Have you ever wondered why some films are playing at a theater not near you, while others play at the venue up the street? Long ago, corporate film chains imposed the rule of “clearances." Chains like Regal, AMC and Landmark have spent decades demanding that film distributors and companies like Paramount, Warner Bros. and 20th Century Fox not allow a competitive theater within a certain mile radius to play the same title.
The restriction means fewer choices for film-goers, as some chains threaten to drop a film if a competitor nearby is showing it. It's like a game of chicken for a distributor, which needs as many screens as possible to earn back its film’s budget on opening weekend. The process often wedges out the little guy, since distributors can’t risk losing dozens of screens to help out one theater whose address puts it at odds with a more muscular entity.
As the former programming and creative manager for both the Sie and the Alamo Drafthouse, I dealt firsthand with this problem for over a decade. In order to devote a majority of our screens to great small films, classics and obscure cinematic jewels, we needed to show a big hit every so often. In fact, the Drafthouse fills 90 percent of its screens with mainstream titles to cover the costs of more programs and specialty films, including classics, special guests and obscure gems. A hit film will also bring in new audiences and boost concession sales, which is how a movie theater gets to earn some money, since distributors take anywhere from 35 percent to 85 percent of a film’s box office in the initial weeks of a film’s release.
In March, executives at Fox announced via the Wall Street Journal that they were doing away with clearances, beginning with the new X-Men, meaning that Fox would no longer kowtow to exhibitors that wanted zone exclusivity to play a title. Now Fox has the final word on who gets to play its films. It's great news for places like the Sie, whose access to certain titles could make a huge difference in its summer bottom line and will allow for more specialized programming.
But is playing X-Men too “off mission” for the Denver Film Society, which operates the Sie?
“DFS is and always will be dedicated to bringing diverse audiences together through the power of film," says Ernie Quiroz, programming manager for the Film Society. “This means all film, no matter the budget, no matter the studio, no matter who's in it — they all have a place at the Sie. Our hope is that by playing this film, we can introduce a new audience to our organization and to all of our programming such as the Young Filmmakers Workshop and family series like our Welcome to the Dahl House retrospective this June. We want to engage with the next generation of cinephiles right now, get them excited about film, and show them that there is more to cinema than just the big Hollywood hits. But we've got to get them through the door first. If that means playing X-Men, so be it."
Quiroz adds that the X-Men's director started by making indie films, and it stars Oscar-nominated and winning actors. "If we can get the young people that are into Bryan Singer, Michael Fassbender, James McAvoy and Jennifer Lawrence excited, then we can bring them back to see such films as The Usual Suspects, Hunger, The Last King of Scotland and Winter's Bone.”
Should folks be worried that the Sie's other screens will soon be filled with less and less art-house product? On the contrary, says Quiroz. “To anyone worried that we're 'going mainstream,' we've always played all kinds of films, including Oscar-nominated blockbusters such as Mad Max: Fury Road and The Martian. We're showing Deadpool and Star Wars: The Force Awakens at Red Rocks and The Matrix in our Sci-Fi series,” a partnership with fellow nonprofit the Denver Museum of Nature & Science.
“These are all ways we engage in different segments of the audience through the shared experience of cinema. The Denver Film Society is and always will be committed to programming such as CinemaQ, CineLatino and Women + Film. People should also note that we're also opening critically acclaimed art-house films Sunset Song, High Rise and Dough this weekend.
"'Cinema' does not mean just one thing. Everyone has their own definition, and we strive to encompass all those definitions and all those voices.”
As Denver grows, having a varied film selection in an area like Congress Park brings more people to local businesses. Sie shares a coveted retail block with Tattered Cover Bookstore and Twist & Shout Records.
“What excites me is that I live in this neighborhood,” Quiroz says. “ I love the idea of being able to walk to my neighborhood theater, not have to worry about parking — though the complex has an easy, free parking garage — grab a beer and watch the film with state-of-the-art projection and sound. The Sie is a boutique theater that offers a boutique experience. If we can combine that with the latest, greatest film that Hollywood has to offer, then it truly is the best of both worlds.”
Though this weekend will mark a unique turn for the Sie, a sea change is far from happening in a city like Denver, where corporate theater chains like Landmark and Century still hold a Hydra-like grip on plenty of yet-to-be-released films. The Sie represents just one of hundreds of little guys around the country just trying to get a few pieces of a very large pie.
Distributors, most of whom still agree to clearance exclusivity, will surely be watching this opening very closely and weighing the thought of cutting through the corporate tentacles.
“Tens of thousands of people are going to see X-Men regardless if we play it or not,” says Quiroz, “and all these people have a choice of where to see it. This is partly what the whole clearance issue is about: letting a free market decide what films people can see, where they want to see it. So people can see this film at a for-profit theater chain, where their $13 will eventually end up in the pockets of stockholders, executives and CEOs, or they can see the film at the Sie, a nonprofit, where their money will go to the Denver Film Society and help support every single festival, series, retrospective and program we’re doing and make way for so much more cinematic goodness to come.”
Just like the mutant gifts given to the superheroes in this weekend’s big release, the power of change is in your hands.
X-Men: Apocalypse opens tonight at the Sie FilmCenter, 2510 East Colfax, and continues daily. Get your tickets at denverfilm.org. It also opens at other theaters around town. Find those venues and showtimes at fandango.com.