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Welcome to the 2020 Theatrical Experience: Threatened By Streaming, and Impossible to Replace

It's hard out there for the theatrical business, but that doesn't mean the theatrical experience is a lost cause, or that smaller movies can't thrive there.

Movies faced dramatic changes in the last 10 years, ranging from franchise domination to renewed conversations about diversity. However, no industry anxiety percolated more than questions about the future of the theatrical experience. While Disney mastered the blockbuster tentpole, and foreign-language breakout “Parasite” proved that theatrical success can happen for a range of cinematic achievements, the first decade following the launch of the smartphone and global streaming services made it clear: The existential threat to theatrical is very real.

We begin 2020 knowing that theatrical is not a given when it comes to movies; it’s simply one platform that must compete with all the others. Maintaining its relevance requires conscious choice as well as hard evidence to support its ongoing appeal.

Praise for the theatrical experience tends to stem from nostalgic fixations, but it’s one borne out of real-world experience. In June, I watched Noah Baumbach’s gripping and heartfelt divorce drama, “Marriage Story,” alone in a Manhattan screening room. I loved the movie’s tonal sophistication, from flashes of black comedy to shocking melodramatic showdowns and melancholic resolutions. But I experienced this in total solitude, confident of the film’s effectiveness but unable to validate how it might resonate with others.

My relationship to the movie completely transformed three months later, when I watched it with some 1,000 people at its New York Film Festival premiere in Alice Tully Hall. Audiences cheered Laura Dern’s feisty legal advisor for her empowering monologue, which tracked sexism all the way back to Mary Magdalene; ditto Adam Driver belting out “Being Alive.” They chuckled at the legal bickering that leads Driver’s character to shift from one lawyer to the next and cackled nervously as he endured a freak accident with a knife at exactly the wrong moment. It was no different, I realized, than watching the Season 6 premiere of “Game of Thrones” in Rockefeller Center a few months earlier. I had more fun with that ludicrous ice-and-fire epic with applauding strangers than I ever did with it in my living room.

This decade pointed to an intriguing distinction between viewer habits and preferences: Even as the long-term business propositions of theatrical distribution shrink, its visceral appeal hasn’t waned. (“Cats” is the wrong kind of box-office phenomenon, but it has potential for “Rocky Horror”-style singalongs.) However, both “Marriage Story” and “Game of Thrones” have serious industry muscle. Netflix pushed “Marriage Story” out into the world, even taking control of the defunct Paris Theater so the movie enjoyed some measure of theatrical life; the “GOT” event was a special HBO one-off. These events prove the vitality of the theatrical experience, but don’t indicate a model for the future.

If the industry doesn’t see long-term potential for theatrical releases — and the streaming wars suggest it doesn’t — what prospects do they have at all, when home viewing has become a competitive space? The answer to that question all depends on scale.

Ten years ago, Richard Lorber acquired the Kino International film library. Since then, the Kino Lorber label has survived in large part by navigating the diminishing returns of the theatrical market while keeping overhead low. “Theatrical was always the core of the business,” Lorber told me at his midtown office last week. “The first thing I did after the acquisition was say, ‘Look, we’ve got to be in business with Netflix.’”

Kino Lorber maintained a lucrative licensing deal with Netflix for years, until the streamer wound down most arrangements with outside providers in favor of original content. Now, Lorber said his operation of 20-odd staffers — including the ones who maintain the treasured Zeitgeist label, which Lorber rescued a few years ago — survive on a mixture of DVD sales and other digital licensing arrangements. “Physical media still is a very significant portion of our total revenues,” he said. “Maybe half, it may be less than half. I’m not sure. Obviously digital is growing fast, but the strong growth spots in physical are the direct to consumer, and that’s the future.”

Nevertheless, Kino’s biggest customer is Amazon, where the newly launched Kino Now VOD label lives and DVD sales thrive. (Kino’s “Linda Rondstadt: The Sound of My Voice” ranks number one in Amazon’s special-interest music category.) But in cities that have vibrant moviegoing communities like New York, Kino still serves the theatrical experience. In 2019, the company released 26 titles in theaters, including Berlinale winner “Synonyms,” Cannes sleeper hit “Diamantino,” and the dazzling 3D Chinese neonoir “Long Day’s Journey Into Night,” which grossed $600,000.

"A Long Day's Journey Into Night"

“A Long Day’s Journey Into Night”

Kino Lorber

That represents a triumph for Lorber, although he knows it doesn’t sound like one. “Look, we’re in a different realm than, say, the studios,” he said. “And we’re in a different realm than the high-profile indie arthouse companies, especially the really well-capitalized ones like A24 and Neon. It’s a different world, and we’re not shooting for millions of dollars in box office. They would see these figures as an abysmal failure.“

If anything, Lorber said, fears about the commercial potential for international cinema have given his company new momentum. “The battle with the titans in the heavens over SVOD has made a lot of the quality intellectual and artistically important films into a kind of roadkill,” he said. “They’re not part of the streamers’ business plans. They’re not going to drive them into millions of homes. But there are strong segments of our large country that are still interested in quality. We’re expanding our base of business by increasing our market share in a market that is overall declining.”

Lorber noted that smaller arthouses around the country — many of which host regional film festivals — showed more resilience than multiplexes. “They’re close to their customers,” he said. “They have membership communities. They have subscription programs. They have year-round involvement. The lines are blurring between the arthouse model and the festival model.”

“The Death of Dick Long”

A24

Daniel Scheinert, who directed the A24-produced black comedy “The Death of Dick Long,” echoed that sentiment. Despite a boost from Sundance’s NEXT section, the company gave “Dick Long” a fleeting theatrical release in the fall. (It grossed $36,856 after 13 weeks.) But Scheinert said the year-long experience of traveling with the movie changed his perspective on the metrics for success. “Film festivals are doing god’s work,” he said. “There’s no such thing as too many of them.”

He highlighted the way movies faced greater pressure to please audiences in theaters once they move beyond the festival bubble. “People don’t want to go to a theater unless it’s a fucking masterpiece, but they’ll watch anything their bedroom,” he said. “That’s kind of a bummer. Going to all these festivals reminds me that the theatrical experience isn’t about spectacle alone. It doesn’t have to be ‘Dunkirk’ to be rewarding in theaters. The fun is to be with strangers and zero distractions.”

Festivals are the last frontier for many movies. At the Toronto International Film Festival this fall, I was often amazed by the experience of watching so many different movies in large cinemas with audiences that cheered and engaged in ways that might never be replicated again. TIFF artistic director Cameron Bailey supported this assertion. “The films that are coming from streaming services are part of the industry, and that number will grow next year, but theatrical exhibition is a crucial part of the landscape for cinema,” he said. “Those things can co-exist. In a festival environment, the most important thing we can do for these films is presenting them in an environment where they can be seen in a collective fashion.”

Lorber said it has become easier to sort through acquisition opportunities on the festival circuit. “Small films, from all the individual small sales agents and international players that we know, are all over us,” he said. “We’re spending conservatively on the titles, and we’re scaling our ambitions to the market that we’re serving and what realistic expectations there are.”

Beyond that, combing the global festival circuit yields some constructive observations. “One of the things that is evident is that there’s no shortage of films being made,” Lorber said. “The proliferation is just astounding.” Still, Lorber is a realist. “It’s never been tougher, it’s never been more challenging, and it’s never been more interesting,” he said. “Whenever there are these disruptions, opportunities abound — if you have a plan for survival.”

As I left Lorber’s office, I fired up the first scene of “Marriage Story” on my iPhone. The poignant seven-minute opening montage still resonated in my palm, but I couldn’t help thinking about how much that depended on the knowledge of a better alternative.

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