LAS VEGAS —Moviegoers and Hollywood both lose out when people can't find screenings of an anticipated film anywhere nearby. But on-demand film showings offer a possible solution for enabling sold-out screenings at local movie theaters.
The solution comes from new startups, such as Tugg or Gathr, aimed at helping smaller films find paying movie theater audiences. They work somewhat like the crowd-funding website Kickstarter — a film screening reaches a tipping point and gets scheduled when enough moviegoers have registered to see the film at a local movie theater.
"Tugg came from the frustration we felt as filmmakers over the disconnect between films and audiences," said Nick Gonda, cofounder of Tugg. He represented one of four panelists during a Variety-hosted event here at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) on Jan. 9.
Gonda's startup helped set up early screenings for the 2012 film "Sinister" and enabled 100 nationwide screenings for the Nazis-in-space film "Iron Sky" — all based on screenings proposed by individual people for their local movie theaters. Tugg also helped Matthew Lillard, an actor and director, set up screenings for his indie film "Fat Kid Rules the World" after it won an audience award at the South by Southwest (SXSW) festival.
The startup Gathr has used a similar approach to get locally-demanded screenings for documentaries such as Ken Burns' "The Central Park Five," "Big Easy Express" and "Something from Nothing: The Art of Rap."
Huge movie theater chains such as AMC Theatres have begun to show interest in the targeted-screening approach. Despite record-breaking box office sales in 2012, Hollywood has worried about a declining audience attendance in recent years (2012 was an exception). [ 13 Sci-Fi Films to Look Forward to in 2013 ]
AMC Theatres has many empty seats to fill because it shows 400 of the 600 Hollywood films that come out each year as the second-largest U.S. distributor. Smaller indie films or documentaries that have local crowd support could fill those empty theater seats with the help of a Tugg or Gathr.
"What we're trying to do is find partners and ideas where we can fill seats, we can engage guests and we can support filmmakers," said Hank Green, vice president of studio partnerships at AMC Theatres.
The Tugg and Gathr approaches have the added advantage of empowering individual film fans who can organize local film screenings and connect directly to friends or fellow film-lovers. Such fans could do more to fill local movie theaters than Selena Gomez might accomplish by tweeting about a film to her millions of Twitter followers.
"One thing we found at Tugg is that we're seeing curators emerge all over country who can sell out films at two of their local theaters," Gonda said. "They represent someone in the community whom people can look right in the eye and trust more than [film critic] Roger Ebert."
Some tech solutions for small filmmakers have skipped movie theaters entirely— IndieFlix has offered a movie-streaming subscription service that pays filmmakers for every minute that people watch online. But it has used successfully used film screenings held at places such as Starbucks cafes or schools to raise awareness of its films.
"It takes a village to raise a child," said Scilla Andree, CEO and cofounder of IndieFlix. "Our movies are our children. We need a community to help launch our films."