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Indies React to Tugg, Which Lets You Choose What Will Play at Your Movie Theater, Adds 'Tree of Life' and 'Bullhead' to Roster

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by Anne Thompson and Maggie Lange
February 23, 2012 2:38 PM
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New startup Tugg, launched Wednesday, lets audiences choose what will screen at their local multiplex. We polled several indie exhibitors and distribs for feedback (below). Clearly, exhibitors are more interested in seeing how this might develop than distributors. Most gung-ho is Alamo Drafthouse, which is both.

Here's how it works: first, audiences select a film from Tugg's library. Next, the user chooses a local theater and available time slots. Like Groupon, a critical mass needs to commit to the event before the screening goes through. The ticket price gets lower as the size of the committed audience increases.

Tugg has already hosted pilot screenings in Austin, San Francisco, Seattle, Boston, and Philadelphia. To bring these screenings to new cities, Tugg is in the process of negotiating deals with AMC, Bow Tie, Cinemark, Alamo Drafthouse and Regal theater chains.

Thursday Tugg announced that Academy Award nominees "The Tree of Life," which has completed its Fox Searchlight theatrical run, and current Alamo release "Bullhead" have been added to their burgeoning film library. (Order up "Tree of Life" here.) Stated "Tree of Life" producer Sarah Green: “We are thrilled to be providing this opportunity for audiences to see it again, or for the first time, on the big screen; and to share the experience with their community." Belgian crime drama "Bullhead" will be available via Tugg in markets where it does not have a traditional current or upcoming theatrical release. (Order up "Bullhead" here.)

"The Tree of Life" deal is not surprising, as producer Nicolas Gonda founded Tugg along with Pablo Gonzalez, and Tugg's board of advisors includes "Tree of Life" director Terrence Malick, along with Ben Affleck ("The Town") and Austin-based filmmaker Richard Linklater ("Before Sunset").

Gonda and Gonzalez told TechCruch that this on-demand consumer booking (which is not dissimilar to the way Paramount first launched "Paranormal Activity" around the country) will complement existing distribution methods:

“We felt there was a real opportunity to develop a platform where films and theaters could benefit from having a guaranteed audience in place for screenings, helping to reduce uncertainty about whether a film could find an audience.”

While TechCrunch likes the Tugg concept, they also sound a cautionary note: "changing the distribution model for movies is a big challenge for a startup, since there are so many institutional players."

Among others, Tugg approached Howard Cohen, co-president of Roadside Attractions, who finds the concept "cumbersome and limited" but is open to seeing how it develops. Sony Pictures Classics is also in talks with Tugg. 

Alamo chief Tim League writes:

"I love it. We are beta testing Tugg shows right now at Alamo to great success. I don't think it is necessarily just an indie model, but it would take the majors to develop an indie mindset to make it work.  I can see added value screenings for blockbusters just as much as I can for indie films and alternative content."

Indie marketing and distribution consultant Ray Price writes:

Nice idea but it's basically the same as VOD except you need 200 people to agree on a time and place instead of one person who can choose anytime and place.  Without aggressive advertising it is hard to create larger groups of consumers.  The limitations parallel the long term problems of theaters in general.  Streaming requires only one customer in a single location.

One indie exhibitor writes that he has "done shows with similar programs for years":

"Filmmakers build audience interest who commit to see the film in a given market. When they get a certain number they set a date and time with the venue and promote like crazy as does the theater. We have had a number of successes. But some fail too.

There are also all kinds of 'meet-up' sites that have people inviting others to join them for a specific show and dinner after.

I wonder about 'cool theaters' as stated in Tugg's site. But Regal and AMC are among the first clients. If they go after young audiences---and that makes sense--that is where they need to be. And the megaplexes can do these shows and hide it from studios.

The economics will be interesting. How many people at what admission will be needed to pay film rental and theater rental? Will sponsors cover much of it, and who decides which shows will have enough appeal to be worth sponsoring?

If it means people rent theaters from cinemas without the hassle of having to promote rentals, coordinate with consumer, collect rental and book films, theater owners would love it.

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