Robert Friedman, at right, with Blair Underwood, co-producers of the Emmy Award-winning show “Give”.
Will the Movies Come Back?
By Noah Gittell
The Covid-19 pandemic has disrupted our lives in countless ways, from layoffs and furloughs to remote learning and Zoom happy hours. Its effect on major media companies may not be our biggest concern but given how much content we’re all consuming these days it’s an effect worth exploring. Netflix is looking like the dominant cultural force in our lives, and it has an enviable stock price to boot. After long closures, movie theaters are starting to open again, but the future of cinema remains murky.
Rye resident Robert Friedman has a lot to say on the subject. The CEO of Bungalow Media and Entertainment has spent decades working in film and TV. He recently produced “Surviving Jeffrey Epstein”, a hit mini-series for Lifetime.
On a recent Zoom call, I picked his brain.
I have this fear that the pandemic is accelerating the shift away from film towards TV and streaming. Based on your experience in the film industry, what is the mood at the major studios right now? How worried are they?
I think people are worried. I think they should be worried. Covid is a short-term problem. The theatrical business will not go away in the same way that the broadcast television business will not go away, but it has changed. Just like TV has gone towards competition shows and sports, the theatrical business will change in terms of the type of content. When I was at New Line, we really believed in the development of branded franchises, which was a little bit ahead of its time. Freddy Kreuger, “Austin Powers”, or, in a good couple of years of cash flow, “Lord of the Rings”. To me, a brand in any business is always key. So, the franchise, big-event film business, where you want to be in the same room with people, experiencing the laughter or the scares, will stick around.
Many films that were supposed to be released in theaters this year have instead gone straight to video-on-demand. Others won’t be released until later this year or even 2021. What’s the thought process for a studio or filmmaker?
The major studios and streamers are multi-media companies. You try to get as many windows as you can get. At New Line, I put a movie in theaters followed by a network run, and then syndication, where you could make the most money. What’s happening now is that these multimedia companies are creating their own platforms. Some are subscription models, which is a great business to be in. Some are subscription and ad revenue. Look at the “Hamilton” release on Disney+. They probably decided, “I’m going to be a jumpstart on Disney+,” and the best way to do that is to get this film on there.” As it turned out, the film did extremely well, probably better than expectations. My guess is that, at some point, you’ll see a Disney Films release of “Hamilton” in theaters, taking the distribution model and turning it on its head.
The idea that Disney might put “Hamilton” in theaters is one of the most hopeful I’ve heard on this topic because it indicates people still value the theatrical experience.
The impact of that will change the economics of distribution, however. Right now, if you put a film in a theater, theaters take up to 50 percent of the rentals of the film, but the studios are keeping 80% on an on-demand or rental model. So, it’s the studios that control these windows, and let’s not forget that. When home video was first a thing, there was a lot of negotiation over how long the window should be between when the film was released in theaters and when it was available at home. The theater owners wanted it to be as long as possible to maximize their profits. I was one of the first to go to a one-month window instead of a six-month hold back.
I believe the pure entertainment companies – Netflix, NBC/Universal, Warner Media will end up being more entertainment-focused and have a lot more content, which is why Netflix just bought the Paris Theater in New York City.
I think they bought that theater for two reasons. One is promotional. You still need to be a week in New York and a week in L.A. to qualify for the Oscars, so that was an easy, inexpensive purchase for them. They’ll put a lot of films through that theater in November and December. And it covers their proverbial butt if the theatrical model does move forward.
You spoke earlier about “certain types of films.” What happens to the non-event films? Do the prestige Oscar movies and midrange adult dramas have any future in cinema?
At this point, I wouldn’t be optimistic. Having said that, at New Line we had a label called Fine Line that released smaller, independent films. You can get away with doing them. There was a company called Miramax that did them, but their economics weren’t great. Harvey Weinstein did better on his points on “Lord of the Rings” than he did in his entire line-up. It’s a tough business. The question becomes: Why do you go out on ten screens with an independent film? It’s 100 percent promotional, to see if there is enough interest to go and put it into more theaters the following week.
And for the Oscars, right? Because I imagine Miramax’s business model was entirely dependent on winning Oscars.
That’s right. And you could see your box office go up 20 to 50 percent when a film was nominated for an Oscar. Sony Classics is a great example. They make it work because they’re very disciplined about their budgets and what they’re willing to spend on a movie. So, the business still exists.
I think it’s a great time to be providing content. I’ve lived through a world that started out with three networks, all ad-supported, to ten networks to 150 networks. There’s something about the entertainment industry today that is back to the future. When I was a kid, I watched Saturday morning cartoons and went to a film. Then, a little later, I went to Nickelodeon for everything, a brand, not a piece of content. And now people are going to Netflix, which might bode well for the theatrical business.
What are you working on next?
A series about Roswell for the History Channel. It’s one of those stories you think you know, but there’s always something new, in this case an investigation by an ex-CIA agent as well as never–before–seen archives and new evidence from the family of the soldier who was the first on the scene in Roswell, New Mexico. This fit perfectly into the “History’s Greatest Mysteries” franchise that the History Channel is building, hosted by Laurence Fishburne.
Let’s end on a fun note. What’s your favorite movie of all time?
I’ve got to say, “Austin Powers”. Not because I was involved, but because it transcended generations, borrowed from a classic, was smart, was marketed through a pop cultural lens that everyone could relate to, introduced a slew of new talent, and made everyone of any age feel like a randy adolescent on a hot date.