In late June, Fox Searchlight, the specialty movie division of 20th Century Fox, opened a film in wide national release named 28 Days Later, an eerie British horror movie about a bike messenger who wakes up from a coma to find England deserted. There's been a plague. Zombies stalk the holdouts.
Predictably, it opened among the top five movies released the Fourth of July weekend, but it also ate into the performance of heavily hyped movies like Charlie's Angels: Full Throttle, played to sold-out houses around the country for weeks, and continued to linger in the box office Top 10 for a month, becoming a bona fide summer sleeper hit on word of mouth and almost unanimously positive reviews.
Twenty-eight days after opening, 28 Days Later still hadn't opened in Toledo.
Just south, 28 Days Later opened in Bowling Green at the Cla-Zel Theater on Main Street. Further south, the film opened in Lima. Due north, it opened at the Denniston Cinema in Monroe, and at the Madstone Theater in Ann Arbor's Briarwood Mall - both multiplexes.
Again, it opened in those smaller cities because 28 Days Later was a wide release, and “wide release” means it plays everywhere: Bangor, Brooklyn, Tallahassee. Everywhere.
“It was amazing that first weekend, actually,” said Sherry Smith, Madstone's director of marketing. “Anecdotally, we figure about 80 percent of the audience drove in from Toledo.”
Finally, on Aug. 1, 35 days after its release, 28 Days Later opened at the Franklin Mall 6 in Toledo.
It went on to do such solid business that it's still playing - one weekend, its performance even helped the six-screen Franklin Mall theater outgross the 18-screen Showcase Maumee.
What's going on here?
Toledo has long been a second-class citizen when it comes to specialty films, the industry catch-all for art movies, independent films, foreign films, documentaries, and limited releases. These films typically open first in New York and Los Angeles, then roll into smaller cities, reaching Toledo weeks and months after their initial opening - or sometimes not at all.
Why? The short answer is because not one of the 61 screens in the Toledo area - 46 of which are owned by a single chain, Massachusetts-based National Amusements, which runs 90 theaters nationwide and 5 locally - is devoted to specialty films.
But we know this.
What's new is that 28 Days Later fit none of the typical specialty film categories, and it still didn't make it to Toledo on time. True, it's British and shot on digital video and boasts no recognizable stars. But it's also pure pop moviemaking, a horror flick with zombies and gore and great reviews that was advertised heavily, with constant spots on MTV, and marketed to teenagers and twentysomethings, the audience that most frequents theaters each weekend.
There's a similar story with Bend It Like Beckham. A light British soccer comedy about a teenager breaking ranks with her Indian family, it was marketed as the next Big Fat Greek Wedding, and while it never quite reached the heights of that comedy phenomenon, it gathered steam all spring, and played to sold-out houses in cities much smaller than Toledo.
It opened in Toledo on June 20.
But even stranger, on the flip side, Swimming Pool, a French-made thriller with no major stars and a scene featuring an elderly dwarf, debuted here in late July at the Franklin Mall 6 - a week before opening in Ann Arbor, which has three theaters (or about seven full-time screens) that regularly show specialty films and therefore often gets first crack.
Lately film distribution in Toledo seems to have all the logic of a David Lynch mystery and the consistency of a Kevin Costner film festival.
Local cinephiles even have a name for the tourniquet they apply to stem the whining: the Ann Arbor Run, which consists of driving 50 miles north to visit the Michigan Theater or the State Theater or the Madstone and catch a rare big-screen showing of Easy Rider or a raved-about Sundance favorite or even a high-profile Oscar nominee before Oscar season is over.
Jeannie Jones, 59, of Toledo, does the Ann Arbor Run when she gets antsy. She keeps a list of movies to see on her refrigerator. “As soon as I read about something that sounds interesting, it goes on that list. Every Wednesday I get an e-mail from the Michigan Theater saying what they're showing. If something shows up, we try to see it there. I'm not going to wait around for things to play Toledo anymore. We've been disappointed too many times.”
Matt Desmond, 22, of Toledo, makes the trip at least once a month. “If anything, the situation has improved in the last couple of years. But you still have to make the trip if you want to see something even sort of edgy, and we still don't get a lot of foreign films.”
We know this, too.
However, there are encouraging signs: For the past few months, National Amusements has used the Franklin Mall 6 to capitalize on one of the summer's biggest surprise successes: the word-of-mouth-fueled popularity (and box-office longevity) of indie hits like Swimming Pool and Whale Rider and documentaries like Winged Migration and Spellbound.
“I went to see [the French film] Man on a Train at the Franklin Mall theater,” said Gordon Hirsch, a Toledo lawyer. “It's a lukewarm movie, but I was so happy [National Amusements] had the enterprise to show it, I went. I give them an A for effort. And I would love to support their attempt to bring in movies like that - if I were sure these movies were going to come to Toledo, I wouldn't even go to Ann Arbor. Because otherwise, you're gambling. Movies you're sure will be booked never come and movies you'd never think would show up get booked.”
This is not only true of Toledo. Once a film moves beyond the top markets, distribution can get strange and stranger; a major movie market like Chicago might receive only one print of a big limited release. But they do get one. What makes Toledo unique is No 1, we have no dedicated art house, and No 2, one chain, National Amusements, sets the agenda: If National Amusements isn't making money on specialty films, you don't get specialty films.
“In distribution, you generally don't have the luxury to play what you want,” said Tom Gruenberg, CEO of the 10-theater Madstone chain, which, besides its year-old multiplex in Ann Arbor, owns screens in Atlanta and Cleveland. “Unless, of course, you are in a market that you dominate, and then have a captive audience - then you have won that city, so to speak, and you have the ability to pick and choose.”
Let's try to answer some of the most commonly heard complaints about movie distribution in the Toledo metro area:
Complaint No. 1: I want to see a movie when I read about it or when Roger Ebert reviews it on his TV show and not two months later, when nobody cares about it anymore.
Answer: Move. To New York, or maybe Los Angeles. Most limited releases open there first, then expand to smaller markets over weeks and months. In general, these films tend to have smaller budgets than the usual weekly blockbuster, which means respectively smaller marketing and distribution budgets. Which means fewer prints are allowed to circulate.
“It's simple economics,” said Mark Urman, head of distribution for ThinkFilm, which released its documentary Spellbound to an unprecedented 90 screens - only once it became clear it had a hit. As the former head of distribution for Lions Gate, Urman was responsible for the tip-toeing release pattern of controversial films like American Psycho and Dogma.
“Say the average print of a 90-minute movie costs $1,500 to $2,000,” he said, “and the average print of a foreign film costs $3,000 to $4,000 because subtitles have to be added. Then you can only make the number of prints you think you can afford and will get a return from. You spread those prints around, but you retard their opening in other markets, you stagger where they are distributed until the film is exhausted. That means there can be a gap of months between the film's opening in New York and its opening elsewhere.”
An additional problem is that marketing budgets on films have skyrocketed into the tens of millions of dollars. “The distribution executive looking at a film that cost less than $10 million is not going to spend the $20 million it takes to hype a film to a national audience,” said Paul Dergarabedian, president of movie theater analysis firm Exhibitor Relations.
And since New York and L.A. are the gateways to a wider release, if a film doesn't make money there, or generate good reviews, prospects diminish. Also, distributors often hold back a movie intentionally to allow buzz to build and audience hunger to grow. This can backfire, however, because the national media tends to hype a film once, around its New York release. By the time a limited release reaches a middle-size market like Toledo, it's marketing budget is often tapped. Which explains a lot about ...
Complaint No. 1A: “When a small, nontraditional films does show up, it usually creeps into town without advance notice and has a bitty ad in Friday's paper” - or so says Toledo moviegoer Marcia King.
Complaint No. 2: By the time I get around to seeing the rare indie or foreign film that plays Toledo, the theater has already pulled it - sometimes only a week after opening.
Answer: At the 18-screen Showcase Maumee, as few as eight movies might be playing. This is called “maximizing profits.” When a distributor and exhibitor agree to show a film, especially a potential blockbuster, they put it on as many screens as possible, to strike while people are interested, until the following weekend when another blockbuster comes along.
It's an endless cycle: a few new releases chew up most of the available screens and push out the previous week's films, often earlier than expected. This is also why the theater construction boom of the 1990s - numbers of screens increased by 35 percent, and chains went bonkers building stadium-seat megaplexes - didn't mean much for specialty films in Toledo: one new theater, the Maumee, was built by National Amusements. For blockbusters.
And that blockbuster hustle is true everywhere; indeed, it's the basis of the industry itself. Still, many smaller cities like Dayton have dedicated art screens - and again, we don't.
Complaint No. 3: Theaters care more about money than about showing good movies.
Answer: Well, yeah. The movie theater industry isn't led by an organization called NATO (National Association of Theater Owners) for nothing: It's profit driven, full of politics and bureaucracy - and that spills into your Friday night.
Here's a brief explanation of how a movie reaches your neighborhood theater: Typically, a distributor (usually the studio itself) approaches a theater. “Before a contract is signed, it's decided what [the theater] will pay,” said Jan Klingelhofer, film booker for Oakland, Calif.-based Pacific Film Resources, which supplies movies to the Michigan Theater. “That payment is based on a percentage of the box office on a weekly basis.” These are called terms, and they often start in the studio's favor.
Typical terms stipulate that 70 percent of the box office the first weekend goes to the studio, and 30 percent goes to the theater. (That's why concession prices are so high.) The longer a film plays, the more the terms slide in favor of the theater: 60/40 the next week, and so on. Everything revolves around these terms, including the minimum number of weeks a theater is contractually obligated to play a film. (This is why Gigli lasted more than a week.)
“All major exhibitors elect from time to time to say no to terms, and not show a picture,” Klingelhofer said. “But if you reject too many pictures from a distributor, then that relationship grows strained.” Last summer, Toledo-based Great Eastern Theatres, which runs the Sundance Kid Drive-In, didn't play Men in Black II because they rejected Sony's terms. But Great Eastern's Keven Christy said that's a rare exception rather than the rule.
Closer to the rules is the relationship between Fox and National Amusements. Terms partly explain the 28 Days Later fiasco, and why Bend It Like Beckham arrived late. And why Toledo's National Amusement theaters never showed Robin Williams in One-Hour Photo, Jennifer Anniston in The Good Girl, or Nick Nolte in The Good Thief. These are all Fox Searchlight films, and National Amusements and Fox have a history of animosity and not agreeing on terms. So it's a rare Fox Searchlight film that opens here on time, if at all.
Fox Searchlight pictures are often considered by the theater chain to have more limited appeal than 20th Century Fox blockbusters like The Matrix Reloaded, although those troubles bleed into the mainstream; indeed, even with the last Star Wars picture, local theater managers were waiting until the last minute for Fox and National Amusements to hash out terms. National Amusements acknowledge a dispute has existed “on occasion,” but wouldn't explain beyond that. Fox didn't return repeated requests for an explanation.
And there's an additional Catch 22 if you're a Toledo moviegoer. “I'm always hearing `Until someone in Toledo picks up this picture, we have to wait,” said Penny Parker, director of the Cla-Zel in Bowling Green. She wants to book the kind of films that often skip Toledo, but distributors are often wait-and-see about the chance of opening in a bigger city. (Incidentally, your local National Amusements manager can relay requests for movies, and the chain does pay attention, but managers themselves don't know what they're showing until a few days before opening, when their Massachusetts-based theater bookers call with a schedule.)
Complaint No. 4: Theaters must think Toledo doesn't like nonblockbuster movies.
Answer: “I can't believe those of us in this area are that different from people in other cities,” said Toledoan Jeannie Jones. She thinks National Amusements has labeled Toledo unsophisticated. Unmotivated may be more likely. In the year Keven Christy ran the long-defunct GlenByrne art cinema, he noticed a trend: “People would say they wanted to see these movies, then two would show.” Box office drives everything, and Toledo has a hit-and-miss patronage of specialty films: The Quiet American (hit), The Shape of Things (miss), etc.
“Still, clearly this is something important to the community,” said Jennifer Hanson, National Amusements' spokesperson. She cited the success at the Franklin Mall 6 as encouragement for the company to continue with limited releases - in particularly if the company builds a new theater as part of the proposed renovation of Westfield Shopping Town at Franklin Park.
More motivation is the increasingly mainstream nature of specialty films. There's a reason Warner Bros. just announced the creation of Warner Independent Pictures and DreamWorks formed its own specialty distribution arm, Go Fish: “Art film” now just means “a critically acclaimed film made with the pretense of personality and intelligence.”
Madstone's Gruenberg said the problem with chains and specialty films is that neither the theaters nor their moviegoers often know how to approach them. “You have to build an audience,” he said. Indeed New York City-based Madstone has an innovative policy of booking roughly half its screens with mainstream films like The Italian Job and the other half with specialty fare, as well as hiring local marketers to sell its pictures on a more grassroots level. “You can't drop someone who is used to Hollywood films into a French classic like Breathless and expect them to be interested or understand why it's important.”
The Cla-Zel's Penny Parker agrees. She said a lot of people walk into her theater, look at what's advertised in her poster cases “and say `What's that?' or `I haven't heard of that.' And my first thought is always `You haven't heard of it because it's not splashed all over your plastic Coke cup.' Or I think, `Is a movie only worth your time if the title has been printed on the side of a Happy Meal?' - I don't say that out loud, but that's always my first thought.”