Independent of What? (Part 1 of 2)

Saw an article that my friend and colleague Josh Bernhard (writer/director of The Lionshare) linked on his Twitter: AMC Announces ‘AMC Independent’

The news is that AMC has announced a program to commit 60 screens across North American to running independent films. This is actually something they’ve been doing for years with mini-major films, but now they’ve decided to call it a thing and add a few more screens.

The official AMC blog entry announcing this has a great line that caught my eye roll: “AMCi’s goal is to bring guests more of these independent films in the same comfort and quality they’ve become accustomed to viewing Hollywood blockbusters in.”

In other words, chain theaters = comfort and quality, art houses = lack thereof. Whether they’re alluding to uncleanliness or snobbish staff/patrons as the comfort-ruining culprit is unclear. What is clear is the read-between-the-lines ‘fuck you.’

If they are jabbing at shit quality control, they aren’t wrong, but they aren’t exempt. I’ve had abysmal viewing experiences at both independent and chain theaters. Hell, I can’t remember the last time I had a wholly enjoyable theater outing. Movie theaters have always been tolerable at best. This isn’t to say that I don’t like going to a movie, but nobody genuinely enjoys being there for anything other than being with their friends/family, the movie itself (if it’s good) the sheer size of the picture (independent of whether its unfocused/cropped) and the louder-than-at-home sound (independent of whether it’s fully working.)

I don’t blame theaters entirely for their shortcomings. If they had the money, why wouldn’t they put it into maintaining a clean theater with good food, service, atmosphere? If two theaters nearby are showing the same movie at the same time, one in an awesome environment and the other in filth, you’re gonna go to the former. The Alamo Drafthouse, and a handful of other theaters like it, are examples of this business model in practice. The reason the overwhelming majority aren’t as well is because they are entirely fucked from ever building the capital necessary to do so.

So little of a movie’s actual gross goes to theaters at all. Even if a movie does gross exceptionally well (a la Avatar) the theaters don’t see any larger of a cut. They’re on a fixed income of  ‘just enough to get by’ money, which affords them no breathing room to even try to run a theater correctly. If studios are going to treat theaters this way– a strained, dreary relationship with no upside or profit kickback– maybe these chain theaters need to fight for some independence.

The way to do that would be to show them how much more profitable things would be for everyone if theaters were allowed to exercise some creativity. If granted the capital, theaters could promise to maintain clean, enjoyable environments that intelligently promote the shit out of the movies they run. Movies would become big events that turn the whole night into an unforgettable experience. Good food, costumes, decorations, the works.

Studios spend millions on films to generate interest and awareness. But if the reviews are unanimously bad, all that promotion actually hurts. Whenever anyone sees a TV spot or trailer or poster for the notorious bomb, they remember “Oh, I heard that was shit.”

Theater events could potentially save these box office bombs, by way of celebrating how shitty they are. People love unintentional comedies, and events can easily be created for them. Just look at the cult success of The Room. If there were celebrations of awful all across the U.S., atrocious reviews would no longer hurt a film’s potential success.

This would also be particularly helpful for genre films. Great Martial Arts movies like The Protector do shit in the box office because people assume they’ve seen it all before when it comes to Martial Arts. Movies like these would do a lot better if theaters reminded the viewing public how fun they can be. Local restaurants could cater Thai food, there could be Muay Thai demonstrations in the lobby, etc.

This is the future of movie theaters, if they let it be. The alternative  is more of the same– increasingly higher ticket and snack prices, with no increase in theater quality whatsoever. A dinosaur of a business model that’ll eventually lose out to increasingly cheap big-screen TV’s and On Demand services.

Everything I’ve described has way more independent spirit than the AMC Independent (AMCi) program. AMCi won’t help anything in the long run for theaters, nor for independent film. The only reason they’re doing this is because if they’re gonna run a film that won’t sell many tickets, they might as well run an independent that could maybe gain buzz, rather than a studio bomb. No actual love or respect is going on here, just posturing.

The blame for this? Not nearsighted theaters. It’s independent filmmakers that put themselves in this lame AMCi situation, as well as countless other situations that are for some ungodly reason treated as small victories for independent film. I’ll deal with this in Part Two.

To be continued . . .

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