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Tim League Refutes Netflix’s Reed Hastings On Movie Theater Innovation

The founder of the Alamo Drafthouse has some issues with Netflix's Hastings saying that the movie business hasn't innovated in the last 30 years.

Tim League

Daniel Bergeron

The following editorial is written by Tim League, co-founder and CEO of the Alamo Drafthouse Cinemas.

Netflix. It seems like every other interview I give asks me about the “threat” of Netflix. I’ll be blunt. Netflix doesn’t concern me, and I think it is obvious after last week that the cinema industry is of no concern to Netflix either.

We are in very different businesses.

Let me define those businesses.

Netflix is in the business of growing a global customer base by being the best value proposition subscription content platform.

And they are doing a great job. Their portal is stable, intuitive, cheap and delivers plenty of great, new content every month. They also provide a fantastic financial opportunity for both emerging and veteran storytellers. I stand in awe of the audience they have built and the wealth they have amassed in such a short time.

But here’s my business: Cinema. Cinemas are in the business of offering an incredible, immersive experience that you simply cannot duplicate at home. Our job is to put on a show and provide a great value proposition for getting out of the house, turning off your phone and enjoying great stories in the best possible environment. At our best, cinemas should also be local community centers with a real, tangible relationship to their surrounding neighborhood.

Last week, Reed Hastings once again dumped on my industry. He summarized the innovation of cinema in the past 30 years by saying, “Well, the popcorn tastes better, but that’s about it.” While our industry has not shown the vision and truly game-changing innovation of Netflix, Hastings’ antagonistic approach to cinema inadvertently exposes an underlying disrespect to the creators and auteurs that drive this entire machine.

Our best and most talented, passionate filmmakers vehemently do not want their films to be viewed first and foremost on a phone, on the train to work, while checking email, while chopping vegetables for the evening meal, on mute with subtitles while rocking a baby to sleep, or while dozing off before bed. The reality is, most Netflix content is being “consumed” in a less-than-ideal environment.

Great filmmakers create content to share their fully realized creations in a cinema with full, rich sound; bright, crisp picture and a respectful audience whose full attention is on the screen. And because of that, when courting filmmakers young and old to create content for their platform, I wish Netflix would consider the relationship with cinemas built by Amazon, Hulu, HBO, Showtime and Epix.

They all believe in cinemas as meaningful partners. They also respect those filmmakers who want meaningful theatrical engagements for their films. They believe in the promotional partnership that successful theatrical engagements can give to word of mouth, awards consideration, brand loyalty and ultimately maximized financial returns.

Amazon, for example, will be at CinemaCon next week building and strengthening their relationship with cinemas instead of tearing it down the week before.

I got into this business because I love movies. I hold the cinematic experience to be sacred, wonderful and these days even therapeutic.  I love the shared communal experience and the charged conversations I have after watching a movie in a cinema. I want to forge relationships with companies who truly love movies, too.

I do not believe that cinemas are owed or grandfathered into an exclusive window before movies are offered ostensibly for free on platforms such as Netflix. I contend that cinemas have earned, and must continue to earn, an exclusive window by providing the experience that directors desire as well as providing a significant financial benefit to producers and financiers.

To close, I’ll offer my flippant counter, as I was asked specifically to respond to Hastings’ remarks of last week. Until a meaningful relationship is forged with cinemas, Netflix is not making “movies.” They are instead funding exclusive-access commodities that help grow their subscriber base.

In “Lost in America,” Albert Brooks told his wife, after she lost their entire savings at the roulette wheel in Vegas, that she no longer had the right to use the term nest egg.

“Do me a favor,” he said. “Don’t use the word ‘nest egg’. You may not use that word. It’s off limits to you! Only those in this house who understand nest egg may use it! And don’t use any part of it, either. Don’t use ‘nest.’ Don’t use ‘egg.’ You’re out in the forest you can point, ‘The bird lives in a round stick.’ And you have ‘things’ over easy with toast!”

I, for one, would welcome the dialogue to forge a meaningful partnership for theatrical exhibition and promotion of select Netflix productions, but until we have that, I consider the term “movie” to be their “nest egg.”

But even as I pen this probably unjustifiably snarky retort, I will acknowledge some underlying truth to Reed Hastings’ words. We do, as an industry, need to invest in innovation. Cinema’s primary threat today is not Netflix; it is ourselves. We must continue to maintain high exhibition standards, invest in new sound and picture technology, improve the digital experience for our guests, develop innovative ways to delight our guests and ensure that we live up to our one job – make going to the cinema an amazing experience.

If we do that, we should be able to look back on another thirty years of limited innovation to our core product and say, “Job well done, we didn’t screw up what has always been and remains great about the cinema: the show itself.”

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Comments

josimar

I agree with him. In fact, I prefer to cancel my Netflix account than stop going to cinemas to stay home watching Netflix. I don’t care for people bullshitting that “Tv today is better than movies, etc etc”, because I would gladly cancel my Netflix subscription than stop going to the movies.

Mark

Both make good points. I still hate that we have to wait 3 or 4 months for the DVD/digital release of a movie because theater owners throw a tantrum every time there’s a simultaneous release

Jack Wibbe

Hollywood has spent 30 years leaping backwards into the mire of special effects, and has contributed almost nothing else that’s new. Hollywood is not only cultivating the bad, they’re killing the good. Hastings did the industry by telling them the truth. He could have gone further, and pointed out that the business model of 40,000 cineplexes all trying to sell ten-dollar tickets to boring, repetitive comic-book films, is a short route to doom.

TC Kirkham

I’ll say what I said on Subject:CINEMA a few weeks back – unless Netflix gets into theatrical distribution seriously, and not this piddly-ass piecemeal stuff they’re doing now, they are not making “Oscar” films and are screwing serious filmmakers BIG TIME – they are making TV Movies…and the hard working filmmaker who is so proud when he takes his film to Sundance, SXSW, or Toronto will have to settle for an Emmy award at best…

Robert Maier

As the director of an art-house micro-cinema (55 seats- open part time), I’d suggest that one innovative idea to help support theaters that distributors do more to help jumpstart cinemas like mine. Many of the larger distributors ignore our specific needs, which limits our ability to serve audiences hungry to see art films on large screens with great audio in a cool theater setting. Here’s a short beginning list:

1. Don’t limit initial releases to DCP only. Give us Blu-Ray now! Our audiences love our Blu-ray image on our 20 ft. screen, in a theater with a group, a helluva lot more than Netflix or Amazon, etc. at home on a 4 ft screen with tinny speakers. And most can’t tell the difference between DCP and Blu-Ray. The $50,000 investment in DCP makes it impossible for microcinemas to germinate.

2. Don’t require payment in advance. We’ve been around 3 years and never stiffed a distributor, but keeping track of a half dozen guarantees out there is a pain.

3. Don’t require 12 pages of notarized personal guarantees… etc. If we grow large enough, maybe we can afford to hire someone to shuffle big distributor paperwork.

4. When we contact you about booking a film, please respond, even just to say we’re too small to make a difference, and stop bothering you. There are many small distributors out there who have wonderful films, and they are our primary source. It won’t hurt our feelings.

Jeremy

I love the idea of cinema blended with an eatery. I love the indie feel. But, have you ever been to Movie Tavern? I’m pretty sure you have; comfy reclinable chairs, credit cards taken beforehand. When I went to Alamo, it was smelly, musty, we got interrupted at the worst time during the movie, it was a cramped feeling, it wasn’t really a top notch cinema experience. To be fair, there are little things here and there at pretty much all theaters that are lacking, but it would seem that if you have a competing product, that you would… compete. Maybe innovation should start with what you have in front of you.

JoeS

I agree with League overall. As to Netflix’ claim that there has been no innovation for 30 years – how about Stadium Seating? As an under-6 footer, believe me, not having to crane my neck to see the screen unobscured has been a great boon (and, for Foreign subtitled movies? Nirvana!). Netflix hasn’t proven itself all that interested in the theatrical experience, so they little ground to stand on. They iced nominations for the terrific BEASTS OF NO NATION by dumping it into a handful of theaters and then immediately showing on for ‘free’ on their channel. Remember, one of the main reasons the producers of MANCHESTER BY THE SEA went with Amazon over Netflix was because they felt that Amazon would give their movie a fair shot – and, it paid off with two Oscars and a bunch of nominations. The theatrical experience still must thrive for the entire movie industry to do so. You can’t have just stream only.

Mike

I consider cinema sacred, but I don’t go to theaters anymore. It’s rare. I’ll take Netflix over this superhero crap. Right now I think the real problem is the economy shaping the content out right now. We are getting Trumped by Digital

Jack

If stadium seating is the only bennie for going to the theater, I’ll see the stadium seating and raise you…my couch. Which is awesome. But as to the overall question…Is it better to watch a movie at home, than at the Cineplex?

ADVANTAGES: At home I can watch whenever I want, sitting in my underwear, eating food at reasonable prices, drinking a beer. If I feel like it, I can watch the first half, set it aside, and come back for the rest later. If one of these marble-mouth action heroes doesn’t know how to enunciate, I can rewind or put on the subtitles. The movie adapts itself to me and my life, not the other way around. No lines, no driving or parking, no Jujubes stuck to my feet, no annoying teenagers shouting stuff in the back row, nothing missed when I have to run out to pee. And a family of four seeing the movie with snacks isn’t eighty bucks.

DISADVANTAGES: The screen is slightly larger than the big-screen TV at home, which doesn’t matter because I’m sitting further away. And I don’t have to wait for big theatrical releases, which is of little concern because most of them are mindless action movies anyhow.

Marc Schenker

Netflix puts out great content each month? Netflix puts out loser after loser, especially with its origimnal programming. I have the DVD plan and, because studios no longer want to make their films available to Netflix for at least 6 months, you might as well catch it at the movies on bargain day.

Jose

Agree with most of Tim’s speech but I feel one point is missing: lots of people want to see content on their phones commuting back home from work. And lots of filmmakers want to produce content for this niche market, you can see it in the myriad of ‘short-form content’ platforms aimed at millennials and Gen-Z. OK, this might not be ‘teatrical cinema’ quality but still as good as ‘TV movies’ (80s) or ‘direct to DVD movies’ (90s) were. In short, there’s room for everyone in the entertainment business -to grow and definitely to innovate.

Cory

Agreed Tim. I support everything Netflix is doing content-wise, but I am vehemently against the last of theatrical exhibition up-front and the lack of a high-quality Blu-ray or 4K UHD release at the tail-end. Their streaming platform is convenient and affordable, but does not take into account the most passionate supporters of cinema. Making inroads in those two areas (theatrical exhibition and Blu-ray), as Amazon and others have very successfully done, would make inroads with those passionate enthusiasts and would do nothing to turn off the already-happy casual consumers. Win-win.

Katie

Cinema is great for films to be showcased, but sometimes indie houses and franchises aren’t worth the price of admission when the atmosphere outweighs a good movie. Which is why people prefer to stay at home. Most, either employees or moviegoers, don’t go to the cinema with consideration for others these days. It doesn’t matter which theater chain or indie house I go to in my area, so many employees have zero customer service or even a friendly demeanor to make the experience inviting or welcoming. Often times, they act as if I’m burdening them by buying tickets, snacks, etc. And then moviegoers come to the showing late, talk and text during the movie, browse the internet on their smartphone, treat the place like it’s their living room. More often than not, the money spent on the movie was worth it, but not anything else. So I might as well had stayed at home, curled up on the couch, and enjoy it on my own.

LOOK, I’m the biggest advocate for cinema. Film is one of my greatest passions, and it’d kill me one day to not have a cinema to go to anymore. I treat myself by going to the movies for an evening and seeing great pieces of film in a theater. It’s an easy and fun way to hang out with friends/family, and occasionally, connect with movie buffs. I’ll continue going to cinemas while they’re still around, but the comforts of home are more intriguing, and in fact, easier – sometimes.

Justin Avery

A couple of my fondest memories involved a cinema or drive-in, not always movie related. A trip to the cinema is all about just that… it’s a trip. It’s a mini holiday you can take without leaving your home town. I hope that they will always be around… but then where are all the drive-ins these days.

It makes sense that no director wants to go straight to phone or TV, and that they want to hit the big screen, but with the increasing use of VR and the improvement of the quality of the headsets a trip to see a movie with great sound on the big screen might be easier and better to do on your couch. For one the drinks and candy is cheaper — to the point where after 10 movies you’ve probably paid for a high-end VR headset, the kid isn’t kicking the back of your seat, your bladder won’t burst while you wait for the cliffhanger moment, you’ve got a more comfortable seat, you don’t have that really tall person in front of you, and Mr “Chew crunchy snack with my mouth open” isn’t frustrating you….

I’m not saying that it’s better than a visit to the cinema, it ticks a lot of the same boxes but it’s still different. I remember seeing Something About Mary at the cinema and the audience laughing made it ever funnier… not something you want canned for movies and you’ll miss out on VR.

It will be interesting how cinema and VR develop.

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