years. It appears that the real implications of this technological change are just beginning to dawn on them. And the issues are both simpler and more challenging than they seem on the surface. The key is that the change is more political than technological.” The motion picture industry has been at a similar juncture before. In a series of actions and events that were eerily similar to what is happening today the Motion Picture Patents Company also known rather ironically as the Edison Trust was founded in 1908 by all of the major American film companies of the day including Edison Biograph Vitagraph Essanay Selig Lubin Kalem American Star and American Pathé. They were joined by the top film distributor at the time George Kleine and Eastman Kodak the major supplier of film stock. The MPPC ended the domination of foreign films on American screens standardized the way that films were distributed and exhibited. It also eliminated the outright sale of films to distributors and exhibitors and replaced it with a rental system that improved the quality control over prints that had formerly been used long past their prime. But the Trust also established a monopoly on all aspects of filmmaking. Eastman Kodak holder of the patent on raw film stock for time agreed to only sell stock to other members. Likewise the Trust's control of patents on motion picture cameras ensured that only MPPC studios were able to film and the projector patents allowed the Trust to make licensing agreements with distributors and theatres – and thus determine who screened their films and where. In response to all of this independent filmmakers who controlled as much as a third of the domestic marketplace moved their operations to Hollywood to make it more difficult for the New Jersey-based Edison to enforce his patents. There they found diverse geography excellent weather and an overall ideal environment for movie making. Just as important was the fact that the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco was widely known to be reluctant to enforce patent claims. Then in 1911 Kodak broke with the MPPC and began selling film stock to the unlicensed independents. The number of theatres exhibiting independent films grew by 33 percent within twelve months to half of all houses. The MPCC was finally terminated in 1918 when many of its patents expired and the courts refused to uphold the remaining ones. Today the Hollywood of 1909 has been replaced by the Internet and offers filmmakers options such as iTunes Amazon and of course YouTube. It isn’t the big screen but it’s an easy and inexpensive way to have a movie seen by hundreds and in some rare cases millions of viewers. Doubters would be well to consider young filmmaker Jason Russell the USC film school grad whose twenty-six-minute documentary Kony 2012 had been viewed as of this writing by more than eighty million people worldwide. In his guest column in this Report cinematographer James Mathers chronicles the making of the feature length film Brake that is now employing a unique release strategy and like Kono 2012 is working outside the normal studio system to try to gain an audience. Mathers who began his career in Hollywood as a child actor has been the Director of Photography on more than thirty feature films among them The US vs John Lennon and most recently The Chicago 8 and Adentures of the Dunderheads. He has seen six TV series from inception through their first season. In Mathers’ article he recounts his work as DP on a new independent feature film Brake which is having a limited theatrical release starting March 23rd in New York and Los Angeles. The production team on Brake which takes the risk of having a single actor and stars Stephen Dorff was a mixture of young people making their first movie and a group of veterans all of whom have major projects to their credit. Several are Academy Award winners. The story of the two-week shoot which Mathers recounts in excellent detail is well worth the read but just as interesting and pertinent here is how the producers are finding an audience. “In what you might call an experimental distribution pattern ” Mathers writes “it is actually already available as a VOD download on iTunes Amazon and elsewhere. I often compare the feat of a modestly budgeted spec indie feature getting any kind of a theatrical release to grabbing the brass ring; for it to be successful is like winning the lottery. For Brake they chose to avoid the popular festival route and instead held special screenings for distributors. They wanted to make sure the work was seen in the best light so it was only shown projected on large screens (40-plus feet) with full Dolby Surround Sound and with a large audience. Based on the strength of those screenings the movie has been sold into domestic and international theatrical release as well as home video.”