How Are Theaters For Theatrical Releases Decided?

by Justin Sevakis,

Peter asked:

How do companies decide which cities these movies will play in? I've been fortunate enough that my city, Windsor, Ontario, has gotten screenings of a lot of anime so far, but I'm not sure why. There's nothing particularly noteworthy about Windsor, and even among my fellow Canadians it's mostly known as just "that city across from Detroit." Why pick there and not somewhere else? Also, should I be at all worried low ticket sales or other factors might prevent me from enjoying anime on the big screen in the future?

Independently released films are distributed to movie theaters based on a few factors. The biggest one is, what theaters can they book? There isn't a pre-planned "network" of theaters that independently released movie theaters run in -- that is decided on a screen-by-scree basis by the owners of the theaters. For every theater, the distributor has to approach them, tell them about the movie, probably send them a trailer and some marketing materials, and the theater owner has to decide whether it's right for them. Negotiating with theaters is a tough job, so most companies that don't do it on a regular basis hire a film booker -- either an individual or a company with the connections that knows how the game is played -- to handle it for them.

When it comes to bigger chains like AMC or Regal, the theater owners will decide if the film is a good fit for a specific location based on a) how many auditoriums are being taken up by big Hollywood blockbusters on a given weekend, b) the socioeconomic and ethnic makeup of a specific location -- WASPy areas in the Midwest are less likely to support "foreign" content than larger cities with a more diverse, and frankly, Asian population. Like the smaller Mom 'n' Pop theaters, they'll also take into account how well anime bookings have done in the past, although the personal interest level of that theater's staff is not a factor, since the big chains don't do much grass-roots advertising.

One major stipulation of booking a film in a theater is that, especially with independently released films, the theater will insist on the distributor committing a dollar amount to local advertising. That used to mean running ads in the local newspapers, but now internet buzz and marketing is a bigger factor. There's also a lot of outdoor advertising that happens, like on bus shelters, or signage at the mall.

Ultimately, rather than trying to tempt theater owners with a film that they might be lukewarm on, a distributor might instead "four-wall" their film, which is the term for just renting the auditorium outright. The distributor will then get the entire ticket price for the film, but if only a few people show up, they lose the investment. The cost of doing this can really add up, which is why many distributors will only four-wall a movie for one or two nights -- usually weeknights, which are slower movie-going nights, and are therefore cheaper.

How well an anime title does SIGNIFICANTLY plays into a theater's decisions to book more of them, so by all means -- turn out to support anime in theaters if you want that to continue.

Thank you for reading Answerman!

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Anime News Network founder Justin Sevakis wrote Answerman between July 2013 and August 2019, and had over 20 years of experience in the anime business at the time. These days, he's the owner of the video production company MediaOCD, where he produces many anime Blu-rays. You can follow him on Twitter at @worldofcrap.

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