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Friday, August 05, 2005

'The Artistocrats' and a chat with Mark Urman of THINKFilm

Coincidentally, I happened to see 'The Aristocrats' on the same day that I had a lengthy conversation with Mark Urman, the head of theatrical distribution for THINKFilm, which released the very funny documentary. (Just when you think it's about to flag - 92 minutes spent exploring one joke? - it regains momentum.) This morning, the LA Times observed that the movie earned more money per theater in its opening weekend than almost every other release this year. (The exception was Woody Allen's 'Melinda and Melinda.') By this measure, 'The Aristocrats' did twice as well in its opening weekend than 'Star Wars: Episode III.'

A few thoughts from Urman:

- "People in the [movie] industry don't acknowledge the enormous degree to which everyday people find it difficult and expensive to go to the movies." "The vast majority of studio executives don't go to the movies. I know because when we have a movie they're interested in, they call our office to borrow prints from us, to watch in their studio screening rooms or their home screening rooms. They're like stars who won't fly commercial." Of course, Urman acknowledges that he also views many movies in private screening rooms, or at home on his plasma screen TV - but he doesn't parrot the standard Hollywood truisms about how the average person will always want to go to the theater because it is such a wonderful experience.

- Urman says that a nationwide digital distribution and projection network would allow THINKFilm to distribute more specialty and foreign language films, and have them more frequently play short engagement in towns where they might not today be seen. (Scranton, PA, for instance.)

- Urman isn't particular about the format consumers choose to view one of his movies: DVDs, video-on-demand, Internet download. "As long as people can share it, analyze it, and as long as I can derive revenue, I don't care about the manner in which people consume it."

- He sees NetFlix as a wonderful way to broaden the audience of "people who like something a little different," by introducing them to other films by a director whose work they've just enjoyed, or featuring an actor they like. "It's smart. It's all about connecting the dots."

- Urman wonders why, at a time when people are investing in TiVo sets and other DVRs to avoid commercials, movie theaters are adding commercials. (Well, the answer is of course that advertisers are willing to pay a premium to reach consumers when they don't have a remote control in their hand. Can someone please invent a TiVo-like ad-skipper for the cinema?)

- He's not bullish on the democratization of cinema - 100,000 people with cheap digital cameras churning out films. "Even the most marginal, obscure, personal, home-made film is nice. But most people won't benefit from that, either as creators or consumers."

- Despite rapidly crashing waves of new technology, Urman believes that "people who produce and supply and distribute movies - they'll always make money."

- He's hopeful, as is everyone else I spoke with this week in LA, that the communal moviegoing experience will somehow survive, and perhaps even improve as it is forced to compete with myriad home-viewing options. "People are looking for experiences that connect them to other people, rather than alienate them." "There's sustenance drawn from sharing a cultural commodity with others."