Theatrical ExperienceWhen films began, our notion of the traditional movie theater did not exist. Instead, films were viewed in a variety of public settings, including churches, public parks, storefronts, or tents. It was quite common, in fact, for a film to travel around on tour, sometimes as an event in itself or else in conjunction with a vaudeville act or a circus.

Obviously this is no longer the case, largely thanks to the distribution system that studios created to maintain control over film delivery.. In the 1950s, the studios’ vertical integration system was broken up, but their system of delivery maintained its structure, albeit under new forms of control.

As a result, even today we can still see that the guidelines required of a theatrical release match those guidelines artificially designed by the studios in order to fit their business model (as opposed to an aesthetic model). The time has come to reject – or at least redefine – these guidelines in order to advance the independent film market and its artistic objectives.

Before we consider exactly how the notion of theatricality can be redefined, it is worth reviewing the current definition put in place by the studios. Some of the artificial conventions that have emerged around theatrical releases include:

Location – The film must be shown in a traditional movie theater, complete with film projectors and the requisite sound system. Audience members must travel to the location of the theater if they wish to see the film, since it does not get shown anywhere else. The theater in which the film is shown is usually a part of a larger chain and is owned by someone who has an established relationship with the film’s distributor.

Length of film – The film must be at least 70 minutes long, with typical modern films averaging between 90 and 120 minutes.

Format of film – The film must be played on a film projector, using celluloid that is at least 35 millimeters in width.

Timing of release – Usually, the film will first be screened on a Friday and will subsequently run for a minimum of one week.

Print reviews – Reviews of the film will be written and released in print media, usually on the Thursday or Friday that precedes the film’s release.

Currently, any showing of a film that fails to meet these listed guidelines gets lumped into an alternate category – either “semi-theatrical” or “non-theatrical.” This includes films that get screened in locations like museums, colleges, cultural centers, churches, and more. These alternate designations create a second-class status for these films because they use the terminology of lack—the films are not theatrical, or they are only partly theatrical.

An additional issue that cements this second-class status comes when the press typically ignores non-theatrical and semi-theatrical screenings. The lack of reviews written about these screenings not only hurts attendance and attention for the film, but also strengthen the misconception that these films are not worthy of attention.

The time has come for this to change. It is absurd that a film’s artistic, intellectual, educational, or entertainment value should be tied to the venue in which it gets screened. Filmmakers need to reclaim the term “theatrical release” for themselves and return it to its original definition, when films were theatrical even when projected on the side of a barn. The experience of theatricality must be redefined as an event where people gather to watch a film. The location, the time, and the media should be inconsequential to this definition. The film can be shown just once or repeatedly over a set period of time.

The format of the film can be on celluloid, on DVD, or on VHS. The screening can occur in a conventional movie theater, a college auditorium, a gallery, a community center, a church, a parking lot, a park, a bar, a restaurant, or a living room. This wide variety of potential screening types and locations have little to no influence upon the theatricality of the event. Equally inconsequential to a film’s theatricality (and thus its artistic value) is the decision whether to charge admission to the audience. In other words, many of the current defining features of a theatrical event are entirely artificial and unnecessary to the fundamental, magical experience of attending a theatrical film screening.

Therefore, we need to define the theatrical experience as follows: The theatrical event is a live audience event in which a film is screened to a group of people in accordance to the guidelines set forth by the individual filmmaker.

Six factors in particular must be retained in order to ensure that this event is, in fact, theatrical:

First, the communal nature of the event should be emphasized. In order to be communal, the audience must consist of a group of people who are not all of the same family or household. In other words, a film screening in a living room where only immediate family members are present is not a communal, theatrical event. However, if you have a screening that takes place in a living room with people present who do not live at the residence, then this does have potential to be a communal event, as long as it also follows the other guidelines on this list.

Second, the film should be viewed in the dark. This ensures that the film itself is the focus of the gathering, and that other activities do not distract from the viewing. The magical experience of film-watching therefore should be emphasized.

Third, there should be no interruption of the film. This is another reason that many viewings in a person’s living room would not count as theatrical. Viewers should not be able to pause the movie in order to answer the phone, take a bathroom break, or get a snack from the kitchen. Doing this inhibits the magical experience of film-watching.

Fourth, the filmmaker should have control over how the film is screened. When making the film, the filmmaker has a specific vision or goal regarding how the film should be experienced. Therefore, the screening should adhere to the filmmaker’s desires in order to be true to that vision.

Fifth, the screening should provide an opportunity for the filmmaker to interact with his or her audience. This doesn’t mean that a screening without the filmmaker’s presence cannot be a theatrical experience. However, should the filmmaker wish to interact with his or her audience, the option should be there.

Sixth, the event should be one that can be publicized. Especially in the case of independent films, the theatrical release is a critical step in the lifespan of a film. The majority of public attention and criticism (whether positive or negative) will occur around the time of this release. Therefore, the theatrical event needs to occur at a specific place and time, in order to emphasize that the showing is special enough to be reviewed and advertised.