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Printless in Seattle: Snafu Holds Up Debut of 'Private Ryan'

Movies: Rare delay in deliveries to hundreds of theaters around U.S. is blamed on a complicated, low-tech system.

July 29, 1998|MARLA MATZER | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

On its way to theaters last weekend, DreamWorks' "Saving Private Ryan" encountered rare delivery delays. Hundreds of theaters around the country missed out on early showings of the film.

The snafu didn't appear to put much of a dent in the film's weekend box-office take of more than $30 million. Still, for exhibitors, it was "scary and bizarre," said Marc Pascucci, New York-based director of marketing for Loews Cineplex Entertainment, whose theaters in Los Angeles, Seattle and Chicago were print-less until Friday evening.

With orders of 3,000 prints or more now common for "event" films, it's a wonder that the film distribution system works as well as it does.

Exhibitors and studio distribution executives say such holdups have happened only a handful of times in the last few years. Especially during the summer, thousands of prints need to be securely delivered every week to theaters in locations--from big cities to military bases and Indian reservations--across the country.

Someday, films will be transmitted digitally to theaters, but getting to that point will take time and millions of dollars. For now, despite all the technological advances in movie making and in exhibition, the delivery of film remains a complicated struggle with low-tech logistics.

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There are two dominant delivery systems that service the studios: Technicolor Entertainment Services (TES) and Entertainment Transportation Systems (ETS), both based in North Hollywood. National Film Service, which had dominated the business since taking over studios' "back room" warehousing operations in the 1950s, went out of business earlier this year.

Between them, TES and ETS warehouse and ship the movies of all the major studios from film labs to theaters. TES, controlled by the Technicolor film laboratory, delivers via Seattle-based Airborne Express; ETS transports through a system of 34 warehouses and independent film delivery services across the U.S.

Studios pay the lion's share of distribution costs: Combined, the studios spend more than $30 million a year moving prints (which cost about $2,000 apiece) from film labs to warehouses. Theater owners pick up the rest of the tab, paying the delivery service a flat fee per print, whether the movie is "Godzilla" (72 pounds) or "Armageddon" (112 pounds).

Studio distribution executives tend to be opinionated about which system they prefer, TES or ETS.

The studios that use TES--Disney, Universal, Sony, MGM and DreamWorks--favor what they see as Technicolor's full service from lab to theater. "There's a loss of control if your film changes hands," asserts Airborne Express spokeswoman Joy Williams. Piracy is a major concern for studios, and film labs are high-security operations.

TES ships all East Coast deliveries through its Ohio hub, resulting in a longer turn-around time. For the West Coast, TES warehouses films in Ontario.

On the other hand, those at Warner Bros., 20th Century Fox, Paramount and New Line don't see a reason to fix something that isn't broken. They use ETS, which follows a system of localized distribution that has existed for four decades.

"We can deliver from the lab to a theater in Florida in five hours," said Randy Morgan, ETS president.

ETS uses warehouses in Burbank and San Francisco to service Southern and Northern California; around the rest of the country, its warehouses are in many of the same communities that National Film Service was in before it went out of business.

ETS representatives pick up film reels at labs--Technicolor and Deluxe being the two major ones--and ship them to their warehouses around the country, per the instructions of the studios. Danzas Corp., a Swiss shipping giant with U.S. headquarters in Bellevue, Wash., is ETS' air carrier.

From the warehouse, film reels are picked up by a fragmented network of carriers who specialize in hand delivery of films. In Southern California, Glendale-based Brake Water Transportation is the leading carrier.

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Brake Water's drivers start at midnight and work until 7 or 8 in the morning. Each theater gives the delivery man a key so he can drop off new films and pick up old ones in the middle of the night. With manifest in hand, the driver makes sure the right movies get delivered and picked up at each theater.

ETS' Randy Morgan says his system has another benefit: a built-in tension that ensures more timely delivery of the goods.

"There's nowhere to hide with us," Morgan said. "If we haven't gotten the materials from the lab, we start calling and yelling at them. If the theaters haven't gotten their prints, they complain to the carriers, who call us. With Technicolor, it's all one big company," he said.

TES entered the field in late 1993, promising "cradle to grave" care for film prints from leading lab Technicolor. The new operation quickly ruffled some feathers with independent film carriers, but quickly has captured about 55% of the distribution business today.

Airborne's contract with Technicolor is up at the end of this year. Although Airborne officials admit it's been more work than they had anticipated, they say they are eager to renew the contract.

Despite DreamWorks' putting the blame for the "Private Ryan" delays on Technicolor's delivery system, the firm is likely to remain a dominant player in the highly specialized business.

Technicolor declined to return calls about the snafu.

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