Reaching Out: C. Mason Wells, Distributor
“Hey, how you holding up?” In this time of reaching out and touching base, we asked colleagues across the American film ecosystem how they’ve been affected by the COVID-19 pandemic, what adjustments they’ve been making on the fly, and what they expect is coming down the pike. This series will be updated regularly here as we conduct additional status checks.
THE DISTRIBUTOR: C. MASON WELLS, KINO LORBER
C. Mason Wells is the Director of Theatrical Sales at Kino Lorber; through their Kino Marquee initiative, discussed below, you can buy a digital ticket to stream the new release Bacurau through Film at Lincoln Center, where it had initially opened theatrically. Interview conducted by phone at 4:30pm, Wednesday, March 18.
You guys had Beanpole out, and Bacurau opened March 6—what’s their status?
For our theatrical releases, we do the full 90-day window between the first theatrical opening date and when it hits streaming services, whether that be TVOD, which is transactional video-on-demand like iTunes; or SVOD, subscription video-on-demand. Beanpole came out toward the end of January, and most of its playdates had been exhausted already. It will definitely make less money than it would have otherwise, because a lot of theaters closed in the middle-end of its theatrical run. Arthouse things you’re platforming—opening in certain cities and then adding additional cities as you go, as word-of-mouth spreads, and there tends to be more demand—that’s a very old-fashioned way of releasing movies but most of the exhibition and distribution space is still playing the game. Beanpole opened in most of its major markets. The top 20 major markets—your Bostons, your Chicagos. So while we will have to be canceling a bunch of one-off dates or maybe runs in smaller cities on Beanpole, that’s something that’s not nearly as affected.
Bacurau was in the worst possible situation: Week 2 of its release was when basically all the movie theaters in the country closed. A few other movies were in that same boat—A24’s First Cow came out on March 6, and its distributor is pulling it from release and rereleasing it—which is sort of unprecedented but everything is unprecedented right now—later in the year, redoing its entire campaign. For companies who are not as big, who don’t have as much marketing money to spend—we’re not in a position where we can just pull a movie and reset it. I think people will be sympathetic on the press side, I wouldn’t be surprised if you see the New York Times rerun A.O. Scott’s rave of First Cow when it gets rereleased, as a sympathetic gesture.
We rely on momentum to propel releases. Press, marketing spends that we’ve already committed to, word-of-mouth, plus there’s always these windows that are committed to in terms of the streaming releases of the film three months from now. So it becomes, Ok, how do we take advantage of this movie that has gotten rave reviews, that was doing very well in its first week in New York, and was going to expand nicely around the country, in a situation where that’s not possible. So we are starting something called Kino Marquee, a collaboration with movie theaters around the country. Anywhere where I booked Bacurau, I’m going to them right now and proposing, “Do you want to activate your email list, your membership base, all your marketing that you normally do, and, as of a certain date, we’re gonna open Bacurau with you virtually.” You can buy a ticket to it online, and watch it at home. (We’re calling it a “virtual screening room,” trying to make it as much like a theatrical experience as possible at home.) With the proceeds being split between us and a theater, as they would be in any case.
We’re having a separate branded landing page for every individual theater, tailored to their identity with their logo on the top. So as of tomorrow or Friday, that will be an option through BAM or Lincoln Center here in New York—you can choose “where to see it” here, depending on where you want to spend that money. We would like people to buy it accordingly to where they would go see it normally. We want you to support it in essentially the same as going to see the movie in theaters, though it’s not physically possible.
In setting that up, talking to theaters and setting up the tech side—you wouldn’t commit to that if you weren’t thinking of doing this with upcoming movies, I imagine. I know that you can’t speak definitively to what Kino’s strategy will be for Martin Eden, but I can’t imagine that movie theaters will be open on April 17.
We don’t know. April 17 was the release date—everything is a day-by-day decision here, because so much is changing so quickly. That’s a movie where we fortunately have a bit of runway to make decisions. That’s a movie we feel can do well in the traditional 90-day theatrical model, that will be very review-driven, that will have great press coverage in all the markets where it opens, good word-of-mouth, and can play to an older, reliable arthouse audience that shows up for those kinds of movies. The thinking now is, we want to release it that way, if possible, depending on dates. There is going to be this holding pattern of… there’s a backlog of movies, everything’s getting rescheduled and will need to be put out later in the year, so there might be a logjam. No one really knows, but then again new movies aren’t really being made, so people might be able to space out movies over the next year—I think that’s why you saw some of the studio releases punt a whole year, because they’re just like, “Well, maybe in a year, there won’t be other new movies, so that might be a great time to release something.” Because how quickly are studios going to be able to turn around product for Summer 2021?
We’re able to do this pretty quickly, because we have our own proprietary TVOD platform called Kino Now, essentially an arthouse iTunes. That decision was made at the company before I ever worked here, and I found it a very intelligent one, because I think a lot of people were moving toward streamer fatigue, where you’re inundated with so many viewing options you end up having a queue of 200 movies you never end up watching, as opposed to, “Oh, I want watch this one movie right now, and, here it is, it’s available, I can pay for it and don’t have some recurring credit card statement.” Since we have that infrastructure already in place, it’s very easy for us to convert that into something we can use for the theaters. And we’ll use it again if we need to.
Of course we’re still looking at movies, we’ll probably still be buying movies during this period with plans to release them later on. What those releases look like will depend on the global situation, and the movies themselves. Some might be better suited to releasing in one form, some in another. And those are conversations we always have anyway.
In terms of a decision about something like Martin Eden, where it sounds like the inclination would be to delay it rather than push it straight to streaming, what would be the consequences, how much would you have to relaunch it and recommit resources to it, if you were pushing a movie?
I don’t know how fully I can answer that because I don’t deal with the marketing, those decisions are above my pay grade. There’s questions in terms of setting those SVOD and TVOD dates, and committing money to marketing spends. We’re working at a different scale than a studio, but proportionately, the money invested in something can be significant. You probably have a publicist on board who’s been paid and who is doing work for it. I don’t know that I can give you a fully accurate portrait of the true cost of that; it’s not nothing.
Those dates are always set with specific reasons in mind—it’s availability of a venue; there can be contractual obligations; you don’t want to wait too long after festival premieres, too, because buzz and momentum is important to us. Martin Eden premiered in Venice last year and then was in TIFF. We’re already getting into the spring, several months after those dates—how much longer can you wait to keep that buzz going until people forget about a movie entirely? Maybe if there’s no new movies coming out at all people won’t forget… [Laughs] because there’s nothing else to distract them in the intervening time.
To zoom out and speak speculatively about the new Kino-branded streaming efforts: if you had to imagine what this will mean for streaming versus theatrical, in the long haul, are you seeing more people commit resources to platforms similar to yours?
Everyone’s afraid of that, I think. I haven’t seen much resistance from theaters coming on board with this Kino Marquee initiative, because everyone is in panic mode (and rightly so), and wants any kind of way to generate revenue right now. This a very tangible way to do that for us and for the theaters. You see Universal collapsing their windows for big releases like Invisible Man, charging a $20 premium VOD price to watch it at home—none of which is going to theaters, of course. That becomes a bottom-line decision for them to save face on an individual movie, which seems very much a decision for today, not tomorrow. If the theaters are not around in three, six months—as a number of them will [not be], places that were already on such a thin margin—then we don’t have a company either. Our distribution company ceases to exist if there aren’t theaters to play our movies.
What’s down the line and what are you concerned about? And from the perspective of a film distributor, what political fixes would you like to see implemented?
Medicare for All! I honestly think Medicare for All would go a long way toward helping the entire film industry, so there’s my answer, not even glibly.
I, like everyone else, am most concerned with the immediate short-term of theaters being able to stay in business. I think if theaters are able to weather this storm financially, people will come back to the movies; they always do. Attendance was up hugely in China after the SARS epidemic. Human nature will not be fundamentally changed over the next six months. That’s not to say a lot of hard things won’t happen, but I do think there will be a very strong hunger to return to concerts, and restaurants, and movie theaters, because we will all collectively lose our fucking minds over the next several months, and will just want anything to do outside of our house. Not just in New York City, where, of course, the worst possible nightmare for the city of New York is forcing all of us to be in our apartments, it’s like the last place we would ever want to be. People in other parts of the country are like, “Oh yes, our homes are very nice. We want to stay here, this is comfortable.” Whereas for us it’s like, No, this is the last place I want to be.
People will want that collective experience, that’s not going away. I’m not afraid of people becoming so enamored of streaming in the next six months that they abandon moviegoing. I don’t think streaming is an existential threat in and of itself to theatrical moviegoing and exhibition.
Read more from this ongoing series here.