Not that long ago, comedian and TV host Byron Allen was watching a lot of movies as part of Hollywood’s press junket gravy train. Today, Allen is evaluating movies a little more critically. In the past year, Allen launched Entertainment Studios Motion Pictures, a new studio that is trying to change the relationship between movie distributors and theater owners.
Allen’s film company is an outgrowth of his television unit, which owns niche cable channels such as Pets TV and, through a recent deal, The Weather Channel. While his movie company hasn’t yet produced any films, it has acquired and distributed several independent titles, including last year’s surprise killer shark hit, “47 Meters Down.”
For the first time, Allen publicly unveiled his company’s ambitions at this week’s CinemaCon, the annual convention in Las Vegas for movie theater owners. And while most studios were showcasing the latest "Star Wars," "Jurassic World" and "Mission: Impossible" sequels, Allen was trying to sell not so much new movies as a new business model.
Essentially, Allen wants to give theater owners a bigger cut of ticket sales in return for their investing in his studio. That way, when a film leaves a theater and becomes available on streaming services and on cable TV, the theater owners would get a cut of that money, too. And Allen is also committed to keeping his movies in theaters longer, what people in the biz call a “window,” so that audiences don’t just wait for a new release to come to Netflix.
The Frame's John Horn caught up with Allen in Las Vegas.
On how he's trying to harness change in the movie business:
The business is changing rapidly. You have to be more involved, in my humble opinion, with content. That is the fuel of your business. You have to make sure that you protect that content flow to your theaters. For the first time in 100 years, the interests may not be aligned. The studios are very clear that they're having serious conversations about shortening the windows and going direct to the consumer, or just straight to the streaming services. That's competition and that's fair, but we can't act like that's not happening. There's no reason for theaters not to come together and pool their resources, invest in the acquisition and promotion of movies. You don't have to make them. You have to actually look at them and say, I like that movie and I think it will work in my theaters.
On convincing exhibitors to embrace new business models:
We're happy to put up half the money. And if the movie theaters are putting up the other half, then I'm happy with that. We're invested. You have us as partners to make sure we vet and curate the better movies. It's a partnership to make sure you're protected and that [the screening] window is protected. First, the studios whisper about shortening the window. They just kind of put it out there. And the next thing you know, what they're thinking, they start doing. And what you want to do is make sure you don't have four suppliers who all play golf together in Burbank who say, Look we're supplying all the movies to you. And now that settlement, that's now 85-15 in our favor and you guys try and make it all just selling popcorn.
Those numbers don't work. But that's okay! They're in the power position. They have the relationship with the moviegoers. And they should not let anybody come in between them and that relationship. You need to make sure that those movies are coming in a nice flow like water coming out of a faucet. Start creating those independents. Start creating those producers who aren't going through the studio system, so that you're not depending on four people playing golf in Burbank.
On partnering with theaters so that movie exhibitors become capital for directors:
I'm doing something very similar with TV stations. I finance the shows, I put it on their TV stations. They keep half the barter and I keep half the barter. They get half the ads. They pay me a license fee sometimes. There is a strong partnership that's just automatic with TV stations. This relationship between content and movie theaters became paired with the government stepping in with anti-trust. At one point the Fox theaters belonged to 20th Century Fox, the Paramount theaters belonged to Paramount. And the government said, No, you guys have to separate this. But it's different from those days 100 years ago. Now we need to come together and say, Okay, we need to invest in a pool to make sure that we are acquiring good movies. The studios aren't going to bring you "Chappaquiddick," but that should be in theaters. They're not going to bring you "47 Meters Down." We got these movies because the studios didn't want them.