Set Elvis Free

“The only thing that matters is that that man gets up on that stage tonight,” says Colonel Thomas Parker, after Elvis collapses from drugs and exhaustion on his way to the stage in Baz Luhrman’s new biopic. The Colonel, played by Tom Hanks, is the bad guy in this movie and his relationship with Elvis, played by Austin Butler, is analogous to what’s wrong with motion picture distribution.

Elvis – who brought rock ‘n roll out from behind the veil of segregation – should have been free to leave the building when the studios started distributing first-run movies direct to consumers at home. That’s when the silver screen became the touch screen. But like the unscrupulous Colonel who will say anything to maintain his control Presley, movie theater owners insist that an exclusive theatrical release means more revenue for all stakeholders. The problem is, the audience is not among those stakeholders.

Twenty-eight months since Governor Gavin Newsom imposed the pandemic lockdown, I went to the movies last night to see Elvis on the big screen. And while I thoroughly enjoyed and highly recommend Luhrman’s mesmerizing, razzamatazz film, I am in a state of disbelief over how dismal the movie theater going experience has become. 

First, a legal disclosure sign on the front door warned about the carcinogenic cleaning products. But it didn’t look like there was much cleaning going on. The place was a mess. It looked like an evacuation scene after a hurricane.

The floors – even the escalators – were littered with trash and popcorn. The concession counters backed by four attendants glistened with sugary, semi-dried soda pop. Plastic straws and wrappers were discarded and strewn across the candy cases. The bathroom waste bins overflowed with garbage, a urinal overflowed into a bucket, and that bucket was steadily overflowing onto a puddled bathroom floor.

My first thought was this must be the Great Resignation. But I spotted nearly a dozen ushers with brooms and dust bins at their side standing idle, their eyes glued to their mobile phone screens. There was such blatant disregard for hygiene, I thought about leaving. But just as Elvis fans turned a blind eye to his decay the final years of his Las Vegas Residency, I choose to grin and bear it, despite the fear of a possible rodent sighting.

In the film, the Colonel (a former carny operator) holds Elvis hostage in Las Vegas by playing down the clock through the delayed, progressive disclosure of lies and misinformation much as theater owners are holding audiences hostage in movie theaters through exclusive first run release windows. With the pipes already in place to sell movies at home, why would anyone choose to slum it in a dirty theater unless they had to?

When Elvis collapses en route to the stage, his father begrudgingly complies with the Colonel and lets a doctor inject his son with drugs to pep him up. The father sacrifices his son, which is what the movie studios are doing by continuing to grant movie theaters an exclusive release window, when the screen has already left the building. 

Instead of making theaters earn their audiences by maintaining a competitive, hospitable environment, the studios – by granting the theaters first run exclusivity – have nullified that incentive. Both are complicit in holding moviegoers hostage. It’s a shame that audiences are not more important to the studios. 

In order to satisfy his gambling debts by keeping Elvis in the casino, the Colonel insists that international touring is unsafe. In order to satisfy their real estate debts, the theater owners tell the studios pulling theatrical exclusivity will cost them too much money. But there’s no telling how much revenue a first-run, worldwide, direct to consumer release could generate. In truth, exclusive theatrical distribution windows mostly just benefit a handful of blockbusters.

I love seeing movies. But not enough to watch them in squalor if I can see them at home. No wonder motion picture piracy costs Hollywood as much as $71B annually. Theatrical exclusivity is no match for a moviegoer’s proclivity.  It’s time for filmmakers to stop letting the theater owners and the studios collude to pollute the entertainment experiences they work so hard to create. 

To restore the magic to the movie going experience, give theater owners an incentive to earn their audiences. The best way to do that is by eliminating theatrical exclusivity. Set Elvis free once and for all so theater owners have a reason to clean the place up. When they do, I’ll be back.

Eric Schwartzman is a digital marketing consultant and author of The Digital Pivot: Secrets of Online Marketing.