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Steamboat's small market impacts local theaters' movie choices

— Fall is a busy season for movies. Catching heavy traffic for family releases starting around Thanksgiving and attention from critics to get buzz going before the Oscar deadline, it's a time for studios big and small to play the hand they've been holding through the spring and summer.

In big markets, that means movies cycling through theaters at a breakneck pace. In smaller ones, where film choices are riskier, it means a careful balancing act and constant flux of what's playing.

"There are several variables there," said Alan Stokes, vice president of film marketing for Metropolitan Theatres, the Los Angeles-based corporate office of Steamboat's six-plex, Wildhorse Stadium Cinemas.

"You just never know from movie to movie what the distribution pattern is going to be," Stokes said. "Maybe you have to wait for the second or third wave of prints, or maybe you have to wait until the first wave comes off and a print becomes available.

"Or depending on how the film does, it might never find its way to a community the size of Steamboat Springs."

The number of prints made for each film varies by studio and project, so it's almost impossible to know very far in advance if or when a film such as "Into the Wild" - which opened Sept. 21 in four theaters to $200,000 and consistently favorable reviews - can filter its way into a small ski town.

Both Metropolitan and Carmike Cinemas, the Georgia-based company that owns the downtown Chief Plaza 4 Theatre, employ film buyers who work with studios to decide where their productions will work best.

"When they sit down and talk to Universal, say about a picture like 'The Kingdom,' they're not just talking about Steamboat Springs, they're talking about half the country," Stokes said. "Given X number of prints, they're going to start in the bigger cities and roll out from there."

Film distributors then try to balance their obligations to Metropolitan and Carmike and split up movies for three or four months. But those plans can change, Stokes said.

Metropolitan books out its theaters about two weeks in advance, and not much farther - they'll have "The Heartbreak Kid" with Ben Stiller on Oct. 5 and "Elizabeth" sequel "The Golden Age" on Oct. 12.

Putting the individual strategies of film studios, distribution companies and movie theaters aside, the reasons why Wildhorse and Chief Plaza 4 play the pictures they do come down to numbers: 10 screens and 10,000 people.

"With all the major releases we have a reasonable obligation to play, that doesn't leave a lot of screens for films that don't go on the national break," Stokes said.

Splitting major releases between the two theaters still leaves a considerable backlog of new films from week to week. If Wildhorse's six screens took on three new releases last week (Dane Cook's romantic comedy "Good Luck Chuck," Amanda Bynes' fairy tale "Sydney White" and video game zombie ramble "Resident Evil: Extinction"), and gets one this week (war on terror action thriller "The Kingdom"), space for another batch of movies becomes scarce.

Minimum playing times make it trickier - Stokes said each film has to stay for at least a second week, if not a third. Throw in the fact that anywhere from five to 12 new films come out to limited or nationwide audiences each week, and big-ticket releases become ultimately appealing.

"It's kind of like this big melting pot of movies, and we're all stirring it around to see what we're going to get that's the best for Steamboat," Stokes said.

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