MPAA President Chris Dodd And NATO President John Fithian Talk The Future Of Movies At Sundance

What could have been a tense session at Sundance yesterday in the wake of the failures of SOPA and PIPA to advance, turned into a generally genial conversation between MPAA President Chris Dodd, National Association of Theater Owners president John Fithian, and filmmaker Christine Vachon, with occasional tough interjections from moderator and New York Times reporter David Carr.

“My take is that your industry vastly underestimated the intimacy and closeness of the relationships between tech companies and the consumer,” Carr told Dodd. “The people we want re-engineering the Internet are not your people or your old people.”

Dodd acknowledged that the protests against SOPA had been “a watershed event,” and said that the conversation would continue about legislation to address the problem of overseas sites that distribute pirated content. But he generally pivoted towards talking about the need for technology and content providers to recognize their common interests rather than dwelling on their differences. He pointed out that the same consumers who want content available on a wide array of devices are also the consumers who go to movies in theaters most frequently. “The person who loves technology loves content,” Dodd said. “They’re not the enemy of this industry at all. They’re the future in many ways.” He and Fithian also both emphasized the need to give consumers more choices in theaters.

“The screens in the film world got dominated by big pictures,” Fithian acknowledged. “We don’t need Harry Potter playing on 6 screens in our megaplexes. Maybe 4. And maybe we can pick up some independent movies.” He pointed to Open Road, the distribution company owned by AMC and Regal Cinemas as proof of the theaters’ intentions to begin acquiring independent movies and acting as distributors themselves. And Fithian said that the move towards digital projection will dramatically lower the cost of getting a movie in theaters from $1,000 per print to $100 for digital copies. In a reversal from prior approaches, Fithian suggested that NATO might reconsider offering Video On Demand sales in theaters so consumers could immediately get multi-device-capable copies of movies they’d just enjoyed.

And Vachon, who is at Sundance promoting her LCD Soundsystem documentary Shut Up and Play the Hits, which I’ll see on Wednesday emphasized that just as the MPAA and NATO are changing their approaches, so are filmmakers. “I think theatrical exhibition as the only means of measuring the success of a movie is changing, and fairly rapidly,” she said. “We are experimenting as much as we can with length, with format. We’ve always experimented with content…Our budgets have come down drastically, but the methodology of making a movie…that hasn’t come down…the creative margin is what has to be reconciled and reworked…we are constantly looking at different kinds of different distribution, ways we can directly market our work to the consumer.”