Box office attendance in the U.S. has been trending downward for years. Meanwhile, the amount of movies released each year has fallen, yet the number of actual movie theater screens has increased. If you're a big movie studio, this isn't too big of a deal; fewer people may be going to the movies, but the chance that they're watching your movie increases. If you're a theater owner, on the other hand, the drop in attendance and the rise in more screens playing the same movie means less money all-around.
So, if you're a theater owner, what's the quickest fix? Cut out the middle man. Acquire and distribute your own films; that way the money from tickets sold stays in your own pocket. Some small theater chains have already been doing this. Landmark Theaters, owned by Mark Cuban, plays all of 2929 Entertainment's films (also owned by Mark Cuban) and just last year the Alamo Drafthouse founded Drafthouse Films to release its own acquisitions. But in the world of U.S. movie theaters, they're small-time players compared to AMC and Regal Entertainment, the two chains that control nearly a third of all movie screens in the country.
That's why news that AMC and Regal want to unite to compete in the film-ownership arena is a potentially big deal in the industry.
The move hasn't been made official yet, but according to the L.A. Times, the two companies have already hired former Lions Gate and Weinstein Company executive Tom Ortenberg to oversee the new venture. The plan would then be to acquire distribution rights to smaller, independent films and give them a direct line to their screens around the country while also affording them the option to release the films to other theater chains. Distribution wouldn't stop theatrically, however, as the article goes on to state that they'd also take to releasing the films in home video markets as well.
Of course, this doesn't mean that AMC and Regal are going to suddenly control the box office with an iron fist and release only their movies. That kind of behavior is the reason studio ownership of theaters was outlawed decades ago, though in recent years the law has relaxed on that front. It does, however, mean that indie movies may finally have a shot at a decent box office run, outside of the hope that a distributor picks them up.