NEW YORK — Invest nearly five years and $10 million in a new product. Spend another $6 million to advertise it. Then fight for shelf space, and watch it disappear from the market in less than a month.
That was the sobering formula for many a motion picture released in 1987, when the number of new films surged about 17% over the previous year, judging from data published by the trade publication Daily Variety. That takes production back to mid-1970s levels, but at that time new films were released in fewer theaters in each metropolitan area.
The cruelest consequences can be documented in Manhattan, where construction of new theaters has not kept pace with the soaring number of films, yet a successful opening is still deemed critical to a film's nationwide success.
Even though most American film makers and film stars live in Los Angeles and the influence of the city's premier movie-theater district in Westwood is enormous, film distributors still rate Manhattan as the most important market because of the concentration of nationally influential film critics and news media.
Booking Configuration Counts
Manhattan is also a much more concentrated movie market than sprawling Los Angeles; and a burst of theater construction here in recent years has given film makers plenty of new places to exhibit their movies. By comparison, Los Angeles County boasts 549 screens while the five boroughs of New York City have about 300.
Manhattan has about 110 screens and there were about 40 movies playing at them during a randomly selected, four-week period in November and December. On the surface, it would seem that there are enough theaters to go around.
But a number of those movie houses are devoted to "art" or "specialty" films, which reduces the number of theaters available to Hollywood distributors that try to book three to six screens simultaneously for a film seeking broad commercial success.
Nor will exhibitors agree to just any booking configuration. The theater operators insist on "clearing" an area of competition, refusing to accept a movie unless they have it on an exclusive basis in a given geographic area of the city.
Distributors, for their part, rank five Manhattan locations in descending order of preference: the East Side, Broadway, the Upper West Side, Greenwich Village/34th Street and 86th Street East.
The crunch probably won't ease any time soon. Even though old theaters are occasionally subdivided or rebuilt, new theater construction in Manhattan appears unlikely because of the high cost of land and zoning prohibitions in some sections of the city.
"The premier market is constrained," said one venture capital fund executive, who has invested in a movie-theater company instead of movie production. "Is that not a classic example of (limited) shelf space?"
In Manhattan, the jockeying for good theaters is not haphazard. Distributors and theater owners typically form alliances, which they prefer to call "relationships." Major distributors such as Paramount Pictures or Warner Bros. have regular access to the most coveted theaters, while independents such as De Laurentiis Entertainment Group have a more difficult time securing screens.
During the week of Nov. 15, for example, the major distributors (Columbia, Disney, MGM/UA, Orion, Paramount, Tri-Star, 20th Century Fox, Universal and Warner) had about 18 films playing on 64 screens, while independents had about 29 films on 56 screens, with some films changing midweek. For the four-week period beginning Nov. 15, a review of Manhattan movie advertisements reveals that:
- Loews Theatres, which has some of the city's most desired movie houses, showed no independents' films on its 16 screens.
- Thirty-one percent of Loews' screens were devoted to "The Running Man," a popular Arnold Schwarzenegger film released by Tri-Star Pictures, which acquired the Loews chain a year ago. Box-office leader Paramount Pictures filled 47% of Loews' screens for three of the four weeks, leaving just four screens available to other distributors.
- Independent film producers fared much better with Cineplex Odeon, the largest chain in the market with 28 screens in 20 Manhattan theaters. During the four-week period, 11 independently produced movies filled 40% of Cineplex's screens.
- If analyzed by neighborhood, however, the independents had scant access to the prized East Side theaters, where only two independent films appeared on seven Cineplex screens during the four-week period. In contrast, independent films filled 66% of Cineplex's screens in the Broadway district, traditionally associated with "action" movies.
- Two of the 11 independent titles appearing in Cineplex theaters happened to be movies distributed by Cineplex itself: "Sign 'o the Times" and "The Glass Menagerie."