Distributors and independent cinemas at loggerheads over screening policy
‘Finding Your Feet.’
Argy-bargy between distributors and exhibitors is as old as the cinema itself – but tensions have been rising in some quarters in the era of digital projection.
Some independent exhibitors are pressing for an end to the traditional screening policy which they say is stuck in the 35mm era and guarantees a minimum number of day and night sessions for the first two weeks of a film’s run.
They contend the practice is outdated and they should be able to book more films and to program titles depending on how each performs at the box office.
In turn, some major distributors insist they need guaranteed sessions to justify spending anywhere between $2.5 million and $4 million on marketing films which often have production budgets of $200 million or more – particularly considering exhibitors have a 90-day exclusive window before titles are available on home entertainment.
According to Wallis Cinemas consultant Bob Parr, 20th Century Fox was the first major to take a more flexible approach to the number of sessions, starting with The Revenant.
“I believe that the old rules of specifying a fixed number of day and evening sessions for a whole week, and the time constraints of evening sessions, should be a thing of the past,” says Majestic Cinemas CEO Kieren Dell, who operates cinemas in Port Macquarie, Nambucca Heads, Singleton, The Entrance, Inverell, Nambour and Sawtell.
“Flexible policies to allow certain content to only or primarily show on weekdays or on weekends, or in the evenings or in the day, are necessary to fit in the diverse content now available. Perhaps a total agreed number of sessions to be scheduled as the cinema sees fit to maximise the audience would be preferable.
“Sessions at 6.30pm and 9pm don’t always suit regional audiences who may have to travel a fair distance to their cinema or home late at night on sub-standard roads. Some of these elements have been slowly changing with some progressive distributors; however it really needs to be embraced by all, or at least a majority, for it to be practical in terms of programming and scheduling ion the real world.”
StudioCanal’s Greg Denning argues that the view that session policies are stuck in the 35mm era is short-sighted. “From the distributor’s point of view as partners with exhibition we are spending huge amounts of money on production budgets and marketing, so a minimum season and session commitment is justified in order to ensure films are being adequately supported,” he says.
“Yes there is a greater breadth of product which appeals to a broad audience but distributors can’t afford to make and release films without a certain level of support from exhibition. It just doesn’t make economic sense.”
Some indie distribs are more supportive of flexible booking as long as their films are treated on their merits and given a reasonable chance to find audiences.
Transmission Films co-founder Andrew Mackie says: “Our main focus is ensuring that our films open to enough sessions in order for them to get a fair start, and that they are then able to play through as performance dictates.
“What can be frustrating is when sessions are reduced, or removed altogether, to favour a film that’s grossing less than ours but which has an enforced session policy. Consciously or not, screens are sometimes over-programmed and it’s reasonable to expect some protection against that.”
Palace Cinemas CEO Benjamin Zeccola observes that films which used to adhere to the strict policy of two daytime and one evening session per day can now perform better by having three day sessions only, so patrons, exhibitors and distributors all benefit.
“We agree unequivocally with Andrew Mackie’s comment that films should be given a fair start and then play according to their own performance,” Zeccola says.
“It’s not always perfect or perfectly fair; however there are swings and roundabouts and decisions are becoming increasingly dynamic as the technology also facilitates greater flexibility.”
British comedy/drama Finding Your Feet is a recent example of a film which had a predominantly day trade but distributor eOne stipulated one evening session each night for the first two weeks.
If that evening session were dropped another film could be programmed so cinemas could offer audiences more diverse content, exhibitors say.
In a presentation at the recent Independent Cinemas Australia conference Parr made a strong argument for more flexible policies for single screens and four-plexes.
He pointed out The Hobbit: Battle of the Five Armies made more money at one screen in three weeks, playing one daytime and one evening session, than the first Hobbit movie which had three sessions. In addition, that cinema’s overall takings were much bigger in that three week period – $37,238 vs. $20,299 – because it was able to program more films.
Visiting Picturehouse Cinemas in the UK last year through the Natalie Miller Fellowship, Wallis Cinemas programming manager Sasha Close observed there is is slightly more flexibility with programming compared to the Australian market.
Close says: “The flexibility in programming is negotiated with numerous distributors and allows for a more diverse range of product to be screened in cinemas and thus audiences enjoy more content in a big screen environment.
“Sometimes this flexibility can take many forms: a film for a once-off session on a Monday night results in the loss of a session for a film that is perhaps more suited to day trade. It is my view that films should be experienced in cinemas and all sides of the industry should be working towards having conversations to make this happen, especially so now, given the current environment with digital disruption.”