And So It Begins: 20th Century Fox to End Film Distribution

By James DeRuvo (doddleNEWS)

Well, it was fun while it lasted.  20th Century Fox announced this week at CinemaCon in Las Vegas, that it was making good on its plans to end 35mm film distribution.  But nobody expected it to be as soon as the end of 2013 …

“Last year, I stood on this stage and predicted that domestic distribution of movies in the format of celluloid film could cease by the end of 2013. That prediction is becoming a reality,” said John Fithian, CEO of the National Association of Theatre Owners (NATO).”As a letter from our friends at Fox confirms, no one should rely on the distribution of film prints much longer.”

The announcement was the next step in a plan that was put into motion in late 2011.  At around the first of the year, Fox stopped film distribution in Hong Kong.   And according to Fithian, Fox isn’t the only studio planning to put 35mm prints in the proverbial grave. “And we know that most other distributors share that belief,” he added. “Given this reality, the entire industry continues our efforts to bring the promise of digital cinema to all exhibitors.”

How soon before other studios like Universal, Disney, Warner Brothers or Paramount follow suit is unclear.  But the digital clock is ticking, even in spite of efforts by directors like Christopher Nolan to keep film alive. If distributors have anything to say about it, film distribution will go the way of the DoDo.   According to NATO, over 27,000 screens have already made the leap to digital projection  conversion.   That largely leaves just smaller theaters and art houses as the last bastion of traditional film projection.  And along with such efforts as Dolby to improve sound of theaters with Atmos, it’s only a matter of time before everyone makes jumps into the digital deep end and film becomes subject for historians teaching motion picture theory at USC.

What’s driving the digital obsession?  Well, as we explored in this article of Nolan’s efforts to get more directors to sign on to continue making movies on film, it’s the bottom line.  As stated then, it costs the studio almost as much to market and distribute a film as it does to make it – about $1500 per theater title.  By contrast, digital distribution sets the studios back by a tenth that cost.  And a ninety percent cost savings could mean the difference between solid profit and a razor thin one.

“Distributing movies digitally into theaters has been the holy grail of the studios,” former Universal Pictures chairman Tom Pollock told Variety back in 2010. “They stand to eliminate billions of dollars in costs in coming years without spending very much.”

The decision by Fox comes as domestic box office has been enjoying an resurgence and in spite of rising prices which has consistently happened every year since about 1984 when the spike began.   Since the beginning of the year, domestic box office revenue is up 23 percent, turning around a steep 16 percent decline in attendance the previous year.

But there’s some concern that with some theaters considering another steep ticket price increase to absorb the elimination of higher 3D prices, the resurgence may be short lived, especially with the flagging US economy.  So, while it seems Hollywood has found a great way to improve their bottom line, they don’t seem to be interested in sharing that largesse with their audience in the form of lower prices.  Oh, for the days of “dish nights.”

Hat Tip – The Hollywood Reporter

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Doddle is a leading online resource for filmmakers, covering news, reviews and tutorials for the video and film industry, along with movie and TV news.

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