How to Save Theatrical Distribution After the Home Video Boom and Bust

Video thumbnail for vimeo video How to Save Theatrical Distribution After the Home Video Boom & Bust - No Film SchoolWe all know that watching a movie on a 15-inch laptop from your couch just doesn’t compare to a real movie theater experience, and yet every year the numbers of people going out to the movies shrinks – meaning, for filmmakers, so do the number of different films that get to play on the big screen. Is it because of television? The Internet? Kids these days and their short attention spans?! In the entertaining series of videos below captured by 4th Row Films at the Sundance Art House Convergence, Ira Deutchman, suggests how me might save theatrical distribution.

From Cassavetes' DIY marketing to the "Miramaxing" of independent film, Ira Deutchman has been around the theatrical block. He starts his keynote address peppered with funny anecdotes, like his start in the biz working for an ethically-questionable-but-gutsy Gramercy Theatre owner by the name of Don Rugoff. (Check out all three parts of Deutchman's talk here.) His colorful stories illuminate an interesting concept: programming and marketing a film is a curatorial process that influences not just who sees it, but how the film is experienced. Example: Rugoff made up his mind that David Bowie's seminal sci-fi flick "was a movie that had to be seen multiple times in order to understand." So he came up with the idea of giving out hospital bracelets that said 'The Man Who Fell to Earth' on them; as long as you kept yours on, you could come back and watch the movie -- as many times as it took to understand.

But then comes the VHS era, and as Deutchman points out, this is when things start to go sour for independent films in the theater, when it becomes very hard for word-of-mouth films to exist, and the influx of bad movies “poison the market."

Despite this rather disappointing shoulda-been-around-for-the-70s spiral, Deutchman doesn’t think theatrical distribution is going to die, and he does not think that outlets like TV and Netflix are the main problems for theatrical distribution at all:

Deutchman points out what he thinks are major flaws in the current theatrical practices. If there are basic aspects that constitute whether people will consume something, from convenience to price to selection, theatrical is on the losing end of most of those areas. So instead of throwing up our hands, stamping on our berets, and cursing the deplorable state of cinema, we can start by looking at these factors in order to take back the theatrical experience:

What do you think about the current trends of seeing movies in theaters?  What do you think it would take to make it a healthy industry, creatively and capitally, again?


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Fact: Theatrical distribution as we know as monetization for ALL independent films is moribund and close to death.
Study grosses from the USA and around the world from and you will see the trend is very real. In Europe, Canada, Mexico and others the dirty secret is subsidized government funded.
The only vibrant indie theatrical business I see is in Argentina. Globally pirating and hot swapping MOV files has killed off 70% of the indie audience. Film fans like me who would go out to see a movie.

Producers do not have to see profit to make another film, they just have to get distributed for a few weeks.
US domestic distribution is purely now an engagement to gain reviews, publicity for online distribution.
Look at boxofficemojo's last 300 films and see if their grosses match their budgets. Not even close. So paltry there is only two reasons producers insist on a theatrical window, even if two cities for a week is a few reviews and hubris; that their great film will be the one to break out.

The only solution is making downloads as soon as possible. If your film is a low to zero budget indie that prem at Sundance/Slamdance offer a two week PPV off Vimeo while the film has publicity. Waiting a further 6 months through only film festival audiences will kill off revenues not gain any.

Online auds want it now!

at Austin this year and would have happily paid a premium $10 a movie or a package to watch what I want to select, not what the online fest serves up. Producers need to take that jump.

International audiences are key. Your film is tweeted in seconds of the premier. In one evening you could in theory have as many downloads from your film at Slamdance as you would in a week run at the Anjelika in NYC.

THINK about IT...

A few years ago a films life would be its festival life, about a year. Now its closer to 3 months AFTER YOU DEBUT IT. Online gives you that opportunity so use.

Producer/Gurus like Deutchman and Ted Hope are an anachronism. Not so much of touch but of tune. They want what will work for their business model.

Truth is now more than ever you are on your own.

May 9, 2013 at 5:24AM, Edited September 4, 8:21AM


I respectfully disagree with a lot of things and 'facts' you're providing.

May 9, 2013 at 6:49AM, Edited September 4, 8:21AM



2012's grosses for the top 301-400 of 600 films distributed in the USA. In theatres.
Look at the numbers please with a generous 50/50 split to distributor/exhibitor/producer and see what kinda numbers you come up with. It's not a business. It's dead. The audience is not coming back.

May 9, 2013 at 7:44AM, Edited September 4, 8:21AM


Well if you jump down to the 300th movie OF THE YEAR, yeah. When in history was that ever different?

Something like 174- the one hundred and seventy fourth highest grossing movie of the year, mind you, there were 173 above it - Jiro Dreams of Sushi, made 2.5 at the box office. Now I guarantee you the producers didn't spend a million making it. IF they somehow spent 500k making it (pretty high estimate), and Magnolia bought the rights for 1 million (I'm guessing that's pretty high, too), everyone's still making money before they get to other markets.

It's easy to pick itemized data to make it look like movies are failing - just look at the worst flops of all time list, it proves that literally never in history has theatrical distribution been profitable.

May 9, 2013 at 8:14AM, Edited September 4, 8:21AM


Even so...

I looked for a flick that made around $1 million and was easy to find info about. I chose "Woman Thou Art Loosed!: On the 7th Day".

Guess what: "$1.5-million film, supported with a thrifty $750,000 advertising budget focused on social media promotions"

Another one: "For a Good Time, Call..." Budget and box office basically the same ($1.3M), but it was sold for $2M.,_Call...

And still, I think this is all losing focus: you don't want to be the n-th film to make $1M on the box office, you want to be one of the first ones to go out on its own, with new distribution channels, and bring more money to your pockets.

May 9, 2013 at 9:09AM, Edited September 4, 8:21AM



that's the top 300-400 movies distributed in the Grand Ol' USA USA. $200k per average film split 3 ways for two years work, likely average budget $1 million. It's not a business, it is idiotic. How many feature films apply every year for Sundance film festival the premiere event for independent filmmaking. Over 3000. That does not include the foreign films. The only thing filmmakers have to thankful for in this era is digital distribution. Just a few years ago you HAD TO MAKE a theatrical 35mm print for festivals.

May 9, 2013 at 2:38PM, Edited September 4, 8:21AM


Why do people want to go to theatres to see films? What is this, the 1930s? I don't need the dirt, the chatting, the eating, the phones lighting up, the parking. The new 'deluxe' cinemas? Yes, i've always wanted to watch intense drama while someone next to me eats nachos while slurping craft beer. And be charged $25 for the pleasure. Just today, a friend and I were talking on FB about how awful the experience was.
I now ONLY go for spectacle films, and only maybe 5 of those a year. My wife and I watch around 50-60 films a year outside of our jobs (where we have to watch many more). So the cinema experience is not even 10% of our movie watching lives. I know major producers here who haven't set foot in an actual cinema in years, even for their own premieres.
Seeing films communally is a lot like going to see live bands - when you're young and you have no real choice its a great idea. When you're older? Have your own house with a 60" TV and two young kids? It better be something VERY special. Otherwise I'll just listen to it in the car thanks.
Also: 50% of the US consumer market is now over 50. That trend only gets worse over the next decade. What do you think that means for cinema going?

May 9, 2013 at 10:11AM, Edited September 4, 8:21AM


I completely agree with you. Its never 15" laptop vs the big screen, its a 60" with a THX surround system vs a $20 per person multiplex with a marginally better/bigger picture. The only time I go to the multiplex is for the big budget summer movie my kids really want to go see. So thats once a year, otherwise its at home with the lights off and the pause button for the bio breaks.

May 9, 2013 at 12:53PM, Edited September 4, 8:21AM


I understand you points (except maybe the 1930's question), however I completely disagree. I watched a lot of movies at home as a kid (and still do) but I most definitely fell in love with films at the theater and to this day, nothing beats it.
@Lazy A 60" TV does not come close to comparing to a 50' screen. I'm not talking about resolution or quality, but about the immersion factor. That's what watching at the theater is all about. Some might argue it's the communal experience, and while that can be cool, the point of movies are to be taken away from where you are and transported into another place. A place where the drama, action and people are all larger than life.
In a theater you can feel the sounds moving around you and the picture is all you can see. And not having the option to pause is a good thing. Can't hold it for 2 hours? See a doctor. Don't like dirty theaters with noisy audiences? Go Monday-Thursday, theaters are empty and clean. Try a matinee if you don't want to pay the full price and get a rewards card and use coupons (they're everywhere).
I personally use moviepass which makes sense financially for me, but that's because I make my own schedule and can go to the theater at least once a week. I would also say you're actually doing yourself a disservice by seeing just the big spectacle films in the theater. I see those too but I'm definitely more likely to be disappointed with the messes that they tend to be. There's nothing I hate more then spending money & time watching an ok or bad movie. Loud and fast with good special effects is not what going to the theater is about, and most likely your viewing experience would be better on a smaller screen so that you can really tell what's happening and have the chance to rewind if you miss something due to the rapid fire pace of the edits (and plot holes).

May 16, 2013 at 5:18PM, Edited September 4, 8:21AM


"We all know that watching a movie on a 15-inch laptop from your couch just doesn’t compare to a real movie theater experience"

We do? Nobody told me.

These days, the price of two tickets, uncomfortable seats, and rude patrons (cell phones, talking, etc) don't compare to renting the movie at home 3-4 months later.

The one exception are theatres that serve food. Downtown Disney has one at AMC: "Fork and Screen". For an extra $4 you get comfy seats with leg room, full menu service, and respectful patrons.

May 9, 2013 at 11:27AM, Edited September 4, 8:21AM

Bill Clar

In Australia, average ticket prices are close to $20pp. I struggle to see the justification in that, so I only splurge on big spectacle films (as marklondon said), or films that I'm truly excited about.

There's one chain of cinemas that have sprung up in QLD, which offer prices straight out of the 1990's. $10 and under for adult fares, $7 on Tuesdays. The snackbar is equally affordable, and the cinema quality is indistinguishable from larger, more expensive cinema chains. I won't lie, when I lived near one of those, I saw nearly every release that came out, because it was pocket change.

May 9, 2013 at 4:06PM, Edited September 4, 8:21AM


While my theories will NEVER happen, I would think studios need to acknowledge that our economy is in the tank & only getting worse + the current VFX crisis MUST be addressed ASAP. After that, they should faze out the every-movie is a big-budget event mindset. Sure, there's nothing wrong with the occasional popcorn probably-franchise entertainment that caters to the lowest common denominator in audiences that are practically guaranteed to make a profit, but otherwise, why can't they try LOWER BUDGET films that aren't SUPPOSED to be liked by EVERYONE.
MODEST budgeted films targeted and properly marketed at specific audiences! And if a wider audience likes it, well that's just icing n the cake.
QUALITY! We need QUALITY films. They say "everything's been done before" "Hollywood is out of ideas". NO! They're not! The indie scene is an ocean of originality! But no one knows of it because studios and distributors are too afraid to "offend" a certain group of audience members, or afraid that if they can't get every person possible in their seats, the film is a "failure".
P.S. Hollywood math (& by extension definition of "success" "hit" "flop" "profits") is based on popularity and money (same goes for ratings & their bargaining: an R film can become pg-13 if you either have enough money or know the right people, regardless of content).
For instance, 25 years and a triple the production budget LATER, the studios STILL claim "Coming to America" was a financial flop so they won't have to pay the writers their fair share. Hollywood money is based on who-you-know, magazine articles, word of mouth, and money... not ACTUAL math, THIS needs to be changed. I can't believe it hasn't been phased out long ago.
Then gain, I know almost nothing of the professional "Hollywood" world, only common sense in the REAL WORLD, which the two will seemingly never meet.

May 9, 2013 at 4:21PM, Edited September 4, 8:21AM

Shannon Shaw

I agree Shannon... Hollywood needs to also stop using Kickstarter too

May 9, 2013 at 4:58PM, Edited September 4, 8:21AM


I agree with the complaints about the state of movie theatres. But I can't help but feel there's something that would be lost if it all became streaming to personal devices and tv's. I snuck into Jaws at the cinema when I was a kid and part of the thrill was that everyone in that packed theatre knew we were in for a wild ride - it was a great "group" feeling. Part of the fun for some movies was sensing how others were reacting. I remember, age 15-25 mostly, walking out of theatres just needing to express out loud with friends our reactions to the film we'd just seen. A good movie felt like a challenge to my own experience and how I thought the world worked, and called for some sort of response. I think it would be a shame if filmmakers forgot that shared public experience was part of film's original DNA, as we focus on "progress" in new channels of distribution. Do you go to see live theatre plays? Even for filmmakers, there's a lot to be learned from audience/actors interaction in theatre?

That said, you know how the Met opera streams to local cinemas? Perhaps some of the film festivals like Sundance could join up and stream to cinemas or tv. When Sundance was on, with all the news about the films coming out, Dan is right, they should capitalize on that and do premium streaming screenings.

May 9, 2013 at 11:49PM, Edited September 4, 8:21AM


Personally I like the movie theater experience especially when you go when all the other movie lovers go. There is synergy, energy, and dialog and yes, even when the movie is running. Its part of fun. I've gone to the same movie twice in one day, once with all the movie lovers, and secondly an hour or two latter with my wife when I answered no the the question of whether I saw that movie without her. The energy is different a few hours appart with equal attendance to both. Occasionally I go see a movie in the hood to listen to the women talk to the screen telling the person to duck or watch-out fully expecting the character on the screen to hear them and heed their warning. These are cultural experiences that I just can't get from my HD big screen surround. I make much better popcorn and don't any bottled sugar in my house. I've already been to two movies at the theater this week. I filming movies we talk about the importance of ambient sound. We could call this ambient surround.

May 10, 2013 at 9:01AM, Edited September 4, 8:21AM

Hari Har

It's dead. Move on. I love movies--I watch at least one a day--but haven't been in a regular theatre for years. High def home projection and quality surround can be had for under $1500. Sure, the quality of the image at the theatre is better, but only by so little that it isn't worth the trouble. And things go to Bluray (and even Netflix) so fast now that I never feel I can't wait. And I can pause to go pee or get a coke or take a phone call and not miss anything. And for the price of a couple tickets, I can own the title. Frankly, I'm surprised that theatres still exist in 2013.

So, stop worrying about distribution through middle men who make money off your talent and give nothing back, and figure out how to get your work directly into the hands of your viewers at a price low enough they won't download it for free. That's where success lies. Sure, if you want to throw a party and show your work in front of a few hundred people at once do it as a special event. But in 2013 a theatrical showing should be the very rare exception, not the rule.

May 10, 2013 at 2:35PM, Edited September 4, 8:21AM


I haven't been in cinema in 20 years. Who needs the people and all that hassle. More enjoyable to watch a movie when I want it and STOP it when I need to do something else... Get a sandwich :)
A recliner is a much better chair than in the cinema :)
Cinema is DEAD no matter what anyone says to the contrary. The numbers proves it.

May 12, 2013 at 11:11PM, Edited September 4, 8:21AM


You see that's exactly why the theatrical experience is so much more powerful. You can't CONTROL it. You have to surrender to it.

September 26, 2013 at 5:50PM, Edited September 4, 8:21AM