What Can Hollywood Learn From the European Model of Film Exhibition?

35mm film craig hubert apimages 615Cynthia Littleton’s TV on Strike: Why Hollywood Went to War over the Internet provides a rather straightforward and compelling account of the 2007 writer’s strike that stifled Hollywood. She does a fine job presenting the opposing sides—the Hollywood executives and the WGA members and supporters—and asserting their respective arguments. While reading the text I found myself associating with the writers, as I am sure many readers do. However, this is not to say that I could not recognize the predicament that the executives faced at the time. All economic and political factors aside, these Hollywood big shots essentially had the future of a potentially explosive and limitless market in their hands, one that revolved around the various platforms and interfaces provided by “new media”.

In my opinion, the real problem lies in the exhibition and distribution methods of previously established media, the “old media”—Hollywood’s bread and butter—and furthermore, their survival in the digital age. In this transformative period, “old media” and “new media” could not coexist unhindered by one another’s successes, much like the executives and the WGA members could not both thrive simultaneously. I would argue that the two, whether old and new media, or execs and WGA members, must make sacrifices in order to prevail. The increase in broadband connectivity in American homes, most notably between 2005 and 2010, emphasized the prospective dominance of new media over old media. Littleton writes:

By May 2010, broadband penetration in the home had climbed to 66 percent of adults, including 80 percent of those in the age range of eighteen to twenty-nine, the generation of movie ticket buyers and TV viewers that Hollywood is most eager to reach. (Littleton, 7)

This statistic embodies Hollywood’s greatest fear; failing to fill the seats of the endless cinemas across the United States. This is where I believe Hollywood has much to learn from their European counterparts (as much as some Hollywood executives might like to deny it). I feel the best way I can express this is by calling upon my time abroad in Prague, Czech Republic, in the Fall of 2012.

I studied at FAMU and upon my arrival, was promptly exposed to the highly productive Czech film industry. All of my professors were simultaneously working as professionals in the local industry, whether as DPs, actors, writers, or more technically based roles, much like you might find at an American film institute.

Barrandov Studios, located in the outskirts of Prague, is one of the production hubs of Central/Eastern Europe. Hollywood has historically made use of the cheap costs of labor in the Czech Republic; titles like Mission: Impossible (1996), The Bourne Identity (2002), and Casino Royale (2006) were filmed at Barrandov Studios. While Hollywood has made use of foreign labor markets in so far as film production, there seems to be a lack of innovative American exhibition methods.

Bio OkoThe Bio Oko is a small-scale, “classic” theatre located in Prague (coincidentally a block from my apartment). It only takes one look at the Bio Oko website to see that “classic” is misleading; it may be more accurately described as an art cinema. The American equivalent is something along the lines of a revival house, opposed to first-run theaters. Bio Oko has achieved what I believe to be an ideal mix of “old” and “new” media. In a 2012 article for The Atlantic entitled As 35mm Film Dies, How Do Revival Theaters Cope?, Craig Hupert explores the eminent conversion to digital projection and the subsequent dissolution of classic film distribution and projection. He writes:

But with first-run movies reportedly making the transition completely over to digital projection by 2013, many repertory programmers and owners fear that the classics will quickly follow suit, making it harder for revival cinemas to show old movies in their original format. (Hupert)

Bio Oko is seamlessly blending the two approaches. Their current program features Steve McQueen’s Twelve Years a Slave (2013), Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity (2013), and Jean-Marc Vallée’s Dallas Buyers Club (2013), along with countless modern Czech films. Don’t be fooled, this is not your typical American theatre. For instance, when I was in Prague I watched Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) at the Bio Oko, projected in crisp 35mm. There is something strangely comforting about hearing the film reeling in the projector. There was even a fifteen minute intermission in the middle of the film, likely for audience members to refill their beers, grab some food, but more importantly, for the projectionist to prepare for the second half of the film.

This, in my belief, is the future of film exhibition in America, however, it has yet to catch on. Much like there was a resolution to the writer’s strike, there is and must be a happy medium between old and new media, and in that solution I believe Hollywood will be able to fill those empty seats.

Images can be found here:

http://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2012/02/as-35mm-film-dies-how-do-revival-theaters-cope/252621/

http://www.kinosvetozor.cz/_download/kino_biooko_69_BIO_OKO_logo_web.jpg

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Comments

  1. You make some great points here, Gabe. Whenever I’m out of the country I try to set aside a few hours to see a movie at a local theater. We don’t often think of them this way, but theaters are complex sites where (the institution and apparatus of) cinema, (the medium of) film, and (the social practice of) movie-going converge. As such, exhibition sites offer very interesting, albeit highly selective glimpses into the place of culture within a particular locale. As your post usefully reminds us, they also give us useful glimpses into an industry.

    Your description of Bio Oko made me think of theaters like the Brattle in Cambridge and the Angelika in the Village. If you haven’t poked around the NATO website (National Association of Theatre Owners), you should check it out some time, keeping in mind that exhibition in the US has not been immune to some of the changes describes in Holt’s Empires of Entertainment, a fact that rarely favors independent exhibitors.

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