LATE LAST YEAR, moviegoers began noticing that certain movie times had disappeared from Seattle's weeklies and the Post-Intelligencer. The disappearances came about when Regal Cinemas, the theater chain that became the world's largest when it bought Portland-based Act III last year, decided to control and profit from the way consumers obtain show-time information. Not content with charging consumers to view movies, Regal now also wants to charge newspapers to display movie times.
In Seattle, where the Knoxville-based Regal competes with three other national movie chains that own dozens of area theaters and multiplexes, the situation is more an amusing curiosity than an inconvenience. But in Spokane, which like other smaller cities is a one-chain town, Regal's break with the tradition of providing newspapers with movie times in exchange for the benefit of having them listed has led to a showdown. After the chain informed Susan English, editor of the daily Spokesman Review's weekly arts and entertainment section, that her paper would be charged a fee to receive all the theaters' movie times and that the only option was not being able to print them, she responded in disbelief. "I asked them, 'How can you own 5:20? You can't own 5:20," English recalls. "And they said, 'Yes, we can.'"
Believe it or not, movie times have turned into a hot commodity, and their value is now a hotly debated topic in the theater and media industries, as evidenced by two megamergers in the past few weeks. How much is 5:20 worth? Enough to impel American Online last week to purchase Moviefone—a New Yorkbased company that allows theater patrons to find out movie times on the telephone—for $388 million in stock. (Seattle Weekly is Moviefone's local media sponsor.) Soon after, Chicago's Tribune Media Services, which assembles television grids and sells them to media outlets for some of the nation's largest newspapers, bought Premier DataVision Inc., the Colorado company that produces movie clock advertisements for theater chains and compiles listings for newspapers. "Any kind of entertainment-related listing is becoming a more valuable entity," says Steven Tippie, Tribune's marketing director.
At issue is whether such listings should cost anything at all. "Can a movie theater have exclusive rights to a movie time?" ponders Seattle attorney Christopher Anthony Pesce. "The answer would be no." But while copyright law doesn't necessarily protect an individual show time, it's less clear whether the law covers assembled data like the schedules compiled by PDI.
Most individual theaters, regardless of their chain, fax schedules to newspapers. The papers then either put together their own listings page or send the data to PDI or to its competitor, CinemaSource (Seattle Weekly uses the latter). While both shape the movie times into a neat package and charge for their services, PDI has gone a step further, entering into arrangements with Act III/ Regal that give them leverage against newspapers and Web sites.
The obvious question is: Why would a theater chain choose to inconvenience its customers? "We think it's funny," says Ruth Hayler, film programmer at Seattle's Egyptian Theater, a part of the Seven Gables/ Landmark chain. "The other chains list the movie times, and it puts Regal at a disadvantage." Other Seattleites also find Regal's decision amusing: Here at the Weekly, for example, the movie-times page lists dozens of times for other theaters, but for Regal-owned multiplexes such as Mountlake 9, Issaquah 9, and Crossroads 8, it lists the telephone numbers along with a tag line about chain management's prohibition of its theaters from giving out the listings, and a concluding "Go figure."
BUT THE SITUATION doesn't make The Spokesman Review's Susan English laugh, and there's every possibility that her newspaper's plight could grow widespread—especially given the pace of consolidation in the entertainment industry. In Spokane, most of the locally owned theaters were snatched up by Act III three years ago. Where the editor could once call around to theater managers to get show times, she now had to rely on a faceless person in a Portland office. The listings, English says, became increasingly inaccurate. Readers who arrived at the cinema at the wrong time were irate, harassing theater employees to the point where a sign soon appeared in the box office: "Don't blame us, blame the newspaper!" When Act III and then Regal demanded that The Spokesman Review get the times from PDI, at a price, the paper's management was in a quandary: It could fight the economically damaging dictate, but lose readers in the process.
At first, English says, she sidestepped the issue, calling the theater's message lines and getting the times on her own. But then Regal pulled that plug, leaving Spokane residents with the option either of driving to the theater to find out the times or logging onto Regal's Web site.
Such strong-arming was brought up in a PDI-CinemaSource lawsuit, filed last year, over predatory control of the emerging show-time-information industry. But the adversaries settled out of court, agreed to confidentiality about terms, and thereby turned the issue of who owns movie times into a legal hovercraft.
For larger papers such as The Seattle Times, the costs of submitting to PDI's terms have been negligible; the paper compiles most theater information by itself, but negotiated with PDI to receive Regal's times for a small fee. But The Spokesman Review case forecasts a grimmer scenario: As theater chains consolidate, Web sites enter the competition, and readers still want the freedom to pick up a paper and find out what's playing, a newspaper that once got show times for free might find that they have become a sizable budget item.
"It's a frightening prospect for those of us trying to serve readers on limited budgets," English says. "We have to pay thousands of dollars per year for film times. That was a big hit for us. Psychologically, that was a quantum leap."