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The Bigger Picture


As an ex-theatrical film distributor myself, I’m always following trends in the industry as it evolves due to new technologies and changing public tastes. Yesterday’s L.A. Times had a good article on Jonathan Dern’s The Bigger Picture which, through various subsidiaries, is distributing anime and kiddie films to weekend matinees on a regular monthly schedule.

Dern’s company has found a way to market direct-to-video animated features to digitally equipped theatres, usually a few weeks before their DVD release. Filling the theatre isn’t a big concern for his business model, a fact made possible due to the low costs involved with distributing a film via digital projection.

Although major studio movies attract big crowds on weekends, Dern said that over the course of a typical week auditoriums are often filled to only 10% to 15% of capacity.

“If we can move the dial 1%, that’s a big number,” Dern said.

Bigger Picture started three years ago, when Dern and Rutkowski came up with the “Kidtoons” animation programs. A typical program might include a G-rated feature, such as this spring’s “Strawberry Shortcake: Berry Blossom Festival,” plus cartoon shorts, music videos and singalongs.

“The light bulb went on,” Dern said. “We said, ‘When else are there very few people in theaters? When else could we put people in seats?'”

If I had to guess, I’d suspect that Dern’s company is making its money by charging a distribution fee from the film’s video company, who may consider this a justifiable cost of special marketing the DVD release. Is it working? I’m not sure what kind of box office money they are generating (it wouldn’t surprise me if they are offering these films to theatres for free) but apparently theatre owners are pleased.

Shari Redstone, president of National Amusements Inc. in Dedham, Mass., said the distributor was building a following at theaters such as The Bridge in Los Angeles.

At 10 a.m. on a Saturday in March, she said, the chain’s 24 theaters taking part in “Kidtoons” sold 1,200 tickets for “Strawberry Shortcake” — a strong turnout at a time when business is typically slow or nonexistent.

“When I was a kid, we’d watch a horrible print of ‘Gulliver’s Travels’ and buy stale popcorn,” Redstone said. “This is a new and better experience for the whole family. And it’s another way to ensure that a generation grows up knowing that when they want to be entertained, they can go to their local movie theater.”

As someone keeping track of U.S. theatrical animated feature film releases, I’ve been struggling with how to chart these film showings. Technically these are theatrical releases, but there are no physical prints and the movies themselves were clearly made for video release. For now I’m considering them a footnote in my long term research. Time will tell how they should be cataloged — and whether The Bigger Picture will endure .

  • Buzz Potamkin

    Dern and Sabella are very smart, and this is a very smart idea.

    The theaters will love it for the reasons you note, plus – a big plus – they get to keep all the concessions income, and I don’t have to tell you how high that can get with a crowd of kids. There are virtually no incremental costs (how much is a bucket of popcorn?), and the hard costs are there anyhow.

    In it’s own way, it reminds me of Joe Camp’s four-walling – a theater-centric idea warming to the exhibitors’ ice cold hearts.

    I wish them great success – and it can only be good for animation.

  • But… Strawberry Shortcake?! I’d *rather* watch GULLIVER’S TRAVELS, even in the “horrible print” referred to in the article.

  • My local theater has a “kids film festival” every summer where they show animated movies that are a few months to a year old. It’s free, so I’m looking forward to seeing Flushed Away again.

    Jerry, you need to spearhead a movement to get classic Disney and Warner Brothers shorts back in the theaters! I almost went to see Meet the Robinsons a second time just to see the Disney short that wasn’t in front of the version I saw.

  • joecab

    Sounds like a good idea to me, too.

    I worry that kids don’t go for cartoons as much as I did as a kid when we didn’t have them on almost every damn channel 24 hours a day and didn;t have video games to fill part of that entertainment void. My nephew seems to be drifting more towards anime (although he still goes for quality stuff like Foster’s Home for Imaginary Friends, thank goodness). Summer wasn’t kidding about how crummy those Saturday kiddy matinees were back then: the Christmas that Almost Wasn’t, Santa and the Three Bears, some crummy Mutt & Jeff cartoon … but we also got some WB shorts that they never showed on TV sometimes and those were a real treat.

  • Ezekiel

    Some guy pestered Warners for years, begging them to let him show a dozen or so 35mm prints of their classic cartoons in theatres around the country. They finally relented and he did, with reasonable success. This cartoon tour turned out to be the first exposure for many young kids to classic, golden age animation shorts presented in the manner of exhibition for which they were made. Such screenings should be the rule rather than the exception, playing every town with a movie house instead of only large cities.

  • I’ve noticed these were playing at a local theater for a while now. I hope they’re still playing in a year or so when my daughter is able to sit through a whole movie.

    The endless parade of Strawberry Shortcakes and My Little Ponies will be rough on her old man, but I wouldn’t mind seeing that Jakers feature on a big screen.

    Ah, remember those old MGM Matinees back in the 60’s & 70’s? And those K. Gordon Murray “gems?”

  • K.Borcz

    A bank in my corner of chi-town actually plays shorts before old movies. And it’s only $5, and usually packed. I saw a real live bugs bunny film- scratches, burns, and blurred marks and all right before the feature film, Treasure of the Sierra Madre. It felt like I was seeing the REAL bugs bunny up there instead of a tv copy.

    As for kid matinees, the theatres in my parents town also play a Saturday-Sunday morning movies free for kids. Usually newer fare though.

    I think instead of those commercials that they play before the previews at theatres, they should play shorts. If the audience is gonna be sitting around, they might as well have something interesting to look at.

  • Paul Mular

    I would look forward to regular theatrical showings of classic WB ‘toons, but I don’t know if people will go to theaters to watch what they have on DVD & cable.

  • Benjamin DS

    I hardly know anything about distribution, but I wonder… if digital distribution is so cheap, what would be the possibilities of getting films like “MindGame” distributed?

  • LNG

    K. Gordon Murray! There’s a name from cinema’s low rent past. He worked out of Florida as a very minor league Walt Disney, if only in his own head.

  • Jonathan G.

    As a parent who tries to show my kids better films in theaters and at home, I find these shows repugnant. They get kids used to going to the movies so they can be advertised to with Strawberry Shortcake and Bratz. I’m sure they have something equally awful for boys, however my son is 8 so I can take him to repertory screenings. Meanwhile, kids whose parents can’t get enough of the mall experience get used to getting a crappy toy with a crappy video and thinking they’ve been to the movies. Probably no worse than Shrek and a trip to McDonalds, but in our house Shrek is a book.

  • Bill Plympton has talked about booking his own films into theaters. The big problem he noted was that the theater owners would often not give him his share of the box office take, and he had no way to make them do so.

    Now with digital projection widely available it should be even easier for aspiring film makers to get ripped off by theater owners.

  • Dude, K.Gordon Murray was… well… I won’t say it to keep this place G-rated. ;) I’ve seen these things at my local theater, and have been slightly amused. Direct to DVD trash for the most part, but I had no idea they showed anime! Guess I’ll have to ask around and see if there’s stuff worth watching. :)

  • LCuba

    K.Borcz, there is a Bank in China Town that shows shorts before movies?
    Is “bank” the new slang for movie theater?
    What china town is this? Please tell us more!

  • joecab

    OMG K. Gordon Murray! I loved watching those goofy fairy tale things in the wee hours on Saturday mornings, with the speeded up running around and what have you. The dubs were pretty popular on the Spanish channels, too. Man that was some goofy stuff!