How theaters decide what movies to screen
December 6, 2018
We've all experienced the feeling of waiting for a movie to hit theaters —what's going to happen to The Avengers? Is Lady Gaga actually a good actress? Can "Mary Poppins Returns" possibly live up to the first?
Unfortunately, in smaller communities such as the Vail Valley, those questions aren't always answered.
The valley has three movie theaters: Riverwalk Theater in Edwards, Capitol Theater in Eagle and the CineBistro in Vail. Each of the theaters have four screens, meaning that at any given time, 12 movies can be playing across the valley. In contrast, larger cities play host to multiplexes with 30 screens under one roof.
While the theaters in the valley host a majority of the major motion pictures each year, they cannot host them all.
"We're ultimately responsible for booking our own content," said Grant Smith, owner of the Riverwalk Theater.
Smith explained that most of the content that he brings into the theater comes from the seven major Hollywood studios (NBCUniversal, Viacom, Warner Media, Walt Disney Studios, Sony Pictures, Fox Entertainment Group and Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures), which are the studios that create the blockbusters that we all wait to see every year. Additionally, there are "mini-majors" such as Lionsgate Motion Picture Group and STX Entertainment, and insurmountable independent studios.
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When Smith wants to screen a film, he requests the rights, and the studio chooses whether to approve or not, allowing or restricting the screening.
"In an area outside of a major population area, some movies may not be available to us that are available to others," Smith said. "But we also have nicer theaters that (the studios) want their films to play in."
'Alchemy' of choosing films
However, due to the limited number of screens, Smith and other owners, such as Stephen Lindstrom, owner of Capitol Theater, have to make some decisions as to what to screen, or rather, what not to.
"We pick the films that we think are best for our market," Lindstrom explains. Lindstrom jokingly referred to the process of choosing films as "alchemy."
Lindstrom leans toward films that are family-friendly, and that will fit into the community in Eagle. Similarly, Smith noted that family-friendly films do well at his theater, and that hosting a film must also make financial sense.
According to Smith, when a film is booked for a theater, owners must commit to a certain amount of time, meaning that if a movie isn't garnering enough attention or profit, a theater can't drop it and move on. For this reason, some films are only screened for a week, and they may come later than the original release date.
The process used to consist of advanced screenings for theater owners in Denver in order to aid their decisions, but now, they have to focus on what they read and hear about a film when requesting the rights.
Because of the smaller theater and the hyper-focused customer base, some films never make it to the valley, and thus far a handful of well-known films have not been screened here yet. Such films include "Love, Simon;" "Widows" and "The Hate U Give." Similarly, arthouse films (those targeted at a very niche audience) cannot be screened.
Despite an inability to house every major motion picture, local theaters are also attempting to integrate "alternative programming," which refers to documentaries and independently produced movies.
For instance, "Free Solo," a documentary following a climber as he takes on Yosemite, is currently screening at the Riverwalk Theater.
"There are maybe 500 American films produced each year in this country and maybe 125 are mainstream, we play most of those," Lindstrom noted. "We try to play the very top of the rest; the stuff that plays in New York and Los Angeles."
However, for every smaller film that owners screen, they have to ask: What are we not showing? This occasionally results in extremely limited runs for films such as a one-week run for "BlacKKKlansman," despite the film being considered a major awards contender.
Lindstrom also noted that he occasionally receives requests for esoteric and artsier films, but they generally are issue-oriented and appeal to smaller groups.
"Ultimately, people vote with their dollars," Lindstrom said.
Film rights aren't requested until the Monday before they debut, so it's difficult for owners to predict what is coming down the pipeline, but there are 12 major films yet to be released this year ("Aquaman," "Marry Poppins Returns" and "Green Book" among them) that will likely make appearances in local theaters.
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