Through most of the 20th century Anheuser Busch dominated the American beer market much the way the major Hollywood studios dominated the motion picture industry. The 21st century has brought changes to both worlds and there are lessons about the movie business to be learned by considering what’s happening with beer.
Edward McClelland of Salon has written that from its inception, Budweiser was a "triumph of marketing over quality" and that phrase could certainly be used to describe the situation in Hollywood today. No one is suggesting that Anheuser Busch will go out of business soon because, although sales have declined significantly in the United States they are strong and growing overseas, particularly in China.
Remind you of anyone?
What has hurt Budweiser, other than its lack of quality, has been the slow and steady rise of the microbrewery business. According to The Economist, microbreweries have gone from nowhere to ten percent of a market worth $100 billion a year. The lesson is that, offered a quality local alternative at a reasonable price, enough people will make choose quality and support a local business. That’s how businesses grow.
Back-to-back trade shows last month in Las Vegas – the National Association of Broadcasters convention and CinemaCon – offered a look at the immediate future of the motion picture business.
Both shows clarified that the critical technology issues have been largely resolved. The overriding message from the professional motion picture community at this NAB is that the creative community has reached a consensus: for the foreseeable future, 4K high dynamic range is the production and post-production standard.
That this move was strongly endorsed by Netflix is important for two reasons: it suggests that Netflix and its so-called Over-the-Top competitors truly understand both the creative community and its own customers’ preferences. Going forward, not only will the most interesting and compelling stories be available via OTT, the production values will match the quality of those stories.
Many exhibitors at CinemaCon understood this and continue to upgrade their theatres to compete with the Netflixes of the world. Too many, though, haven’t received the message. One executive with a very large theatre chain told me, “Exhibitors aren’t going to pay for high dynamic range. They won’t spend the money. All people care about are comfortable seats and big screens.”
We’ll see. Fortunately for the business at large, the clear message delivered at this CinemaCon was that most exhibitors see the need to rethink their businesses and that there are many different ideas to choose from. And they’re acting to satisfy that need. Digital cinema technology is now a given in American movie theatres and there are many things to be done with it. With software, theatres can now project personalized greetings on the big screen during the preshow. Or encourage cellphone users to use their smartphones during that same preshow to try new products and services from national and local companies. Some theatres will use new technology to turn their theatres into fully immersible experiences where the audience is surrounded by both picture and sound.
They should also give independent films a try.
The virtual print fee agreements that have restricted the ability of exhibitors to experiment more with alternative content and independent films are expiring over the next 12-36 months. With that newfound freedom, the digital cinema evolution will gain a tremendous amount of momentum. Exhibitors understand there is a lot of competition out there and not just from OTT.
One idea exhibitors have yet to try in significant numbers is independent films. Art house cinemas routinely have successful events where an independent filmmaker screens his or her film and takes questions from the audience, either in person or via Skype. These are the kinds of events that can draw people to a movie theatre on a Tuesday, Wednesday or Thursday when most cinemas are all but empty.
The goal of movie theatres in this century is to once again become the place their community gathers for an enjoyable evening of entertainment. The savvy ones have watched the growing success of competitors like Drafthouse Cinemas and now serve good food and drinks, in addition to traditional concessions.
And there has never been a better time to be an independent filmmaker. All the technology needed to make, edit, market and distribute a movie is available and affordable, especially with the Internet and crowdsourcing.
No serious beer maker believes he or she can topple Anheuser Busch. No serious filmmaker believes he or she can toppled the Hollywood studios. I doubt that either of them are even interested in that. In each case, both just want to perfect their craft, find customers who appreciate their work and make a good living doing what they love.
Filmmakers, like brewers, just want the chance to share their craft and, ideally, grow a business. These days when a filmmakers’ movie finally makes it onto a big screen at their local theatre, chances are good that they’ll see it with friends and fans and, afterward, have a great local beer and discuss what they just saw.