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The Daily Wildcat

The Daily Wildcat

 

    The Last Picture Show

    The Last Picture Show

    As one of the most culturally diverse cities in the country, Tucson has developed an artistic reputation as home to countless art galleries, museums and concert venues. Filmmakers have many places to get exposure for their films such as at The Loft Cinema, The Screening Room, Fox Tucson Theatre and even El Con. But as last year’s closure of the Catalina may indicate, theaters that primarily show independent films may be in trouble.

    For the Loft’s event coordinator Jeff Yanc, running a theater that shows mainly art house films is a challenging business, but ultimately a rewarding one.

    “”The Catalina went out of business because they couldn’t make money off of just showing art films,”” he said. This explains why Yanc not only shows independent films, but also tries to host as many events as possible to attract patrons, such as Q&A’s with filmmakers, the Late Night Cult Classics series and the popular Buffy Sing-A-Long.

    For an independent theater like the Loft, many of the movies are “”platform”” releases. This means the movie isn’t released in every city at the same time like you’d expect from a “”wide”” film like “”Spiderman.”” They occasionally show wide films like “”Marie Antoinette,”” but generally not on opening day. So the dynamic of marketing and scheduling films for a chain theater is not quite the same for an independent theater that can’t rely on the “”big opening.””

    Dynamics of distribution

    One of the contributing factors to this is that the film distribution industry is dominated mostly by an oligopoly of six conglomerates: Time Warner, Disney (ABC), News Corp (Fox), Viacom (CBS, Paramount), Sony (Columbia) and General Electric (Universal, NBC). Very few major companies exist in Hollywood or on television that are not owned by these six conglomerates.

    There are indeed plenty of independent distribution companies, the two biggest being Lions Gate and the Weinstein Company, but their success is minimal in comparison. Of the top 50 highest grossing films of 2006, only three were not distributed by the conglomerates.

    These companies minimize risks by the protection of their trade organization, the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA). Most people know of the MPAA as the organization responsible for the ratings classification, but it does much more than that, like protecting against copyright infringement and piracy.

    “”One only has to look at the top 50 films in terms of gross in a given week and notice that most of those films are owned by MPAA-member companies, whether they are destined for the multiplex or the art house,”” said Kevin Sandler, assistant media arts professor at the UA.

    Vicky Westover, program director of the Hansen Film Institute located on campus, claims there are two different worlds of film distribution. In one world, distributors deal mostly with big theater chains that agree to a 90-10 split in the first week, where 90 percent of box office sales go to the distributor, thus minimizing risk significantly. In the other world, risk is more equally shared between distributor and exhibitor.

    “”There are many small, independent distributors and, of course, filmmakers are distributing their films themselves,”” said Westover. “”Usually these distributors are more driven by a passion for film and getting them exposed, rather than making money.””

    But as bigger distribution companies, including Fox Searchlight, Paramount Vantage and Warner Independent Pictures, become more aware of the potential market of independent films, they begin to release independent films themselves.

    The conglomerates also have many other windows of exhibition available , including DVD rentals, television, video on-demand, foreign markets. The movie theater itself only has one shot. The risk is much higher for an independent theater where losses can’t be salvaged by blockbusters.

    As more sophisticated modes of viewing become available on the Internet with websites like YouTube and iTunes the film industry as a whole experiences a decrease in attendance at movies. While this certainly impacts major theater chains as well, the challenge is harder for independent theaters to draw audiences back in.

    There is also another little-known evil in the film industry called “”clearance,”” which Vicky Westover encountered firsthand during her time in Baltimore before moving to Tucson. Until Thomas Kiefaber of Baltimore’s Senator Theater went public a few years ago, clearance in the industry was pretty much unknown.

    When a theater “”clears”” another theater, it means the second theater is prevented from showing a particular film. Senator Theater is only one of about 10,000 independent theaters prevented from showing a first-run film in the last decade.

    When it comes to booking the film from the distributor, the theater making the best deal will get the film. Distributors want the film to be seen on as many screens as possible in an effort to make more money.

    Westover predicts that in the future, “”there won’t be very many independent art houses left.”” This could be a huge loss not only for theater owners, but filmmakers as well.

    She uses the Oscar-winning film “”The Lives of Others”” as an example of when a film is not wanted by a chain for a particular theater. The film very easily could have gone to El Con like any other film, but because Cinemark didn’t book it for El Con, it went to the Loft. Had the Loft not been here, the film might not have even come to Tucson at all, unless one of the major cinemas wanted it.

    As for local filmmakers, though, there will probably always be a place to show their films. The Screening Room downtown deals mostly with independent filmmakers, hosting events like the upcoming Arizona International Film Festival, beginning April 20, which will showcase more than 70 international short and feature independent films.

    “”We don’t deal with major distributors very often; we deal mostly with filmmakers,”” said Screening Room director Gulio Scalinger.

    Fox Tucson Theatre may remain available to local filmmakers as well. Its business began when the Fox Theatre Foundation was set up to renovate the theater back in 2000. It holds events ranging from comedy acts and lectures to screenings of classic films like “”Forrest Gump”” and “”Raising Arizona.””

    But the ability of independent filmmakers to distribute films to art house theaters across the country is becoming more limited. Tucson is fortunate to have a strong local community for rising filmmakers, but the time of the franchise is here and the window may be closing.

    Will the time come when the intimacy of the art house is replaced with the clamor of crowds and in-your-face advertisements? Would Tucson really be the same if the invisible hand of corporate Goliaths eventually steamrolled its society of film-lovers? If this happens, hopefully someone in Tucson will make a movie about it.

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