The Movie Theater in Our Heads

We are in the middle of the competitive season, as the build up to the Super Bowl and the Academy Awards plays across our many screens.   We are constantly reminded about the winners and losers amongst the football and movie elite. In a not so subtle way we are told that football and movies are each a zero sum game where for every winner, there is also a loser. 

When a game is played in a physical space, where rules dictate its play and it ends with a score that shows a winner and a loser—a zero sum game is definitely played.

In the movie business, the game has long been played in a defined physical space as well.  The battle for movie supremacy used to be fought exclusively in movie theaters.  Distributors fought to get their movies into more theaters in order to grab a larger box office gross—that elusive number at the end of a weekend or a year that shows your movie and your studio was the “winner”.   Now, of course, movies are available on multiple screens. Yet the idea of a movie theater still holds us in its thrall.

We still believe that a movie has greater “value” if it is shown in a theater.  I would argue that we even believe that it is not really a “movie” unless it has been shown in a theater.  The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, the organization that sponsors the Oscars, certainly believes that is true.  They will not nominate or award an Oscar to a movie that has not been shown in a theater for a specified number of days.  They believe that if it has not shown in a movie theater—it is not a movie worthy of consideration.  (Yet a web series can be nominated for an Emmy or Golden Globe—see House of Cards or Orange is the New Black—both of them web, not TV series.)

This strong hold that the movie theater has on our imagination has an additional consequence.  It leads us to believe in scarcity as an important value. It presumes that if you can only get something in one place but not in all others it has greater value and greater appeal.  It presumes that people will want it more and will pay more for it.  This notion is deeply rooted in the physical world of movie theaters—where there is only so much real estate, and where the cost of construction and maintaining a physical structure is high.

Today, movies are distributed digitally across many kinds of networks and devices that do not have those high cost constraints.  While the cost of real estate and construction is likely to go up, the cost of digital distribution inexorably goes down. We are in a world where scarcity is being replaced by ubiquity and abundance.  Yet, our minds are held hostage to beliefs that are grounded in scarcity.  These beliefs are rooted in a world bounded by the physical constraints of an older game.

This leads us to think wrongly that when this game is played, the winners will automatically push out the losers.  For example, when my film plays in a theater, there is no room for yours.  The metaphor of the Super Bowl applies here -there is a clear winner and a clear loser.  However, while the Super Bowl continues to be played in a physical space with specific rules and time constraints—movie distribution does not.  Therefore the determination of winners and losers is not so easy to make.  The game has changed.

Imagine if The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences decreed that any movie could qualify for an Oscar nomination as long as it ran a certain length and premiered on any platform during the year under consideration.  Or any documentary, or any short film, animated film, etc.  They would recognize that the game has shifted from its historical physical limitations and its focus on scarcity as a determinant of value.  More movies would get to play in the game.

The focus should be on quality, wherever it resides, whoever has created it and wherever it has been shown. 

We have to get the movie theater out of our heads and find the best movie stories-wherever they play.


About Chris Dorr

I consult with companies on digital media strategy and business development. Clients include Samsung, MTV Networks, Tribeca Film Festival, Shaw Media and Canadian Film Center. I created the Future of Film blog for Tribeca. I have worked in the movie business for Disney Studios, Universal Pictures, Scott Free and in the digital media business for Intertainer, Sony and Nokia. Contact me at [email protected] or follow me at @chrisdorr
This entry was posted in Distribution, Hollywood, Independent Film, Innovation and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.