A sunny weekday autumn afternoon at the Morgan Street headquarters of Music Box Films is not quite as sunny as it once was: the shell of a twelve-to-thirteen story building among so many other rising towers blanks the view (and prairie light) to the west in this low-rise patch of Fulton Market.
A few words by James Baldwin have been in the air since summer: “Talent is insignificant. I know a lot of talented ruins. Beyond talent lie all the usual words: discipline, love, luck, but, most of all, endurance.” The Music Box Theatre on Southport has endured for going on ninety-four years. I’m talking with Bill Schopf, the president and founder of Music Box Films since 2007, who’s owned the Music Box Theatre building since 1986 and the theatrical business since 2004. Also in the conversation are Lisa Holmes (head of home entertainment at Music Box Films since 2012), Brian Andreotti (head of acquisitions, and with Music Box Films since 2007 and Music Box Theatre since 1995) and Ryan Oestreich (general manager, Music Box Theatre since 2015); we’re all gathered in the conference room of the two-story open-plan space that Music Box Films, the sister distribution company to the venerable theater, has occupied since 2012. A half-dozen posters on the walls include their notable hits– Oscar nominee “Meru,” Francois Ozon’s “Summer of ’85,” “Transit,” “Lost Illusions,” the Oscar-winning “Ida” and the company’s breakthrough grandaddy, “Tell No One,” Guillaume Canet’s 2006 French adaptation of a novel by American writer Harlan Coben that had gone begging on the market for months, and which Schopf and company opened in the same month as “The Dark Knight” and “Mamma Mia!” in July 2008 for a staggering theatrical gross for an orphaned foreign-language film of $6.2 million. Before our scheduled hour, the subject at the offices had been an unnamed picture that was similarly without a home and still on the market. Plus, a second forthcoming picture from Music Box Films had just been accepted for Sundance 2023 in January.
Was today a typical day?
Brian Andreotti: Things that we were doing today? We were in the acquisitions world for Music Box Films. There are a couple titles that we’re considering. Lisa and I spent some time making projections on what we think the title would do theatrically as well as in home entertainment, and also the expenses involved, and one way we did that is by looking at historical data.
Which historical data?
Andreotti: Films that we’ve released in the past that might be a good comp. One of the tricks, though, is that beyond theatrical, we have multiple [avenues to consider], like, for home entertainment, there’s SVOD [subscription video-on-demand] and then there’s transactional, TVOD [digital rental, also known as pay-per-view].
Lisa Holmes: And there’s sell-through [of physical media to the consumer].
Andreotti: We also deal with Amazon, which is tricky because since they do both, we had to parse out the data to say what percentage of this was just streaming to Prime members versus what was transactional, and that we did today. Lisa and I worked on it.
Is this film in the open marketplace, are you competing for it?
Andreotti: The film itself is available in the U.S., the rights are available, but in order for us to decide if it’s a good acquisition we need to compare it to our internal data. With home entertainment, a lot of that information is not reported publicly. Box office is, so we can look at competitors’ box office results, but home entertainment [figures are] behind a brick wall. We have to rely on our own historical information, which is changing all the time. Just when you get it sorted out, the marketplace has changed or the directive of the SVOD services has changed. We’re just trying to keep one step ahead by looking behind us!
Ryan Oestreich: What Netflix wants to buy from independent distributors today versus what they were buying from independent distributors ten years ago when they started their streaming services [has changed], too.
And probably even by the month. Netflix seems more mercurial than ever.
Oestreich: Yes. And there’s not just one “Netflix,” right? Everybody has different tastes and different sections of eyeballs that they’re going after, whether [the multitude of streaming services is seeking] a wider breadth or a very narrow niche, like Shudder, and I really look for horror and thriller and stuff that I know those folks really want to watch. Because we try to sell to everybody—from Shudder, to all the documentary services to Netflix.
I like the idea that places like Hulu or Netflix or Amazon can surprise its subscribers with an unexpected title. Hulu especially, with A24 and a couple other studios, can just drop their plans to roll out a movie, as they did with Claire Denis’ “Stars At Noon” after its big debut at Cannes this year. Her film was in theaters—or at least at the Wilmette—and on video-on-demand the same day, and only two weeks later, it streams on Hulu. Do you have cases like that with Music Box Films, or is that just the big suppliers?
Holmes: That’s the big suppliers.
Your horizontal integration, being both a distributor and an exhibitor owning your own theater, appears to work. Just looking at the Music Box schedule sometimes, trying to decipher what’s there, to decide what I have time and room to write about, I may be looking for fifteen things at the most for an entire column, and some weeks might be half of what’s at the Music Box alone!
Oestreich: [laughs] Yeah, we do a lot.
How do you plot that out with just those two screens? And you have so much stuff that isn’t listed specifically as Music Box, like Chicago Humanities presentations. Do you have a tactical genius, a schedule genius? Do you have a huge white board behind a curtain here?
Oestreich: No, we have Excel spreadsheets, right, Brian?
Oestreich: And we have our brains that do the best to balance screens, but Brian’s been doing this longer than me, so maybe you have the formula?
Andreotti: Yeah, over the years we always did special events, but the balance of extended engagements, first-run engagements versus those events has certainly shifted over the years. Bill, when you took over the business, one of your observations was, at the time that events really are profitable, and so look for more events. I remember that was one of the directives you gave. And over the years we did more and more partnering with local organizations, schools and such.
But then during COVID and post-COVID, that balance shifted even more. Now it’s a real challenge to balance and find a way to book extended engagements of a first-run feature, then weave that around the events and the rentals that we have going on. So it takes a lot of collaboration. I handle the booking of the feature films. Ryan primarily knows what’s going on with rentals and special events, and so together, we meet in the middle.
Oestreich: It’s grown also as a reflection of the audience, right? For us, it’s never trying to be isolated in one segment of your program, “We only do docs, we only do classic Hollywood features in terms of our 11:30am matinees, we only do silent films, we only do anime.” Actually, we do all those things! And we do all those things with some regularity because we realize the audiences just keep coming, and we get a sense of what’s working and what’s not working. And then, on top of that, because we’re just crazy enough to put fifteen things in a week, like you said, we’ll try new things, and we will experiment, we’ll see if it works, because the seed of the idea is so intriguing or exciting that we have to try it, we have to put it on the screen. And I think by surprising our audience and by putting too much in front of them, you allow a little bit for everybody all the time, which goes back to the moniker that I don’t know if you came up with, Brian, or just was always there, “We are Chicago’s year-round film festival.”
Andreotti: I’m sure I stole that from someone.
Oestreich: Even if we’re also working with Chicago’s other film festivals, right? I think the beauty of Music Box is it’s not just one thing, it’s many things to many people all the time, even if somebody only comes in once a year for our Christmas movies or sing-along “Sound of Music,” or the film noir festival. And I can tell you right now, and you can put it out there, we have people who come in one time a year for just that one thing. We have people who drive in from far away, spend eight days with us for our film noir festival, and then they leave and we’ll never see them again until 360 days later. And that’s okay. That’s how we make it work.
The nice thing is that our reputation and our ability to talk to movie-lovers across the country has proven that we will have people travel in from Jackson, Mississippi. When we did our most recent David Lynch retrospective, we probably had the farthest distances that people travel to us. I talked to people from Mississippi to Texas to Tennessee to Ohio to New York to Denver to Portland. And what I kept getting was, “I don’t have this in my hometown and I’ve been told you do it right.” And they’ll travel, and then generally they find out that yeah, we do a pretty good job, and they like it, and they tell more people, and then it grows on its own.
The Music Box appeals to a boatload of niche audiences, specific audiences that you will satisfy once a month, once every three months, and they then feel like they’re loyal Music Box customers in their own way, but also Music Box is loyal to them.
Andreotti: Yeah. When programming the theater over the years I always took that as a directive, like every new calendar should have enough variety in it that there will be many different audiences picking it up to look it over. There’s got to be a documentary, there’s got to be an American indie, there’s got to be a revival, a restoration of a classic film, there’s got to be a cult film because these are all the micro-audiences in Chicago, and we need them all to frequent the Music Box, so make sure there’s an LGBTQ title, make sure there’s a social-justice documentary.
Though balancing the special events with the extended first-run engagements, in the past the distributor was in the driver’s seat. “Okay, we’ll give you this film, but I want three weeks in the big house and you’ve got to hold it for eight weeks, and if it’s doing business you’ve got to hold it longer.”
And also insisting on specific showtimes and how many shows.
Andreotti: Yeah, exactly. I would also have distributors look at our showtimes and ask “Why is there no matinee on Tuesday,” things like that. Over the years the Music Box has been so successful with its first-run features, and so in demand, we’re frequently in the top-ten grosses nationwide on any film we show. That’s allowed us to say, listen, you want the Music Box, okay, but you’re only going to get three weeks and then you’re out.
Oestreich: We have distributors that come to us and specifically request, “Will you open our film?” When they do, we say “Hey, I’m sorry, you picked a bad date. You can either let us open with New York and L.A., which is not what your plan was.” They will realize that we gross so much money they’re willing to do that. Or we’ll say, “I’ll give you two weeks and then I’ve got to let you go.” And they’ll say I’ll take two weeks at the Music Box because it’ll make more money with you than it will at any other theater in Chicago, and it’s worth it then for them financially, because of where we’ve come and how far we’ve grown.
And if you go back to a catalyst for that you’d have to look at what we did with the 70mm release of Tarantino’s “The Hateful Eight” (2015). The [custom, extreme-proportioned] screen we put up, the investment we made in the surround sound going to Dolby full immersive sound, then the grosses that we showed versus the entire United States, every distributor paid attention.
After that it started to change. To the point where, coming out of the pandemic, we are sought after, and we get a lot more say in what we do and don’t do versus back in the mid-2000s when we were probably begging for some distributors to give us a chance because we knew we could make them money, but they didn’t want to take a chance on us. Now it’s not that they’re taking a chance on us, they just know what we’re going to do.
You’re saying well, we can do fewer slots and they’ll be packed and you’ll make more money than with showtimes with almost-empty rooms. Is that an accepted paradigm now?
Bill Schopf: We don’t really even have to say it. If they follow Rentrak, they follow box office reports, they see it.
Their ears are perked up already.
Oestreich: Yes. That’s the nice thing about the theatrical side of the business, is all those numbers are public, or public to people who use that, whereas on the distribution side of the business, there’s so much that happens, and nobody knows those numbers unless you are inside that company. So for us, we don’t mind being like “Hey, we were the number-one-grossing film with the Anthony Bourdain film ‘Roadrunner’ for two weeks straight, and Focus Features was really happy.” We can publicly say that because you could see it, right? And you can see that we made Focus Features a lot of money for that run of that film.
And any other time, change the title of the film, change the distributor, they’re happy when we run their film. We usually make them good money and we help their per-screen average, which is something they put in the trades—”We had an ‘X’ per screen average for this film, look at how successful it is, book it in all your other theaters. We help them with that.
Schopf: I think you should add to that we’ve got a very loyal audience. We depend on them to come back for these films, and they want to do that. And that’s why we can make the predictions that Ryan’s talking about, you know, make this happen for you.
A Music Box moviegoer might be attracted to one or two kinds of films, but now you’ve got such a range of things on screen. And with Music Box Films, you’re picking up films that are more eccentric, smaller films you’re distributing. Maybe the audience walks into new things just trusting the theater’s bookings.
Oestreich: The pandemic has shifted things for the theater specifically, and the theater has tapped into a Gen Z shift where Gen Z is now of the age, they’re in college or beyond college, they came out of the pandemic and they want to go to movies, and they want to be challenged, and they want to see things that they can’t describe to people, right?
And I would say, you know, whether you’re looking at some of the releases of Music Box Films or some of the things that people are just taking chances on at the theater, there’s a younger audience who wants to see esoteric, occult or indescribable movies. We had one of the longest runs of the restoration of “Possession,” which is a really weird movie to describe. Is it horror, is it a romantic or a disaster relationship drama? What is it? And over and over and over again young people filled that theater every single night for its eight-week run.
And the distributor, Metrograph, had it on streaming at the same time.
Oestreich: Yeah. You had the ability to watch it at home, too. But I think, you know, both films and theater are trying to tap into a more curious, outgoing cinema population right now that’s emerging with this younger generation. It reminds me of the eighties college generation that really started all the art houses and the film festivals across the United States. They were in college and wanting to watch weird European movies, heavy dramas.
Then the things that came out through the nineties when money attached itself to independent films and film festivals, when that movement happened.
Oestreich: And that’s happening right now. You can come to the Music Box and see the weirdest thing that we have on our slate of films that night and go in there and you’re going to see a bunch of twenty-year-olds who probably don’t know anything about it and are willing to take a risk on it.
The drought in movie releases from larger distributors could also have an effect. “Everything Everywhere All At Once” struck a chord in theaters in a lull when there were no wide releases, and suddenly it was booked on over 1,200 screens, and it did well and held on these screens because the audience was not just hungry for films, they were willing to trust word-of-mouth and go see it. Is a new, curious audience really here?
Andreotti: We were talking a little bit about, as you said, the more—I forget how you phrased some of our current releases at Music Box Films—
Andreotti: Eclectic, esoteric, I don’t know if you used that.
Holmes: Did you say strange?
Andreotti: Ironically, this past year, two out of our three top-grossing films appealed to an older, more traditional art-house audience. Our top-grossing film from this year was “Lost Illusions,” which is a period drama based on a Balzac novel, French, in theory, appealing to that older traditional art-house audience. Then our second-highest-grossing film was “The Rose Maker,” which is a French comedy about growing roses.
There again the main audience was an older art-house audience. It’s not true across the board, because our third-highest grossing film was “Strawberry Mansion,” which fits that paradigm of an indie Sundance title, and a special effects dreamscape fantasy, so that fits that new model. But these other two films did go against that trend.
But these movies don’t necessarily play at the Music Box.
Andreotti: Neither of those films played at the Music Box Theatre! Because the Music Box Theatre is having such success, and like a lot of art houses around the country, is tapping into the A24s, with “Everything Everywhere All at Once,” the NEONs, the Focus titles. The Music Box Theatre is doing the same thing, so ironically it’s harder for our films to get access to the Music Box Theatre.
So on the one hand, “Lost Illusions” and “Rose Maker,” were the highest-grossing films for the film company. But it was harder than ever to get into theaters because of this trend that’s happening post-pandemic. “The Rose Maker” also was lucky in its timing, just like you suggested with “Everything Everywhere All at Once,” “The Rose Maker” came out in the spring. COVID cases were going down. It was springtime, people wanted to get out, and they wanted something light. And I think “Rose Maker” fit that need for an older art-house audience.
Oestreich: What we’ve seen in the theater was the first audience to come back was in their twenties and thirties, period. That was the first one to come back. The audience is changing. The last to come back are people over the age of sixty-five. We’re seeing it with our run of [the classical music drama starring Cate Blanchett] “Tár.” I’m there working at the theater and I’m seeing a lot of retired folks come in to the Music Box to see “Tár” and they’ll tell us, “This is the first time I’ve been back to the Music Box since the pandemic.”
For the younger audience, they want to get out for an experience, so maybe it’s not title-driven. For the older audience? It is title driven. We tapped into them with “Rose Maker.” We’re tapping into them again with “Tár.” What we’ve done at the Music Box Theatre is we’ve gotten younger, if you can believe it. We already had young audiences prior to the pandemic, but we’ve gotten younger in our average age. But at the same time there’s always going to be a market for every type of film. It’s just a matter of hitting the right time, and what’s available for screens, and where we can get these films to play.
A few years before the pandemic there were distributors in England and Australia, and I would put Roadside Attractions in that as well, who survived because of what they call the lavender-rinse crowd. Films with Dame Maggie Smith and such would only play at 3pm and 5pm, they would not even have evening shows because it was entirely matinees for the specific older crowd.
Oestreich: And you know what? In the industry, that show time was let go of, and now it’s coming back. When theaters reopened, some only had weekends. Some were closed Mondays and Tuesdays because the crowds weren’t there. And the exhibitors are trying to learn where the business is.
Another old-fashioned model that this contradicts is the fact that you’re not so product-proud or brand-proud that you insist on some sort of horizontal integration—”By god, it’s a Music Box film, Bill says you’ve got to play it at the Music Box”—instead, you put it in the bucket where the cash is.
Schopf: Put it in the bucket where the cash is?
Holmes: There’s the quote of the day, right?
Schopf: Yeah, you better quote yourself. I think I know what you mean by that.
The places that you booked these two films were the places where they were optimized for you, said in a politer way.
Holmes: You know, I think that’s the politer way of saying it, but yeah, you want to go where the audience is, and you want to play the right theater with the right film. It goes through the whole chain of release, too, because we want to work with the right platforms for the right title and get it in front of people who want to see it.
Schopf: And it’s a very dynamic market still. It’s like we’re experimenting every week, wondering what the outcomes of this will be, and that’ll inform us in what we do the next month. It’s changing so much.
You’re paying attention to the breezes, but you can never tell what direction they’ll come from.
Oestreich: Yeah. We can be good sailors.
Oestreich: And I would say the Music Box has been doing that for ninety-three years, and it’s still going.
Holmes: We haven’t really talked much about films or home entertainment. We’re talking about community and Chicago, but really, the theater is where it’s at in terms of name recognition. When I tell people I work for Music Box the first thing they think of is the theater, right? And they think I work for the theater at Southport. So I have to explain what I do and what we do. But when we’re out at film festivals and doing our thing, then I end up having to explain that we have a theater! That’s of a different community and a different picture.
You have to tell them, “That’s the candy store. I make the candy.”
Oestreich: But the theater will forever be indebted to Music Box Films, because even though Music Box Theatre’s people created Music Box Films, Music Box Films’ success early on helped Music Box. The investment’s back into Music Box Theatre. That’s an important relationship.
Andreotti: Theatrical release is still so important, but because the theatrical marketplace has been disrupted over the past few years, the balance seems to be shifting more toward home entertainment. Bill touched on that a little bit. In some ways that’s reflected in the depth of the windows now. It used to be ninety days [between theatrical release and any other kind of exposure]. Now you brought up the fact that A24 put the Claire Denis [film] out on Hulu fourteen days later. And we’re doing that now, too. We just can’t say we’re going to put it into theaters for ninety days and we’re going to create awareness and then roll it out ninety days later on DVD and transactional, and then later on SVOD, subscription, VOD. Now it’s every film we release. We have to rethink how we’re going to release it. Are we going to give it a shortened theatrical window, are we going to go day-and-date [in theaters and on video], what are the implications for its performance on Amazon if we do that, what does this mean to the SVOD platforms if we release it this way versus that way. We can no longer rely on those old models.
Holmes: And every film is different, right? What you would do for “Lost Illusions,” you know, a more traditional art-house film, is different than one of the films that you probably would put in that eclectic bucket. It’s different audiences, right? People behave differently and watch differently. And again, now more than before COVID.
Schopf: Still, SVOD, subscription VOD, has always been a great revenue source for us. And I think it was 2009, probably—well, 2008 we released “Tell No One,” which did $6.2 million. It was the top foreign language film and put us on the map. And Netflix came and wanted an output deal because then, you know, they spelled it out, they wanted somebody to curate for them. And back then, too, they were proud to say that they weren’t a film company, they were a data company. It’s changed. And so they wanted an exclusive. So we entered into that deal with them and it did well.
By 2014, 2015 they were shifting over. They thought they knew the film business. And hopefully they do. And they were shifting toward more commercial films and away from the more art-house kind of films. And at the same time Amazon decided they’d take the SVOD business seriously with Amazon Prime, and they came in and offered us like three times as much as Netflix was paying us, which was great for a while, and they were exclusive.
And now what we see is, because that deal came to an end, which it was scheduled to do, we are dealing with a hell of a lot of SVOD platforms, all non-exclusive. So the industry’s now shifted over to largely non-exclusive, which keeps us very busy trying to place our product out there for people who want to watch films on a subscription VOD basis. We’re also doing ad-based VOD, or FAST [free ad-supported streaming TV]. And of course transactional VOD is still very popular with people paying their $3.99, $4.99, $5.99, whenever they watch a film. But it’s so many, you can’t even keep track. It’s hard to keep track of who’s in the business. But we’re trying. With, I think, some pretty decent success.
Andreotti: And that kind of explains, Lisa, why it’s been—you’ve been working so hard. I mean, to overly simplify, in the old days we had an output deal so a film automatically went to that output deal and we made DVDs and sold them to DVD sellers. But now every film needs to be pitched to an SVOD service. There are AVOD platforms, there’s TVOD platforms, and so the number, you need to go to many more places to bring money, to monetize these films.
Holmes: Yeah. I mean, it’s changed. When I first started with Music Box Films it was ten years ago, and I had a great relationship with Blockbuster, so—
“Blockbuster.” Was that a thing?
Holmes: Thank you. Yeah, right? So it’s just, it’s changed so much. We talk about this all the time. If I’m doing the same thing I was doing even now it’s a few months ago, right, like it’s just all changing so quickly. A couple years ago we would not really be talking about AVOD in a meaningful way because the common wisdom was that feature films really didn’t live there and if they did it was, you know, dependent on cast, English language or something very genre-driven, whereas now we’re having great success in that space. It was happening pre- pandemic, but the pandemic definitely moved things along.
Back to the Music Box Theatre: could you use more screens or another location?
Oestreich: Yeah, it would be great. I think we kind of understand what we’re doing and we understand the market to a degree and what it wants here in Chicago, so if we could do more, we could do more.
But you don’t need fourteen screens. I’m betting there are going to be some fourteen-screen theaters for sale very soon, but I don’t think you want that much on your hands.
Oestreich: We looked at some of them already.
Schopf: We looked at those at the start of the lockdown.
Do you have some general thoughts on optimism, sustainability? Do you have some reflections on such things on a bigger scale?
Schopf: Across the market? It’s a difficult question because if you look at the Regals of the world, or AMC, you’re looking at organizations with huge debt and probably not too many places to go on the upside, other than pull an Alamo and pull a bankruptcy and try to come out and get rid of your bad locations and—
Well, historically that’s always happened in the industry. There’s always been this crazy leapfrog of real estate transactions after investments gone wrong.
Schopf: I would comment, though, that a theater can be a great investment if you’re going to operate it. But if you can’t operate it, what are you going to do? Turn it into an ice cream store? Theaters are one-use unless you try to do what they did at the Century, they can turn it into a mall, you know, a vertical mall, which is an iffy proposition. And these theaters that are going to go dark, it’s going to be a while. They’ll get torn down and maybe some will go back, you know, turn the lights back on, but we’ll see.
On the other hand, though, in the distribution market, too, when we buy films, for the midlevel films there’s not as much competition as there used to be. I mean, there’s not that much money out there chasing films, and I think a lot of films aren’t getting made or are being held back, I don’t know. It just seems like a very slow market to me from the distribution side, which is good and bad.
But as far as sustainability, I think people are going to continue with movies. Certainly, watching on home entertainment or watching in theaters, I mean, they’re going to do both. So for Music Box Films, we’ll do all right. I mean, we don’t carry any debt. We own our property. We own this building, the building next door. We can handle that. But it may take a while before it shakes out. We don’t know how it’s going to shake out.
Andreotti: The distribution company, we’re still feeling our way. Everything was upended during the pandemic, and it’s very different now. And I think we’re still looking for the right path forward when it comes to distribution, mainly because the theatrical marketplace has been so upended, not unlike the reasons I described as it’s reflected in Music Box Theatre.
Not being able to get coverage in newspapers, a trend that began years ago only accelerated during the pandemic, so now it’s sometimes difficult to get a review in the L.A. Times. So yeah, we’re still finding the right formula for a sustainable distribution company, not that we’re not sustainable now, but to really grow I think we’re still looking for the right formula.
Schopf: It’s an even balance between [playing] offense and defense in this game. We lean a little bit more toward the defensive because, Christ, look what happened. I can’t remember when that started, probably by about April of 2020 when it was clear this wasn’t just going to be a three-week shutdown, we just said “Hey, for the next year we are no longer in the theatrical distribution business, we are only in home entertainment, and so let’s focus on that and make that work.” And we did. We did. Lisa was one of the stars in making that happen.
Holmes: I was never busier. And it hasn’t stopped. I mean, we were already changing. It was already busy and dynamic and changing, but COVID accelerated all of that.
Schopf: But the theatrical market is still… It’s still an unknown. I mean, it’s—
Oestreich: The Music Box Theatre is an anomaly if you look at the entirety of the exhibition industry. The success we’re having at the theater is not synonymous with hundreds of other screens across the country. We are really doing something in a way that is leaps and bounds… We have recovered faster than most. What’s the special sauce? Try to pull it out of this conversation.
But if you ever have the ability to look at comps or Rentrak you can see how the theater has gone. Music Box Films, you can see it from a distribution side of what’s working where, and who’s got the ability to bring in folks, but still sometimes it’s product-based. We’re nimble at the theater. We don’t buy ten films and then we’re stuck with those ten films for the year. You just said it yourself, we play 400 films in a year. We can throw everything at the screen. So we’re seeing this change in the business through two lenses, and it’s interesting to be able to look at them because it’s like, why does that work in Chicago but not work somewhere else, right?
And I honestly think what Bill said is people are still going to always want to go to the movies, but I do think some of the exhibitors have got to catch up to the changing tastes and landscape. I do think some exhibitors—and I’m not going to name names—are kind of stuck in their old ways and are not adapting and figuring out where the audiences are. And so I think it would behoove them to get creative and to take experiments because I do really think there are a lot of people that want to go to the movies.
The owner-operator thing seems very important.
Schopf: Well, certainly in times of economic change, and even more in times of economic crisis, having a bunch of debt is just a killer. That’s what bankruptcy is about. That’s people going out of business, that’s what happened to so many of these restaurants. Some of the guys probably that owned the property and had no debt, they’re probably still in business, but a huge percentage is gone.
Let’s talk about event-izing, a word I try to avoid, about creating events people want to come buy tickets for.
Oestreich: I use it all the time!
What you’re describing is where you have, instead of twenty-one shows and nine of them selling, that’s also—if you have a choice to go fourteen times in one week to see a movie, the chances are you’re not going to go to any of them. There’s too many choices. But if you limit the choices to three or even to one, or Kevin Smith, who you have next week, ideally you can get people to listen to him talking twice, because he’s a great talker. The idea of making each thing—it’s not like you’ve brought in the circus with each one of these films, but you are saying it’s only going to be in town one night only.
Andreotti: And that goes all the way back, that’s the origin of Music Box Theatre’s calendar. When we only had one screen, it was one week only, and it created a sense of urgency. People knew, since we only had one screen, if we said something was ending on Thursday we meant it. And that continued when we had two screens. The calendar was there to tell you when something was going to start, and often when it was going to end. So event-izing, these one-off events, are just that taken to an extreme. Yeah, it creates a sense of urgency, that fear of missing out.
Schopf: Just thinking back, when I bought that building in 1986, I had tenants running the theater. And I liked movies, but I didn’t know that much about the business. I quickly learned that you buy a single-purpose piece of real estate, it’s not like buying a retail store where you can sell shoes or you can sell yogurt or you can sell records or whatever the hell you’re going to sell, you’re in the business. And we were a repertory theater back then with a calendar.
And then I associate it with “Sex, Lies and Videotape” coming out in probably eighty-nine, and I saw that, and I’m, “Oh, that’s pretty interesting.” And my tenants then, Bob [Chaney] and Chris [Carlo], came to me and said we’re going to shift over into a first-run theater because it’s working, but we need a second screen because we can’t, you know…If you have a successful film and you have another one on your calendar you’ve got to be able to move this over.
That’s when I started doing my research. I took a trip to New York and to California and talked to some distributors, and the need for that. And it was happening, you know, Tarantino was coming on and blah-blah-blah. So we did that shift, but now we’ve shifted back and so that we can do fourteen in a week or whatever. It’s an interesting balance. And it’s a constantly changing balance, which is what’s truly different about not only this business, but about business in general. I mean, it’s…it’s changing fast. You can’t just set one course and think you’re going to stay on that course for five years or even one year. You might be shifting in three months.
Oestreich: But I will say something to the atmosphere that it’s created. Like you said, the fourteen shows, maybe it’ll average twenty-five people in a show. One night 700 people for a weird film that’s a “What in the hell am I watching?” experience with that many people and that energy. You walk out of that, right, and event-ized, right? You’re walking out with a different feeling and sense and talking about it than you did with twenty-five people that quietly watched that other film that was showing fourteen times.
It also really does make a difference when you watch it with a packed theater, it just does. You just have an experience with it. And I think that gives something back to the people who are coming. Even though you force them all to come to one day at one time.
You walk out saying something besides, “Hey, what do you want to eat?”
Oestreich: Yeah, I’ll tell you exactly what happens, when it’s 700 people walking out of the Music Box, you’ve seen this, you see 150 of them congregating under the canopy marquee talking about what they just experienced. A friend said to me, “where’s the best place to be for film culture in Chicago?” He said it’s under the canopy marquee at the Music Box after a sold-out show. That’s the place to be. And I agree with him.
You need more theaters for people to congregate outside of.
Schopf: We are looking into taking on some new screens, but—I could just put it this way, that we’re doing architectural drawings on other screens, and we’re talking to the city, but before we get a little bit further along, I don’t think it’s a good idea to comment on it, particularly with this damn economy now, with three-quarters-of-a-percent interest-rate increases every two months or whatever the hell it is, and a choreographed recession coming up, as far as I can see. May slow us down a little bit, but we believe in it and we think we can convert our brand into some successes at additional locations.