EXCLUSIVE: Steven Soderbergh and John Fithian Debate The Future Of Exhibition

on January 19, 2012 by Amy Nicholson

When we recently spoke to Steven Soderbergh about movietheater2.pngHaywire, the opinionated director couldn't resist dropping in some thoughts about the future of the exhibition industry. We ran those thoughts by NATO President & CEO John Fithian for his response.

soderbergh.pngBOXOFFICE: From an audience perspective myself, I worry that the moviegoing audience has gotten a little jaded.

Steven Soderbergh: This is the chicken and the egg question. Who's to blame? If you made better movies, would more people show up? And often, the answer is, "What if sometimes when we do, they don't?" It all comes down to economics, and the biggest problem right now is how much it costs to release a movie. And the fact that that drives the ticket prices, and the ticket prices are reaching the point where people aren't willing to be as adventurous as they might be because they feel like they're spending a lot of moneyit's not a cheap evening out any more. It gets into this weird paradox.

I should alert you that BOXOFFICE is an exhibition magazine.

Yeah, I know. Then let me take the opportunity to say that the lack of experimentation regarding ticket pricing is another thing that's killing the business. This is nuts. There's got to be some experimentation with this. There's no analogous situation in any other business to theaters not experimenting with ticket pricing. Why I should be paying as much money for a movie in week four as opening day, I don't understand.

What would you like to see happen?

Something. Anything. Go into a market and try something for a month or two months. Just try something.

With Bubble, you were one of the first people to try day-and-date releases. Where do you feel like that idea is today?

I don't know. On Bubble and The Girlfriend Experience, we really weren't able to find out if the experiment worked because frankly, we were blackballed by all the chains. We couldn't get any screens outside of Landmark, even though we offered to cut them in on some of the VOD and video revenue. They just blackballed us. Part of the point of going day-and-date is that somebody who lives in a place where that kind of movie wouldn't typically open could watch it through VOD because they've read about it, because this whole thing of having to sell a movie multiple times is really f--king boring. We never got to find out if that worked or not because what does Landmark have, 75 screens or something? The movie was not allowed to be shown outside that group of theaters so I don't know how day-and-date works.

There was an aborted push to try VOD within the theatrical release window of one bigger picture, Tower Heist, but for now, VOD has been used most often on very, very small indie releases. What compromise can you see?

I don't know. But I think there are a lot of things that could be done on the exhibition level that should be tried. When we go all-digital, what I'm hoping we'll see is some version of the repertory cinema coming back because there's a whole slew of great classic filmseven from the '70s and '80sthat a whole generation has never seen on anything but a TV. Once everything is digital and it's just a matter of putting something up on a server, a creative exhibitor going, "We're showing The Godfather and Deliverance on the big screen Friday and Saturday," I think there are people out there who would like to see those movies on the big screen because they never have. But the ticket cost is prohibitive.

Repertory theaters do well here in Los Angeles, but I don't think Los Angeles has to be a unique case. I think there's college towns all over where a repertory theater would do great.

Oh yeah. I mean, the real thing that's killing everybody is theft. This is why it's very difficult to assess whether or not any of these experimenters could work or might work because theft is killing everybody. A lot of these ideas turn on the issue of true exclusivity. And if you can't maintain that because of theft, you can't innovate. As an elected official of the DGA, this is something that I'm very aware of and it's really frustrating.

And there's a whole generation that doesn't even think of it as theft.

Well, that's what we're working to turn around. It's the classic thing like when a parent says something to you that doesn't resonate until you're a parent yourself. That's just the way the universe works. A lot of people who think, "It's just a double clickwhat difference does it make?" are going to find that out when they try to go into a field in which they are creating stuff and their survival depends on people buying their stuff. They're going to have a moment of, "Oh, s--t. The reason I don't have a career is because people are doing what I was doing when I was young."

So you're not wholly unsympathetic to where exhibition is right now.

I'm sympathetic, but I've never been someone who when faced with a difficult situation has taken the position that the way out of it is to just do what I've been doing forever. That's my point. We all agree: we're in a tricky situation. What I don't agree with is for NATO to take the position that the way to solve this is to just do what we've been doing for time immemorial. That's not how I approach problems.

I think they're worried that if they compromise at all, it will quickly become day-and-date for everything.

Fine. I'm saying, for the moment let's pull that off the table and just talk about pricing. Let's talk about doing something to get people back into the habit of going to the movies regularly. I'm just saying ideology is the enemy of problem-solving. When you're looking at something and you refuse to acknowledge a proposal because you ideological disagree with it, you're never going to solve your problem. This is what I love about art, is that when you're making a piece of art and you go, "S--t, we've only got this much time and this much money," at no time does someone's ideology prevent you from figuring out what the solution is. Nobody says, "No, we can't shoot those two scenes because I'm Catholic." It's a pure creative space where everyone is just encouraged to throw out ideas until you figure out what the solution is. So what I see here is a complex set of problems that are not being solved and there's stasis because of an ideology.

With that in mind, it's interesting that you're thinking of switching from film to painting-from something that requires a village of people to something that only relies on one person.

Well, yeah. Having worked pretty steadilyespecially in the last 12 years of so, pretty rapidlyI'm filled up with that stuff. I'm ready to go off where I don't have to discuss anything, where if I have an idea, I can walk to the wall and start doing it instead of having to go ask someone for money to go and do it. I've had plenty of that.

Well, thanks for giving me so much of your time. I'll give John Fithian your hellos and a heads-up about where our conversation went.

Oh, he knows how I feel about this stuff. And I know how he feels about it. Again, it's an interesting debate. And I don't want to see them go away. I just want to see them not be so entrenched. You look at the trajectory of where everything's going and you can do the mathif you just keep doing what you're doing, I think we know where it's going to lead. Unless there are new ideas like the reemergence of a repertory of a more creative approach to ticket pricing, or some blended version of day-and-date. Part of the problem ins the conversation is going on the way it's going on right now, which is NATO firing a shot across the bow and producers firing another shot. That, in my experience, is not how you solve a problem either. If you really want to solve this, get a bunch of people together in a room over a long weekend in a totally closed-door situation where there's nobody reporting this, and really talk about it. Really sit down, open a kimono, and say, "What do we do? Let's talk through some possibilities." Cause right now, each side has abstracted the other, and that's not going to work.

Should there be a lot of whiskey at this meeting?

Yup. I'm not kidding. I gave a speech in front of this congressional committee about piracy and it was one of those things where there was a big table and I had my prepared remarks and it was pointless. It was kabuki theater. We'd have been better off going down to Bennigans and getting a booth. Then we could have said something. The point is, in that context, you can't really say what you're going to say. Nobody has the freedom to throw out a stupid idea, even. I'd love to have drinks with John and go, "Okay, let's walk ourselves through this just you and I privatelylet's go through this whole scenario top to bottom and let's just spitball. If we can wave a wand, what kind of things would you be doing?" That has a lot more potential to result in something than a fight that's being fought through the press.

Because nobody wants to see theatrical exhibition go away.

No! No. I don't either. I go all the time. And I'll continue to go. And I believe people will always continue to go. But I just think there are ways to protect and enhance that that aren't necessarily so constrictive. This issue of choiceespecially when it comes to the choice of the consumer and the choice of the person who paid for the contentthat can't be ignored.


In this month's cover story interview, my friend Steven Soderbergh raises some concerns he has with exhibition, and makes some suggestions for changes in our business. I agree with some of Steven's thoughts, and passionately disagree with others. Though BOXOFFICE does serve as NATO's official magazine, that doesn't mean we should limit the free flow of ideas just because we have a different perspective.

I agree with Steven that exhibitors should experiment more with ticket pricing. But I hope Steven realizes the options we currently give to patrons. There are different ticket prices for 2D, 3D and the large screen experience; evening versus matinee; seniors and children's discounts; first-run, second-run and sub-run; and more. I also agree that digital cinema makes it possible to offer more diverse programming, such as repertory theater, and that diversity in programming should be encouraged. And of course I share Steven's concern about movie theft, and am proud of the partnership NATO has with the MPAA, the Directors Guild, and other organizations in our joint efforts to combat that scourge.

Where I passionately disagree with Steven, unsurprisingly, is with regard to his support for the simultaneous release of movies to theaters and the home. NATO's views on this subject are well known. But I must also take issue with Steven's suggestion that NATO just fires public "shots across the bow" and insists on doing the same thing "for time immemorial." Over the past two years NATO and our members have stated publicly that distributors should sit down privately with their exhibitor partners and their creative partners in dialogue about how the industry moves forward together. That's also what 31 of Steven's fellow directors and producers have called for in a public letter in support of NATO's position. Unfortunately, it has been the major studios that have refused dialogue and launched radical and dangerous new release models without proper engagement. We have seen signs that attitude is beginning to change.

So, Steven, I welcome private dialogue on how the industry can move forward. From you, from the DGA, from the studios. Let's get together. I'll buy the first drink. Oh, and by the way, the trailers for Haywire are awesome. Gina Carano kicks ass.



Tags: Steven Soderbergh, John FIthian

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