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    Night Sees Bad Signs for Exhibitors

    M. Night Shyamalan is a little spooked.

    The mastermind behind Sixth Sense and Signs turned up Thursday at Orlando's ShowEast, the annual confab of movie theater owners, and offered a terrible prediction: Movie houses are heading the way of the dinosaur.

    Shyamalan became most prominent filmmaker to date to lash out against a coming trend in Hollywood to shorten--or outright eliminate--the delay between a film's theatrical run and its debut on DVD and pay-per-view.

    "It's greed," the Oscar-nominated writer-director told a gathering of more than 800 theater operators and suppliers. "It's heartless and soulless and disrespectful. And of course, cable companies are behind it, and Internet companies. They need their product. But they have to wait their turn. Wait for the thing to finish its life."

    Shyamalan takes issue with ventures like 2929 Entertainment, a partnership of Oscar winner Steven Soderbergh and Internet billionaires Mark Cuban and Todd Wagner. The trio announced in April plans to unspool a series of six independent films simultaneously in theaters, on DVD and pay-per-view. They believe their strategy will give viewers more options and circumvent an outmoded, inefficient distribution system.

    The idea was subsequently embraced by Disney CEO Robert Iger, who said the simultaneous-release model could help stop declining attendance in theaters.

    But Shyamalan disagrees. He says that scrapping the so-called "first run" release in the typically multipronged distribution formula (in which a film usually goes from first-run theatrical to second-run theatrical to DVD and pay-per-view and finally to cable and broadcast) will not only hurt studios and exhibitors economically, it will destroy the "human factor."

    "Art is the ability to convey that we are not alone," Shyamalan noted. "When I sit down next to you in a movie theater, we get to share each other's point of view. We become part of a collective soul. That's the magic in the movies."

    Speaking to the Hollywood Reporter, Shyamalan continued his rant. "I'm going to stop making movies if they end the cinema experience," he said. "If there's a last film that's released only theatrically, it'll have my name on it. This is life or death to me.

    "If you tell audiences there's no difference between a theatrical experience and a DVD, then that's it, game's over, and that whole art form is going to go away slowly. Movies will end up being this esoteric art form, where only singular people will put films out in a small group of theaters."

    Shyamalan first went public with his views at a Directors Guild of America event in New York in June that was attended by more than 50 of his fellow filmmakers. There, he gently sparred with Soderbergh, whose first film under the new distribution model, Bubble, is due out in January.

    "We both love cinema," Shyamalan told the Reporter. "I love that guy; he was very gracious during our conversation and it was very eye-opening to have it. I don't know if he thinks I'm naïve about my position. I just feel this idea of releasing everything at the same time is going to kill us."

    That view has been seconded by John Fithian, president of the National Association of Theater Owners, who publicly took Iger to task back in August for reducing movies to "commodities" and claimed a glut of lousy product was the real reason audiences have stayed away from the cineplex this year.

    "I'm not sure who was asleep, but it wasn't the exhibition industry," Fithian told the Los Angeles Times. "Here's what we know about 2005: The movies aren't as good."

    To battle the simultaneous releasers, Shyamalan urged exhibitors to stick together and enact a "zero-tolerance" policy, where they'd refuse to book movies.

    "The Sixth Sense DVD bought my house. You know what? Take my house," he told the audience, many of whom cheered. "I don't believe this is inevitable [But] if this goes through, you know theaters are closing down. It's going to crush you guys."

    Chains such as AMC Theatres, Regal Entertainment, Loews Cineplex and Cinemark USA have already adopted such a stance.

    Shyamalan, who received a standing ovation at the end of his speech, has just wrapped filming on his latest suspense mystery, Lady in the Water. That flick will likely be released to theaters--and only theaters--sometime next year before making its way to DVD.

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