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James Schamus Torpedos ‘Death of Cinema’ Hand-Wringing with an Hysterical History Lesson

The former head of Focus Features also talked about why MoviePass might be a good thing.

James Schamus at 2017 PGA Produced By Conference

James Schamus at 2017 PGA Produced By Conference

Photo by Scott Roth/Invision for 42 West/AP Images

Projected on the screen behind his podium, the title card for James Schamus’ keynote at Saturday’s Produced By conference read: “Can Cinema Be Saved? Probably not, but let’s give it one last try.”

The even-keeled former head of Focus Features is widely respected as being one of the most knowledgable figures in film — mixing a deep appreciation for the art form and an even deeper understanding of the history and economics of movie distribution — but started his talk on a surprisingly alarmist note.

“It’s too late [to save cinema], but if we have a chance to do it, this coming year is probably the last chance we will ever have,” said Schamus. “Last year, as I will demonstrate shortly, was most likely the turning point where the actual strings of American cinema’s actual death knell could honestly be heard by those with their ears to the ground.”

Staying in character, Schamus for the next 30 minutes proceeded to take the audience through the hard realities, complete with numbers from last year, that were threatening the moviegoing experience. It soon became clear, however, that Schamus was talking about 1916, not 2016, when industry leaders were sounding the alarm about the rise of the feature film — rather than the threat of streaming — and how it was threatening the moviegoing experience.

James Schamus and Ang Lee

James Schamus and Ang Lee

Dave Allocca

Schamus didn’t have to spell out the connections to today in his tongue-in-cheek talk. The parallels of the issues being debated in 1916 were uncanny in their similarity to today: rising ticket prices, disparity of small regional theaters versus large state-of-the-art cinema palaces, the changing technical demands on theaters, the desire for serialized storytelling and “sequel-itus,” flexibility of letting the audience watch what they want to watch when they want to watch it (one- and two-reel programs had no set start time, unlike feature-length films), the changing economic models and new competition of independent producers, the growing threat of international film industries, and, of course, the need to “preserve the integrity of the theatergoing experience itself.”

“Now I know some of you are thinking, ‘Come on Schamus, aren’t you being a bit alarmist about all this?’” he said. “If you think that, you obviously haven’t been reading your trade press recently or listening to the most important voices in our industry trying to warn you of the danger.”

As Schamus read through the pessimistic trades’ outlook on the state of the moviegoing business and quotes from the studio bosses from 1916, he joked the audience would be surprised that he finds himself in complete agreement with the head of Universal, the parent company that fired Schamus from Focus in 2013. Carl Laemmle, the founder of Universal, for an entire year took out ads in the trades warning against Americans’ unhealthy addiction to feature films. “Quit using dope,” Schamus read from one Laemmle’s ads. “The so-called feature films are killing the business.”

Schamus eventually broke character and ended his talk to take questions, but he also reflected on how even he was surprised by how strong the parallels to today were when doing his research for the talk.

“The fact is you can see having that historical perspective, just changing the perspective slightly, just a 100 years, it turns out these anxieties are always with us,” said Schamus. “But the stories and doing the good work is a privilege… that’s the joy.”

During the Q&A, the now-indie producer and director (“Indignation”) talked about the changing movie landscape, including the recent rise in popularity of MoviePass since the price dropped to $9.99 a month. Schamus admitted that he hadn’t looked at the numbers in a couple years, but that there was good reason to believe it could be a “net-net” gain for both theaters and distributors.

“This a a system that was first developed in France, some time ago actually,” said Schamus. “It was resisted for quite some time by NATO (National Association of Theater Owners) and is now I believe considered fairly successful test case of how you get a stickiness and adherence.”

He added that non-users who mindlessly pay the monthly charge on their credit card are generally balanced out by “super users,” who were viewed as being a loss-leader as they generate excitement around moviegoing.

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