CINEMACON 2013: Confab Spotlights Women in Showbiz

on April 15, 2013

CinemaCon has already made a concerted effort this year to recognize and reach out to women, granting two of the gathering’s most prestigious industry awards to female executives. Regal CEO Amy Miles accepted the Marquee Award during Tuesday morning’s State of the Industry event, and Lucasfilm president Kathleen Kennedy received the Will Rogers Pioneer of the Year of the Year Award at Wednesday night’s benefit dinner.

The theme culminated with a lengthy “Women + Movies = Bigger Box Office” lunch discussion on Thursday afternoon that explored less the title of the panel than the dearth of roles for women both in front of and behind the camera and what might be done about it.

There’s no question: there is a dearth. Despite objections to the contrary that “no, no, no, that’s been fixed,” gross gender inequality continues to exist both on and off the screen, said Geena Davis, founder of the eponymous Institute on Gender in Media, which specializes in analyzing the portrayal of women in films aimed at children. According to the organization’s statistics, for every one female role in these movies, there are three male roles. Only 17 percent of the characters in crowd scenes are female, and 11 percent of lead parts are for women or girls.

“Research shows that the ratio of male to female characters has stayed exactly the same since 1946,” Davis said. “If we add female characters at the rate we have been, we will achieve parity in 700 years.”

It wasn’t always this way. Mary Pickford was just as powerful in Hollywood as her male counterparts, Davis pointed out, and in 1920, 57 percent of movies starred women.

But today, there’s an “overwhelming belief that women will watch men but men won’t watch women,” Davis said. “In fact it’s not true.”

That puts pressure on movies geared toward women to succeed. “If I screw this up,” Bridesmaids director Paul Feig remembered thinking, “no women are ever going to get to star in movies.” In the meantime, his friends’ projects were kept on hold, waiting to see how his distaff comedy would do.

Davis’ solution for addressing the problem was pretty simple: “Make what you’re going to make. Just put more women in it.”

Hunger Games> producer Nina Jacobson agreed that “it’s partly about just paying attention.” There’s no reason that a fish or a piece of furniture in an animated movie, for example, can’t be female. “It’s so random, and it’s just not noticed some of the time.”

The issue is more complicated than that, of course. For all his passion for female-led films—his next project is June’s The Heat with Sandra Bullock and Melissa McCarthy—Feig “can’t argue with the economic reasons. … There need to be more female stars” with international appeal, but too few are given the chance to cultivate that stardom, so it becomes a “self-perpetuating problem,” he said.

Another avenue toward addressing gender equality on-screen involves encouraging gender equality off-screen. “We need a diverse group of people around the table who are living life in different ways,” said Vanessa Morrison, president of Fox Animation Studios, whose reminder that women don’t represent “just a single voice” drew applause from the audience. Women want to see all kinds of movies, not just chick flicks or family-friendly fare.

The final question from moderator Janice Min, editorial director of the Hollywood Reporter, though, stumped the panel. Will Fifty Shades of Grey be the best or worst thing to happen to women?

Hollywood Execs Not Bullish on HFR

A year after high-frame-rate (HFR) projection was unveiled at CinemaCon in a controversial demonstration with footage from The Hobbit, studio and exhibition executives expressed skepticism that the format would persevere in an industry burning out on upgrades. It seems movie theaters are asked every other year or so to transition to the next big technological advance, whether it be digital cinema, 3D, or immersive sound. (Interestingly, the latter topic didn’t come up at the International Cinema Technology Association’s Thursday-morning panel discussion, despite being moderated by Dolby’s Ioan Allen). But with the financial returns that were promised with digital conversion still not materializing, the industry seems cautious to enthusiastically embrace the next evolution.

“Digital is not the panacea that everyone thought it would be,” said Tim Reed, senior vice president of Alamo Drafthouse. The industry has spent $3 billion to $5 billion to convert to digital cinema, yet seen no accretive benefit, he said, largely because standardization hasn’t occurred quickly enough. “We need to settle it down and control costs.”

Yet digital cinema—and the opportunities for alternative content, 3-D, and motion seating that come with it—was viewed by the panelists as the industry’s best bet for competing with the more convenient, easy-to-use, when-and-where-you-want-it content delivery systems out there.

“Theater owners have a fixed schedule” that doesn’t appeal to millennials accustomed to being able to binge-view movies and TV shows in the middle of the night, said Millard Ochs, president of Warner Bros. International Cinemas. The theater “has to be different from what they see at home. 3D consistently does that.”

But when asked what the next big thing after 3D will be, the panelists collectively shrugged. HFR is a technological hassle that doesn’t promise fiscal rewards.

“There are filmmakers involved with HFR who I’d never bet against,” said Paul Holliman, VP of strategic planning at Disney, but “I’m not particularly focused on it.”

“How do you monetize it?” asked Reed. “At the end of the day, is there a monetary benefit?”

Ochs said no. Although he “jumped” at the chance to show “Chicken Little” in 3D when that digital technology was first released, “I could not charge more for a ticket” for HFR, he said. Moreover, he sympathized with exhibitors, himself included, who “just converted to digital, have got a bunch of Series 1 projectors, and [are] being told you can’t use them for HFR” because they don’t support the new software.

And although Dcinex’s Till Cressman said that movie theaters in Europe have been upcharging for 3D, immersive sound, and motion chairs, the panel didn’t seem to universally think that premium pricing was the answer.

“We need to put more buns in seats,” Reed said. “Premium prices? That’s an efficient way to take people out of seats and push them into another environment.”

Rather, the industry needs to do a better job at marketing the technologies it has invested in. “Every investment you are doing, you have to tell the story,” Cressman said.

Studio, Exhib Execs Agree Distribution Model Needs to Change

In a wide-ranging discussion Wednesday morning, a diverse panel of industry executives agreed on one thing: “I think it’s an entirely new model, not just a tweaking of a piece of the model,” said David Passman, president and CEO of Carmike Cinemas. He was talking about release windows, but the same could be true of a number of topics covered in the conversation, including the distribution of a range of content throughout the year and theaters’ use of social media to connect with moviegoers on a local level.

Passman agreed with NATO topper John Fithian’s call for fewer R-rated movies—to a point. There have been too many R movies and not enough family films the first quarter of 2013, he said, asking distributors for more G and PG fare. But “please don’t stop making the Rs either,” he said, citing his love for last year’s $218.8 million-grossing Ted.

It’s not R-rated movies that are the problem, argued Universal Pictures chairman Adam Fogelson, but R-rated movies that don’t work. If Django Unchained or Ted had opened in January, they would have been just as big of hits, and February’s Identity Thief was a $132.1 million (and counting) hit for the studio. “It happens to be about the movies.”

The executives discussed not only when movies come out in theaters but when they come out everywhere else, with Fogelson urging exhibitors to not live in fear of downstream markets.

“People love the movies and the experience of going to the movies,” he said. “I believe it. Our company is spending millions of dollars because we believe it. I hope that exhibitors believe it.” When they do, their “fear of TV would go away.” Research has shown that “people who like to consume content, consume content. Consumption begets consumption.” Consumers who go to the movies the most are the same consumers who buy the most DVDs. “It’s not the enemy.”

To that end, Fogelson revisited Universal’s short-lived experiment of offering Tower Heist on VOD just three short weeks after it opened in theaters in 2011. Exhibitors objected vociferously, and the idea was quickly scuttled, but Fogelson defended the thinking behind it, arguing that there are consumers who love going to the movies but “don’t have time to go as often as there are movies they’re excited about” yet still want to be part of the dialogue. “We could find a price point and delivery method without deincentivizing people from going to the movies.”

Meanwhile, The Lion King grossed nearly $100 million in 3D when it was also available on Blu-ray, but 3D re-releases are “an anomaly, not evidence that day-and-date works,” argued Digiplex chief Bud Mayo.

Shrinking windows, though, Mayo said, “I totally get.” Leveraging the huge marketing investment studios are spending on the theatrical release of a picture “makes complete sense.” He even suggested that selling DVDs and downloads right in theaters “would do wonders for our per caps.”

Exhibitors can get more involved with the marketing of movies as well by leveraging social media. When Passman took over as CEO at Carmike in 2009, “there was a prohibition against theater managers being on Facebook,” he said. Now he’s seen high-school employees put together a skit promoting Ted and posting it online to encourage moviegoers to come to their theater. “I strongly encourage theaters to experiment in social media,” he said, citing its “very big and very fast payback.”

“So much decision-making is being made in front of the marquee,” added Facebook development head Matt Jacobson. Despite the weeks of marketing, a movie can be an impulse buy. “How can we become a part of that process? … People care about experiences. What they’re reporting on is not what they’re buying but what they’re doing.”

The Changing Landscape of Gift Cards

Gift cards, and before them gift certificates, have become ubiquitous to gift-giving and a staple in exhibitors’ arsenal of merchandising tools. But as an early-morning presentation by Vantiv’s Holly Schmackers revealed, there’s still a lot of innovation taking place in the space that even small theater operators can leverage. Consumers find gift cards convenient (with 28 percent citing this their top reason for using them), easy (26 percent) and preferable to cash (11 percent). And exhibitors can use gift cards to promote their cinemas and collect valuable data on their customers.

Some 55 percent of gift cards are purchased at the issuer's own location, but even more—58 percent—are bought off-site from displays at places like convenience and department stores, and another 12 percent are procured online. These stats suggest that marketing a gift-card program outside the theater and online is a good way to reach customers.

Schmackers used Vantiv client Arena Grand Movie Theatre as an example of how small operators can leverage gift cards as well. Purchasers may balk at buying a gift card that can be used at only a few locations, but combine it with offers for other area businesses—a dinner and a movie package for $40, say—and you not only support your local community but drive traffic to your business. The Arena Grand Movie Theatre collaborated with 13 other businesses in its Columbus entertainment district on just such a deal.

Gift cards are most appealing when they offer a promotion, with 57 percent of consumers indicating they wouldn’t make such a purchase without some kind of incentive and a 91 percent likelihood to purchase a gift card if a promo is attached. Now you can find out who are buying your gift cards when they register to receive the promotion and grow your database.

Consider routing gift-card sales through Facebook, as 31 percent of consumers plan to purchase gift cards through a social site. And get ready for e-wallet apps that eschew paper and plastic altogether—if small exhibs aren’t ready for tap-and-go technology, they can still accept virtual currency by manually tapping in the card number, Schmackers said.

State of the Industry Celebrates the Past, Cautions the Future

In a jam-packed two-and-a-half-hour event Tuesday morning, the exhibition industry took a fond look back at not only 2012’s record year but the evolution of cinema itself. A stirring reel (featuring a couple of prominent nods to event sponsor Dolby) briefly reviewed the technological developments that have brought movie theaters to their current state of the art, emphasizing CinemaCon’s global theme by pointing out the landmarks achieved outside of Hollywood in New York, New Jersey, Chicago, and Japan.

Then another film presentation highlighted last year’s $100 million movies, topped by Disney’s $623.4 million-grossing The Avengers. There were a staggering 31 titles in the $100 million club in 2012, suggesting it’s not quite the achievement it once was. Perhaps the bar should be raised to, say, $200 million—there were still 11 of those.

Of course, all present were happy to celebrate last year’s $10.8 billion domestic box office and $34.7 million in worldwide ticket sales, before moving on to the tough issues still facing the industry: piracy, ratings, and 2013’s sagging receipts.

MPAA president and CEO Chris Dodd lauded the industry’s crackdown on piracy, revealing that incidences of camcording have decreased 50 percent since 2007. But with 2.1 million jobs on the line—99 percent of which are behind the camera and 125,000 of which are in exhibition—he issued a call to arms to cinema owners to communicate to their communities and local leadership the “story of our industry’s economic impact. … No one can bring more credibility to these issues and debate than you can,” he said.

NATO president and CEO John Fithian joined his colleague to support the MPAA’s new “Check the Box” initiative and then, in remarks around the theme of “choice," urged exhibition’s partners in distribution to “make more family-friendly films and fewer R-rated titles.”

In 2012, only two of the top 20 films were R-rated, he argued, and PG-13 movies nearly doubled the tickets sales of more restricted fare despite the fact that 50 percent more R-rated titles were released. This year’s box office is down 12 percent compared to 2012 because there hasn’t been enough variety—i.e., there have been too many R-rated movies so far. “Americans have stated their choice,” he said. “Give them more choices, and they’ll buy tickets.”

China Panel Emphasizes Challenges Ahead

When Ernst & Young released a report saying that the Chinese box office would pass North America by 2020 it led to wave of enthusiastic talk. Monday's "All Eyes On China" panel brought everybody back to Earth a bit. Key challenges such as piracy, engaging customers and building the Hollywood-China relationship dominated the discussion. One topic that was curiously missing was the recent controversy over Django Unchained being pulled from thetears on the day it was scheduled to be released. 

IMAX CEO Richard Gelfond summed up potential vs. reality when it comes to China: "Some days it's a land of riches and some days it's a disaster you can't see your way out of." Gelfond also focused on the importance of creating win-win business situations and not trying to teach the Chinese how to run their businesses. Gelfond knows what he's talking about. China will have a total of 250 IMAX locations built within three years.

Jerry Ye, Wanda Cinema's CEO, stressed the importance of relationship building. "In China we say, 'Make friends first and then do business.'" Ye also emphasized how different various cities in China are when it comes to consuming content. That presents challenges not only for exhibition, but also production. 

MPAA Chairman and CEO Chris Dodd spoke frankly about such topics as getting more North American films in China to having a greater say in when films are released there.

"We need to keep pressing the point," Dodd said when asked about the MPAA's role in raising the foreign-film quota from 34 films. "Everyone benefits in an open market."

Dodd agrees with Ye's take on relationship building. When China forced The Dark Knight Rises and The Amazing Spider-Man to open at the same time, Dodd's relationship with the Chinese embassy allowed him to get on the phone and open a dialog about a decision that many pundits saw as a move designed to hurt American films.


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