Mike Plante started Cinemad as a film zine in 1998, which continues as a blog and podcast at iblamesociety. He has worked at Sundance Institute since 2001 in a variety of roles and had some strange times working at CineVegas. He also helps run Cinemad Presents, a distributor bringing unusual films to unusual venues.
Films used to put years in the titles to sound futuristic: 1984, Death Race 2000, 2001: A Space Odyssey. Now that we are a decade into the future, the logistics of a theatrical release of a film has changed quite a bit. But not its philosophy.
A theatrical release then: it used to mean the only way to see a movie. (Yes, I know there were home versions on 16mm, but c’mon.) Now a theatrical release does not mean the only way to see a film, but it still stands for the “right” way to see a film. With an image bigger than you, with sound surrounding you.
It used to be difficult to have your movie play in a theater simply due to the technical costs. You had to make a 35mm print (and a 35mm trailer). The cost and logistics of a theatrical release made a film mainstream or independent. Thus the wild world of “underground” films in non-chain movie theaters, film societies and film festivals.
Chances were, if you had an edgy film with a difficult or controversial style or content, you wouldn’t be connected with a major company and were therefore indie or underground. Sometimes true indies got out to theaters, through smaller companies or motivated individuals with some resources. But for the most part, if you didn’t get a distributor you were doomed.
Chapter-skip to 2011: you can have your movie get to an audience in a multitude of ways with DVD and the internet. And with cheaper logistical costs and more independent theaters, microcinemas and film festivals, you can also show your film in a theater without a distributor.
A side-note: its not an “us vs them” situation with distributors. They can handle costs of marketing much easier and do know what they are doing. Sometimes a different process is necessary with a different type of film.
If you screen one night in a city in a theater – that is special. 100 people may come to your film if it plays many times in a week, why not just have one big night of it for the same crowd?
Unfortunately the notion of having a theatrical release of a film is wrapped up in the traditional sense created 100 years ago. You make a film. You make many film prints of it. You work with hundreds of theaters across the country and they show it to people, many times every day, within a limited time period. The 1980s added home video and the last decade added the Internet to the equation.
But many films do not and should not fall into that mode of release. Whether it’s because of difficult content or an unusual filmmaking style, or if you just don’t have the resources to do marketing and make film prints (or expensive video formats), your film could still have a theatrical release. If you screen one night in a city in a theater – that is special. 100 people may come to your film if it plays many times in a week, why not just have one big night of it for the same crowd?
And the theater may be a theater, but it may also be a homemade microcinema, or a museum, gallery, college auditorium, a rooftop with a white wall across the street. Now just put together this type of a show in 30 different cities and you have a theatrical release. Maybe more people will see the film in numbers on DVD or online, but the theatrical should not be dismissed as a numbers game.
I’m interested in theatrical as an experience, as how you see a movie. An image 40 feet wide, not inches. Sound all around you. You feel the movie. If the theater is empty, it still has power. And if there is a sold out crowd, it’s an experience you can’t get any other way, laughing, crying, being silent with a crowd. Next time there is a screening of a film you’ve seen 100 times on video, go watch it. You will realize you’ve never seen the film.
As filmmaker Nathanial Dorsky talks about in his essay, Devotional Cinema, the process of watching a movie in a theater replicates us seeing – we are sitting in our heads looking out at the world. The projection and sound has to be larger than life to truly experience it.