Explainer: In Blockbuster Season, How Do Theaters Determine Which One Gets the IMAX Screen?

The Avengers, Men in Black 3 and the soon-to-be-released Prometheus wage the eternal battle for placement

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From Left: Columbia Pictures; Marvel, 20th Century Fox

The summer IMAX glut, with 'Men in Black,' 'The Avengers' and 'Prometheus,' just adds to conflict over screens.

For a while there it looked like the continued box-office dominance of The Avengers, number one the past three weekends, would cause a problem. After just one week, Dark Shadows was due to take over many of the IMAX auditoriums in which the blockbuster was still filling seats, but theater owners (understandably) wanted to keep things as they were. That particular snafu has been averted: Variety reported that after the first big Avengers weekend, Disney and Warner Bros. came to an agreement to split nearly 300 screens in a way that kept Avengers in every single one of the IMAX auditoriums it had been playing. Which raises a question: why doesn’t this kind of conflict happen all the time?

The short answer is: it does, we just don’t know about it.

Avengers may have lots of superlatives under its superhero belt, but wrangling over screens is apparently nothing new. Unexpected movie success (or failure) is frequent, says Patrick Corcoran, Director of Media and Research at the National Association of Theater Owners, and these past weeks aren’t really an exception: “I think everybody thought Avengers would do well but I don’t think anybody really grasped how well it would do. For each sort of box office landmark, it’s gotten there faster than any movie has before, so it’s a surprise.” But theater owners have ways to deal with that, he says, since it’s “the nature of the business.”

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Corcoran says that, depending on the movie and the theater, owners make decisions about what to show between one and six weeks in advance—but, despite contracts with the studios, those decisions are flexible and plans frequently change after a film opens. The calculation about where in the multiplex to put any given film is a balance between getting the most bang for the owner’s buck (a better-selling movie in a bigger auditorium is clearly a good choice) and preserving the relationship between the theater and the studio.

“In terms of going to a larger [auditorium] the studios are probably more open to that,” says Corcoran. Still, studios will also accept having their films play in a smaller auditorium, understanding the theater’s delicate balancing act. “They have ongoing relationships and it’s not just one film going to make or break that relationship,” he says, since both sides have hopes for future films.

Even mom-and-pop theaters have to figure out how to distribute movies between their screens, and that can have its own complexities. Many of those smaller businesses use booking agents as go-betweens with the studios, and part of the booker’s job is to help their clients guess how movies will do. Fran Volan, the head booker at Cooperative Theaters Inc., an Ohio-based company that works with a few hundred screens, says that’s a matter of expertise: she’s been booking for more than two decades. With smaller theaters, she says, it’s more important to guess how a movie will play with a specific audience rather than nationally, and how long it can run in a small market, which means that the conflicts over screens aren’t limited to big blockbusters. The movies that stick around may, in fact, be the niche ones making not much of a splash overall; conversely, the biggest movies in the country may flop. “You always have to take [box office figures] with a grain of salt, because they don’t always reflect our theaters,” Volan says.

(MORE: Revenge of the Feature Film? Why Movie Theater Owners Expect a Blockbuster Year)

But even though plain old 2D, small-format theaters have been dealing with this challenge since IMAX was just a twinkle in its creator’s eye, Corcoran says that the newer formats are more complex to make arrangements for, since there are more factors involved. IMAX and 3D-equipped theaters are rarer commodities, and when Men in Black III opens this weekend in its IMAX 3D Experience incarnation, it will add another large-format, extra-dimensional movie to this season’s already full plate. In the next few weeks, Avengers, Dark Shadows, Prometheus and MIB3 will all be duking it out for IMAX screen presence. So while the conflict over movie screens is nothing new, this summer we may be in for more Avengers-style high-profile—and high-stakes, given the cost of production and potential profits in more expensive tickets—battles for movie screens.

Still, it always ends the same way, says Fran Volan. The third party in the arrangement wins: the theater and the studio can make whatever deals they want, but the audience decides. “Just because a film does a lot of money doesn’t mean you want to keep it forever,” she says. “People only want to see a movie a certain amount of times.”

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