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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 .