In 2018, film fans and pop culture consumers have more options than ever before, and there's unprecedented competition for their time and attention, a situation that presents challenges and opportunities for movie theaters.

In a panel at this year's TIFF moderated by John Fithian, exhibitors, filmmakers, and executives came together to discuss the present and future of theatrical exhibition in a wide-ranging conversation that touched on everything from the influence of a theatrical release on the creative process to the importance of theatrical revenue on the industry at large and the future of theatrical release in a world of changing demographics.

Streaming or Theatrical? 

Asked how she differentiates between what makes a good streaming property versus one that would be more suited to a theatrical release, producer Helen Estabrook (Tully, Whiplash) said that "the exciting and terrifying thing about right now is that all of the rules are broken. I used to be very clear that I felt like film was a place where you could sort of really focus on one theme and say or ask one thing, and TV or streaming was all about characters." 

"The exciting and terrifying thing about right now is that all of the rules are broken."-Helen Estabrook

She continued, "I think that it really is just about figuring out the story that you want to tell, and finding the place that's going to give you the best resources to tell it," and that her job as a producer was largely one of matching the aesthetic and creativity of a project with a distribution model while making sure that "the creative and the business are aligned in the best way."

Asked about disagreements with creatives regarding the ideal distribution format for a project, Estabrook said, "Sometimes the trick is realizing how much you really need to change the have it succeed in a slightly different medium." Estabrook mentioned her new film The Front Runner, which follows the destruction of presidential candidate and front-runner Gary Hart in 1987 and described how it was made "in a very sort of classical filmmaking style, it's really an homage to The Candidate...we hope people go see it in the theatre because of that the filmmaking aspect." 

How Your Theatrical Release Sausage is Greenlit

Asked about the sort of films that make it into theaters in the days of tent-pole, blockbuster releases, Christopher Aronson, President of Domestic Distribution at 20th Century Fox, which has two films at TIFF this year (The Hate U Give and Widows), said that "We know that one size doesn't fit all. Movies are about storytelling, and filmmakers have different stories to tell, and audiences have different stories that they want to see and experience...What moves and challenges [a] filmmaker is...the same experience for the audience, [to] move them and challenge them, and I think that's why cinemas matter."

Asked how he squares that instinct with his executive responsibilities towards shareholders in terms of box office and revenue, Aronson said, "I work for a major studio, so we do things a little bit differently [than the indies], but at the end of the day we are in service of the filmmaker and the story...I can guarantee you we never put together a slate of films that says, 'We need one of these here, and we need two of these there.' It's not the way it works."

On  the role of a growing global box office in the greenlighting process, Aronson's opinion was that "it's just another piece of the puzzle" in 2018, because "our product is truly working in a global marketplace, and audiences around the world are becoming less compartmentalized. They're becoming much more open to different types of films, and different types of people and actors, and not caring what they look like, but caring about the stories that they tell, because that's the universal theme of cinema." 

Earlier, Estabrook had shared an anecdote about the different reactions she'd heard from audiences at screenings of The Front Runner (baby-boomers had said that they loved the film, but thought the millennials in attendance wouldn't get it; millennials, ironically, said the exact same thing, except in reverse) and Aronson mentioned how one of the most important aspects of theatrical distribution was to have "all these people in the same room."

Estabrook added, "Look, we all watch and consume content in our homes, and you might be by yourself, you might be with a friend, but it's a pretty narrow band of reaction--unless you want to look in the mirror, which we all do every day, but that becomes boring after a while." 

"Audiences around the world are becoming less compartmentalized. They're becoming much more open to different types of films"-Christopher Aronson

Theater Owners Perspective

Theaters, of course, are the most important part of the term "theatrical release." Fithian, President & CEO of the National Association of Theatre Owners, made the point that "it takes both really good movies and a really good movie going experience for our business to thrive." Ellis Jacob, President and Chief Executive Officer of Cineplex, Canada's largest theater chain, stressed that "we don't create the content but we create the experience, and for us it's really important that you walk out of the theater feeling like you really had an experience that's totally different from what you could get watching a 50-inch TV screen, or on your cell phone."

He continued, "In the past, you probably watched a movie in one or two formats: maybe you saw it in 2D or IMAX. Today, you can go to a some of our theaters and watch a movie in seven different ways: you can watch it in 2D, 3D, 4DXD-BOX IMAX UltraAVX, VIP....the younger audiences want choice, and that's what we've been able to create...and we continue to tweak as we move forward." Other experiments include specific auditoriums for kids and all manner of ways to "keep different demographics engaged."

The theater exec also put the lie to the notion that no one goes to the movies anymore: "we talk about the younger demographic and everybody says they're not coming back to the movies and that's absolutely not true. 50% of our Scene members are under the age of 35...I think the cinema experience is a really important part of the food chain and it's the engine that drives the train; it's a communal event." 

At the end of the day, Fithian said that "we want filmmakers with their visions to come to our big screens and have that experience, and have that chance to grow and expand. Another challenge for us is there's this public description of streaming and theatrical as being opposed to each other, and nothing could be further from the truth. Streaming has been great this year, and we're having a record-breaking year at the box office. Both can coexist." He added that there was always the possibility that a streaming titan like Netflix could have a theatrical release "if they want to come and play an exclusive window, and then play it to their customers later."

 "There's this public description of streaming and theatrical as being opposed to each other, and nothing could be further from the truth."-John Fithian

The one filmmaker on the panel, Sebastián Lelio, whose film A Fantastic Woman won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film at this year's Oscars, said that a lot of what had happened with his film's success had had to do "with the communal experience of watching a film in the theater, a journey that for him "created a lot of conversation and awareness around the subject. I wasn't trying to make a political film, but a film that people could enjoy and have a cinematic experience."

The days when a film's path from script, to soundstage, and finally big screen are obviously long gone but, if you believe the panelists at TIFF, the future of theatrical distribution in a streaming world is far from over; if anything, moviegoing is ideally becoming a more diverse and enriching experience and one that caters to diverse demographics with new services and ways to watch. In a streaming world, the multiplex may no longer be the only kid on the block, but at least for the moment, it's far from obsolete.

Source: Toronto International Film Festival Dialogues