A storm in a teacup?

Sian Hickson examines a dispute which could still have major implications for cinema fans.

What on earth's been going on in Wonderland? First, no one was going to show Tim Burton's new film - not because everyone's bored of Johnny Depp overacting in silly costumes but because the filmmakers Disney said it could only be shown for 12 weeks. The UK's leading cinema chains kicked up a stink, not because this was period self-evidently far too long - but because it was too short! For a while, bird-nest watchers everywhere were worried that they weren't going to get a good look at Helena Bonham Carter's latest barnet on the big screen. Odeon, Vue and Cineworld were united in proposing a boycott of the film. Tim Burton even appeared on the BBC Breakfast news where he seemed understandably upset at having spent several months and millions of Disney's dollars making a film in 3-D which was now going to be seen in 0-D. But one by one the cinema chains backed down, each doing a secret deal with Disney. Last week the film had its premiere as per usual. The stars seemed as confused as everyone else. "It didn't make any sense", explained Bonham Carter. The whole thing was like a game of croquet with moving hoops - or, if you prefer, a massive Caucus Race. So why did the cinema chains have a problem with Alice? The answer lies in the peculiar economics of film distribution.

There are several entities involved in bringing a work to the silver screen, and each one takes a cut. There is the studio that makes the film (in this case Disney) and the distributor that is responsible for promoting and selling the rights to screen a work across the globe. The great majority of the profit made by a film will go not to the studio, but to the distributor. In many cases, the studio that made the film and the distributor belong to the same parent company, as is the case with Disney's Buena Vista. This means all the profit turned will go to a single entity but there is no safety net should the film flop.

Once the distributor begins to negotiate with the cinema, several figures come into play. The movie theatre - or chain of theatres - negotiates with the distributor over three separate amounts. The first is the basic running and administrative costs - the electricity, staff wages, maintenance and so on. This is called the "nut" and is usually a fixed sum. Secondly, the percentage split for the net box office takings is settled. This is the amount of takings left after the house allowance is deducted. Finally, the percentage for the gross box office takings is agreed upon. These amounts - the net and gross box office percentages - vary from week to week, with the amount going to the cinema showing the film increasing exponentially.

For the first couple of weeks the distributor gets the lion's share of the takings - around 90 per cent (famously, for the release of Lucasfilm's unfortunate Star Wars: Attack of the Clones, the distributor kept 100 per cent in this period, preventing independent cinemas from being able to screen the film and forcing the chains to show it at a loss.)

This figure then falls until after the first month the split is 50/50 between the distributor and the cinema. After this point, the cinema takes slightly more, as the box office takings will obviously fall the longer the film has been on release. By the sixth week it is generally around 65/35 in the theatre's favour. The standard screening period is 17 weeks.

With these facts to hand, it becomes evident that Disney's attempt to shorten run times will hit cinemas hard. Theatres rely on these later weeks to recoup their costs, which, for a major work such as Alice can be substantial. A cinema chain will pay hundreds of thousands to acquire the right to show a major film, and it has to recoup these costs. The reason cinemas sell snacks and drinks at such inflated prices is that these extras, even for large cinema concerns like Odeon, are the major profit-turners for the cinema. The theatre-owners' joke about running the biggest sweet shops in town in fact gives a fairly accurate picture of the state of affairs.

Perhaps a greater concern for UK film fans is what Disney's move might mean for the future of independent cinemas. Many individually-run firms would simply not have the capital to survive a 12-week run system. If they cannot afford to show the crowd-pulling blockbusters, they face falling audience numbers and eventual closure. Any denting of the big cinema chain's profits is likely to be reflected in a rise in ticket prices. Alice may be showing at a cinema near you, but Disney's greed will probably mean you'll pay more for your popcorn in future.