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June 3, 2011 9:13 AM
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First Person | Ira Deutchman: How to recreate the repertory cinema for the digital age

Scenes from films screening as part of the "From Britain with Love" series.

For a very long time, I've been proselytizing to just about anyone who would listen about how digital projection could change the way we think about a theatrical release. While most people in the industry focus on cost savings, which can be substantial over time, I've been fascinated with the disruptive element-the fact that our entire notion of what constitutes the traditional theatrical model has been built around the economics of shipping these precious items called "prints."

These assets, once bought, beg to be used as often as possible to justify their cost. Yet every time the print is run through a projector, it is deteriorating and constantly at risk of being severely damaged. Switching from one film to another in the projection booth is a clunky process of splicing and unsplicing reels, subjecting the prints to even further potential damage. It's not for nothing that budgets for theatrical release are called P&A, indicating that the budget for prints has a prominence that is equal to or greater than any other part of the distribution budget.

Institutions dedicated to the art of film have always been in a bind: Their mission is to expose audiences to material more diverse and more challenging than standard multiplex fare, but the economics never allowed for more than a few prints at any given time -- and those prints would be in terrible shape after a few theatrical runs in major cities. Distributors of smaller movies would "bicycle" the prints around the country (two days here, five days there) until perhaps a year later, most of the towns with an appetite for these films would have played it. By the time smaller cities were playing a film, any national press or excitement would have dissipated.

Enter digital projection. Suddenly, smaller films could be everywhere at once with very little or no incremental cost. With no hard asset to recoup, a film could play a single show at a location, if that's the potential demand. And if there's anything I've learned from all my years as a distributor, the beauty of old-fashioned repertory cinemas is they get the same number of people in one show (if that's all there is) that they would have gotten spread out over a week with a traditional theatrical run. It's just better business.

But what about the "A" in P&A? How do we get attention for smaller films without having the budget of Fox Searchlight or Focus Features? Taking another page from repertory cinemas, I'm a big believer in packaging films thematically in order to get more attention than one could ever get for any single film. There are many examples of this over the years, from the French New Wave to Dogma 95 to mumblecore. While some were more successful than others, they were all basically marketing ploys to elevate a certain type of film and get more attention.

Emerging Pictures head Ira Deutchman.

Pulling these ideas together, why not recreate the repertory cinema model for the digital age? Program different strands of films on different nights; day-part them, if you will. Why not stage national events to showcase those strands and have audiences feel like they are part of something larger -- something they can't get on TV or from a DVD?

At Emerging Pictures, we've done some experimentation with these ideas over the last couple of years. We did a showcase of documentaries from the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival at the same time that the festival was going on in Durham NC. We syndicated the Film Society of Lincoln Center's "Latin Beat" series a few times. We did a series called "Undiscovered Gems" with indieWIRE. We started doing one-night-only documentary events in multiple locations and had live Q&As broadcast to multiple theaters at once. All of these events worked technically, but they were missing the "A." There was really no budget to promote them, so while satisfaction was high for the filmmakers, the venues and the audiences, business was meager.

Cut to last fall at the Toronto Film Festival. I had a meeting with Sarah McKenzie, head of the export unit at the soon-to-close UK Film Council. In March 2011, the unit showcased UK films in digital cinemas across Mumbai, Delhi and Bangalore, enhancing the entertainment experience with talent participating in live-webcast 'In Conversations'. It was supported by both a traditional and social media campaign that reached 35 million Indians. Sarah heard we were doing similar things at Emerging.

The result was "From Britain With Love," a series of independent UK films that will happen all over the country starting June 11. The difference between this series and others we have done is we have a partner, the UK Film Council, with an understanding of the potential of digital cinemas and the resources to invest in press and marketing. That has always been the missing piece.

The series has turned into a massive collaboration that, to me, represents a blueprint of how this might work going forward -- a vision of the future of theatrical distribution.

Here is how it came together.

After we worked it all out between Emerging and the Film Council, they put out a call for entries. These were to be UK films not yet been released in the US. There was an application process and screeners came in from all over. The Film Society of Lincoln Center agreed to curate the series and to host it as its flagship venue. Scott Foundas of the Film Society embraced the idea and narrowed them from the 30 films entered to the six films that now constitute the series. Scott's programming skills have made for an incredibly strong lineup of films, representing the very diverse cultures that make up the current British film scene. These are not your typical "King's Speech" kinds of films.

The films will be each be shown twice in New York -- once at the Film Society's theaters (including three films at the new Film Center) and one screening at the IFC Center. All films will also show in over 30 cities around the country, in some cases at the exact same time they screen at Lincoln Center. Each of the films will have a Q&A -- three broadcast from Lincoln Center and three from the UK -- that will be carried live on the screens at many of the other theaters, and also on the Internet. Questions will be asked via Twitter. Theater personnel will tweet questions for audience members who are not yet Twitter savvy. The Q&As will be archived on the website and available after any screening -- even those that come much later than the live broadcast.

UKFC Export Unit and Emerging Pictures worked together to bring on additional marketing partners. These are BAFTA, Creative Screen Associates, the UK Consulate, Tribeca Films and BBC America. Through those sponsorships, we will reach out to targeted email lists, web sites and social networking channels. Of course, each venues will work their own lists and websites.

We have a great website at www.frombritainwithlove.org and a great trailer (see above). The social media campaign is building substantial communities through Twitter and Facebook, with even Michael Sheen retweeting! The best news is we've had indications this could be an annual event, with other UK partners replacing the UK Film Council.

Even better, other sponsors are taking notice of the model and talking to us about other thematic series that could be coming down the pike. Personally, I'm very excited that this has all come together, and grateful to all those that made it possible -- especially Sarah McKenzie (now of Creative Screen Associates) and the UK Film Council, The Film Society of Lincoln Center and BAFTA.

I would encourage all of you to come see some (or all) of the films. First of all, they're all very strong. But also you would be supporting a new model that could help bring a broader selection of films to our neighborhood theaters.

For a complete list of the films and show times near you, click here.

[Ira Deutchman has been making, marketing and distributing films since 1975. He was one of the founders of Cinecom and later created Fine Line Features. Currently Deutchman is Managing Partner of Emerging Pictures, a New York-based digital exhibition company. He is also a Professor of Professional Practice in the Graduate Film Division of the School of the Arts at Columbia University, where he is the head of the Producing Program.]

[Editor's Note: This article recently appeared in Ira Deutchman's blog. He gave iW permission to re-publish.]

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3 Comments

  • Michael Falter | June 6, 2011 2:42 AMReply

    Nice blog entry, Ira. We are one of the participating venues for the series, we have a fairly small town (70,000) but we are dedicated to presenting these kinds of programs. Emerging makes it possible, frankly--not only through the use of digital transmission, but making the terms something that makes it worth taking the risk. My big wish is that the paradigm for theatres and distributors (i.e., the WB's of the world) will shift to make it easier to program classic films--to give us the ability to run true retrospectives and market the great classics or the spectacular gems that are rarely screened. They give it away to Netflix, et al, but still charge theatres $250-$350 per rental. Makes it hard to be a partner in the continuing relevance of film at the theatre. Keep fighting the good fight!

  • Jenny Evans | June 5, 2011 3:43 AMReply

    For the last couple of years Shorts International has used a similar paradigm in presenting the Oscar nominated short films as a series. They add an additional carrot by distributing the series before Oscars night and challenging the audience to predict the winners. I think there's a lot of potential do more short series along these lines, beginning, for example, with the BAFTA nominated shorts and shorts from other major festivals. I'm a voting member of BAFTA and as I watched the films in the short film category this year I was keenly aware that they deserved an audience far beyond a few BAFTA members watching them for awards consideration. In this era of hand-held digital devices and short attention spans, short films have the potential to become players in the market, rather than merely calling cards. And marketing them in series is a great way to get them out to audiences.

  • Danny Lee Ladely | June 4, 2011 7:02 AMReply

    With all due deference to Mr. Deutchman, he is a person for whom I have immense respect, I've programmed the packages offered by Emerging Pictures many times at the Mary Riepma Ross Media Arts Center in Lincoln, Nebraska, and they have all bombed. Consequently, when my contract with Emerging Pictures finally expired, I did not renew it. When I first began my tenure as programming director 38 years ago here in Lincoln, running a program that was then called the Sheldon Film Theater, I created many of my own packages of all kinds. I called them retrospectives, featuring many different genres, countries, directors, actors, etc., and for the most part they were well attended. Over the years, however, attendance to these programs waned to the point that I simply quit offering them. Last October, I programmed a small series of the Jacques Tati films on tour around the country, which attracted less than 100 people. Overall, our attendance is respectable, given the size of our city, averaging around 40,000 annually. But people just don't come to certain types of film programs here. Maybe they work okay in large, metropolitan areas but not in a market the size of Lincoln. Sorry but it is true. On the other hand, I am a great proponent of digital cinema. We were the first university in the entire world to purchase and install a Barco Digital Cinema projection system and are now in the process of upgrading it. We use it quite a lot for very important aspects of our programming. I have believed for a long while, and nothing has caused me to change my mind, that digital cinema is the future for low budget, Indepent filmmaking and distribution. I commend and applaud Deutchman and Emerging Pictures for the advances they have accomplished since that company opened years ago. Please do keep up your good work.