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The Night I Tried to Support an Indie Genre Film… And Wasn’t Allowed

Ex MachinaThis past weekend saw the theatrical release of Avengers: Age of Ultron, which has to be considered the nerd event of 2015 (so far). Though some oddly misinformed reports insist that the film underperformed at the box office, Thor and the gang amassed a weekend gross of just under $200 million, giving the hotly anticipated sequel the second biggest opening of all time – behind, unsurprisingly, The Avengers.

With a per-theater average of nearly $50,000, I think it’s safe to say that there are few movie fans in America who didn’t plunk down their money to see the Avengers back up on the big screen, reminding that superheroes are the hottest thing in the world right now. A hobby that once got you ridiculed by the ‘cool kids’ has now become the cool thing, as nerd culture has crossed over into the mainstream.

But The Avengers: Age of Ultron wasn’t the only nerdy thing competing for box office dollars this past weekend. Widely released just a couple weeks back, and expanding from there, 28 Days Later/Dredd writer Alex Garland’s sci-fi flick Ex Machina has been garnering rave reviews almost across the board, allowing it the opportunity to go head-to-head with the true nerd juggernaut of the year.

To say that it was a Hollywood vs. Indie battle is quite frankly turning nothing into something, though as I headed into my local theater this past Friday night, I couldn’t help but see it that way. My friend Jesse and I pushed past the massive Avengers crowd in an effort to snag two tickets to Ex Machina, and in some way it felt like we were making a statement by paying to see the little film rather than the big one.

As it turned out, however, the statement of the night was very much not made by us.

Not long after we settled into our seats, finding ourselves to be the only two people in our town actually paying to see Ex Machina on that night, the Regal Cinemas manager popped up to deliver some bad news, informing us that we were getting the boot. Yes, AFTER we had already purchased our tickets, we were told to leave the theater, and it’s not cause we were doing anything wrong.

The reason, as you might be suspecting, is that so many people showed up to see The Avengers 2 that all planned showings for the night were completely sold out. With throngs of nerds still waiting in the wings, Regal made the call to shut down all Ex Machina screenings that night (two in total) and use that theater for additional Avengers showings – and it was Jesse and I who were on the raw end of the deal.

I think I speak for both he and myself when I say that there was something shameful about the experience, as it was hard not to feel bullied by the Hollywood powerhouse that dominated our theater on that night. Walking out of the theater and getting refunds for our Ex Machina tickets, as Avengers fans watched on, was kind of embarrassing, and the whole ordeal left a real bad taste in my mouth.

It wasn’t so much that I’d have to see Ex Machina on a different night, as that’s not quite the end of the world, it was more about what the experience represented – at least in my eyes. Here I was trying to support a smaller genre film with my hard-earned dollars and I literally wasn’t even allowed to, and the icing on the cake is that we were encouraged by theater staff to just see Age of Ultron instead.

Regardless of how much I may end up loving Age of Ultron when I do actually see it, and I very well might, Friday night’s downer of an experience felt like a victory for mass-produced Hollywood cinema, as well as a loss for indie film. Again, it was about what the ordeal represented, and what it represented was smaller movies getting the shaft in favor of bigger ones.

In so many words, Regal decided that much more money could be made off the Avengers fans than two lowly geeks who wanted to see something a little more fresh and original, and though I suppose you can’t blame them for that, it’s nevertheless always a bummer to be reminded that the movie business is a business, and that money is the driving force behind all things cinema.

Regardless of my experience, Ex Machina has fared pretty well at the box office, scooping up totals of around $18 million in the past few weeks. Considering it was made for only $16 million, it’s not exactly correct to paint the film as a forgotten slice of sci-fi fare that was lost in the Avengers shuffle, though the numbers very much reflect the same thing going on with the horror genre right now.

Whereas original horror films are barely making back their budgets, and often being dumped to VOD outlets, studio made garbage like Ouija and Annabelle is rising to the top of the box office charts. As much as fans like to claim that they want original horror, they seem much more likely to support the remakes, sequels and unoriginal ideas that they claim to hate – and Hollywood knows, by now, that we’re all talk.

I suppose I’m getting off on a tangent here, but these were all the things running through my mind as I took the walk of shame out of my local theater this past Friday night and headed off to the bar to drown my sadness in a couple pints of Blue Moon. I tried to support the smaller film and I was told to hit the road, and I can only hope that such experiences don’t soon become the norm.

Though it’s very likely that I’m making a mountain out of a molehill, established, nostalgia-based properties are feeling a bit like Ultron to me right now, stomping out all the little guys in their quest to line the pockets of producers and pay for their steak meals that little people like us will never be able to afford. And there’s just something upsetting about that.

I’ve still got $13 with your name on it, Ex Machina. See ya later this week.

Final Thought: The big properties of today wouldn’t be big properties today if we didn’t support them when they were little. Something to keep in mind, as we all continue to happily ride the nostalgia train.

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If you don't get enough of me here on Halloween Love, you can also find me on Dread Central, iHorror and Shock Till You Drop. Contact me via john@halloweenlove.com.
  • joseph1978b

    Sorry to hear about the bad experience, but I think calling it “bullying by Hollywood” or “Hollywood vs Indie” is more than a little ridiculous. Your complaint should be directed more toward that particular theater’s management for being run by morons than anything having to do with Hollywood. (And making it sound like “Avengers” fans were happy to see you booted, when in reality they probably had no idea it even happened.) Might not do much good, but perhaps writing a letter of complaint to the corporate office about the way management treated you would be an idea.

  • John Squires

    I specifically stated that my perception of this all representing “bullying by Hollywood” and “Hollywood vs. Indie” is ridiculous, did I not? I also did not say that Avengers fans were happy about us being booted – I simply said I felt shamed getting a refund for my Ex Machina ticket, as they all looked on.

    And yes, I will definitely be writing a letter to Regal’s corporate offices. Don’t intend on just letting it slide. They shouldn’t be allowed to pull stuff like this.

  • Skye Cameron

    Considering theatres operate with an incredibly tiny profit margin if you leave out snacks I think they made the right choice by filling the seats with paying moviegoers. Sucks for you but they are providing a service and it sounds like your town voted loudly with their dollars. Good for them. Hopefully you enjoy both movies when you get a chance to see them.

  • @SBofSelfAbuse

    I made a statement by electing to see Big Trouble In Little China. Luckily, we were not booted out. But that was Cinemark rather than Regal.

  • John Squires

    Of course they did the right thing, in terms of what was best for them. But is it not pretty shitty that an advertised screening was totally cancelled, AFTER customers had bought tickets, simply so they could make more money showing something else? That’s some bullshit.

  • Shane B

    This is horrible in many ways. When Marvel refused to give proper credit to the real creators of their heroes, I refused to support them with my dollars. I would see an indie film that weekend that I felt deserved my money. Then I would later pull a switcheroo. I’d buy abother ticket for that same movie, or another indie, then sneak into the Marvel thing. So the indies got my money twice.

    But the bigger problem is that indies often gained box office by using counter-programming. There is no way the indie could ever beat the Marvel zeroes, bit a few rebels lime you and I would go see them just ’cause they weren’t what everybody else was seeing. Can’t do that anymore, it seems. Especially in the digital projection age.

    Indies also bloomed because of spillover crowds. Get shined up, pay for parking, babysitter, dinner and a ticket… oops!!! HULK and the gang are sold out. We’be already plunked down our savings and dont want to go home. Lets see “something.”

    This is a real death knell for the indie. It speaks volumes amd your story should really be heard. I’d make sure Alex Garland hears you. Maybe you’ll be the star of his next blockbuster. He’s probably not allowed to do an indie next time.

  • That’s actually illegal and that theater was in breach of contract. They may have been ok to move you to a smaller theater (depends on the contract) but canceling a publicly advertised show is a big no no.

  • ThreeOranges

    Did you at least make enough of a protest that they comped you an extra ticket to something? At the very least they had better have refunded you the price of the ticket and any concessions you bought.

  • Grimbridge

    I’m surprised this is even legal for a theater to do. I can’t imagine the studio exec’s being okay with a theater taking it upon themselves to cancel their film’s showing, simultaneously fucking them out of money and steering moviegoers to a different studio’s film.

    I bet if a theater took it upon themselves to cancel a showing of Avengers: Age of Ultron in order to screen Ex Machina instead it would be all over the news.

  • John Squires

    Yea, I wasn’t going to leave without getting a refund and an extra ticket – which they gladly provided. So at least there’s that.

  • Thomas Raven

    Wow. I’ve never heard of anything like this. I guess that’s what you get when the windows for each release continue to narrow. The theatre owners get very scared that they either make the money now or not at all. What happened to you is off-putting, but I can’t help but wonder why the studio behind Ex Machina would ever imagine that they should release it against Avengers 2. Neither movie is my cup of tea, but they seem to have a similar target audience.

  • Lord Elric

    If they called the distributor and got permission, then they can cancel. It happens, though depending on the distributor there are often fines to be paid.

    Still sends an incredibly crappy message to their patrons. They also should’ve known how well Avengers 2 would do and booked enough houses in advance. But…Regal. Not entirely shocked to hear, sad to say.

  • It’s totally illegal.

  • Doesn’t matter if it was better for their bottom line, it’s still illegal. And really, I think the point of the article is, it’s unfortunate that the bottom line is the be all and end all for art.

  • John Squires

    This article has been sent to the distributor, and they don’t seem very happy to hear about what happened.

  • Lord Elric

    Uh oh. That indicates that permission was not asked. Sounds like someone is in for a “discussion”.

  • Sean Axmaker

    “Ex Machina” was not released against “Age of Ultron.” It was released in early April and then expanded to more theaters weeks before “Age of Ultron.”

  • M Simpson

    I can understand your annoyance. On the other hand, I can understand the cinema owner’s logic. He/she is running a business and doesn’t want to make a loss on a screen while turning away crowds of punters. What really caught my eye though was this sentence: “original horror films are barely making back their budgets, and often being dumped to VOD outlets”.

    Seems to me you’re living in the past there, believing that somehow films in cinemas are ‘better’ and that films that don’t play cinemas are ‘dumped’. If you want to support independent cinema, don’t go to your multiplex, stick to DVD and VOD. That’s where the creativity and exciting stuff is, bypassing the big distributors. Ex Machina may be a good film but at $16 million that’s still very, very expensive for a British film. I could give you a list of 30 British horror features released this year – to VOD/DVD – some of which are stunningly good. And their total budgets combined wouldn’t come to 1% of Ex Machina’s budget. These films certainly are making back their budgets because their budgets are just a few thousand pounds, and they’re not having to give a cut to a distributor and an exhibitor.

    So your sentiment is fine, and your opprobrium at that cinema is understandable, but the ‘little guy’ you’re standing up for is just a smaller version of the big guy, and the truly original, independent stuff you want you’re missing by dismissing non-theatrical distribution as a dumping ground.

  • Jimmy Sue aka Pnut

    While I certainly feel for you, I think you’re definitely making a mountain out of a molehill (as you said). Here’s why:

    1. Like you mentioned, Hollywood is a business. OF COURSE The Avengers is going to be the hot ticket on its opening night. Had Ex Machina been a little more booked, then I would seriously doubt that they’d do that. But, because they only had to inconvenience two people, they made a business decision. Now, having said that, they DID still inconvenience two people, which is wrong (and, I hope they made all efforts to make it up to you), but it’s not the end of the world. Which, brings me to my next point:

    2. You’re kind of acting as if this is somehow a death blow to indie cinema and it’s a bad sign of things to come, but that’s simply not true. Just a few years ago, you would have had ZERO chance to see a movie like Ex Machina in a theater at all. Much less, things like Roar, Spring, It Follows, etc… So, while you see it as a nail in the coffin, I think it’s a positive thing that a movie like this even had a place to BE bumped from. Plus, with VOD and other digital platforms, it’s easier than ever to see interesting, challenging films like this one.

    What I’m getting at is that, yes, it truly sucks that this happened to you. I would have been just as pissed as you are. But, I would have only been pissed for myself, and not for the indie film market. While you can’t necessarily EXPECT something like this to happen to you, you can’t be COMPLETELY shocked that it did when you were the only two people there on opening night of The Avengers. It’s not like it was replacing the film for the entire run – it’s inconvenient, but I’m willing to bet that it was available to be seen on any other day – it was just a one night thing. I’ve had the chance to see Ex Machina in theaters twice now, which is more than I could have expected a few years ago. It was probably poor judgment on the part of a theater management that was placed in a stressful position, but I don’t think it speaks to the future of indie cinema. Just the future of that guy’s job…

    Now, having said all that, if they are breaking their agreement with the distributors, that could put them in a world of trouble…

  • Jimmy Sue aka Pnut

    Not necessarily – a lot of distributor/theater contracts allow for such things as long as the minimum number of runs is met. Considering the distribution model thus far for this film, I wouldn’t be surprised if they were already working on optional extensions. We don’t know the details of the contract, so it’s hard for us to say what is and what isn’t legal…

  • Jimmy Sue aka Pnut

    The bottom line is NOT the be all and end all for art. The art happened when they made the film, not when they screened it at the theater. Presumably, the artists were still allowed to make the film they wanted to make and we will all still get a chance to see it. The theater itself (sad as it may be) has no obligation to uphold the artform. They ARE a business and should be run as such. If the filmmakers themselves compromised their art for the bigger picture, then I could see your point. But, as it stands, the art still exists as it was intended – there was just one less opportunity to see it that day…

  • JoeS

    I’m sure it was a crappy night, and the theater should do more than a simple refund (just like when you get bumped from a plane flight, there is usually extra compensation).

    BUT, your anger should be pointed more at the other “nerds” in your town who run like sheep to see Avengers Part Deux rather than support a terrific film like EX MACHINA. TWO PEOPLE in the theater? TWO? THAT is what is pathetic, as bad as the theater managers acted.

  • Hmmm. Or to put it into nerdspeak, perhaps the “needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few?” Sorry, but I could not resist. I don’t blame you for being ticked off. In that situation I probably would have made quite a scene.

  • CruelCircus

    I’m disappointed you ended your small, “independent” night by settling for (Coors) Blue Moon.

  • John Squires

    Haha I love Blue Moon, what can I say?!

  • Satan’s Taint

    Tell that to indie filmmakers who don’t make money because their movie gets bumped due to Hollywood’s next bout of explosive diarrhea marketed as a movie. You’re being short sighted and idiotic.

  • Jimmy Sue aka Pnut

    By your own words, it would seem that I’m being long-sighted and yours is in the short sight, considering that you’re talking about the impact on an indie filmmaker while I’m discussing the state of the entire indie horror industry.

    I agreed that it was a really crappy thing. I was just throwing out my thoughts – no need to resort to insults. Whether you agree or disagree with me, I’d say that I explained myself fairly well…

  • Farrell

    “suppose you can’t blame them ”

    Are you kidding? Of course you can blame them. Even if it were only one person in the theater, they’d traveled God knows how far, burned gas, paid money and so they deserve to see what was promised to them by a ticket purchase (barring a power outage or fire). Never have I bought a movie ticket and was told I cannot see said movie because they wanted to change up the schedule. That’s outrageous and would be ripe for a better business bureau complaint.