Digital driver: Inter-Society salutes Paramount's Mark Christiansen

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Mark Christiansen, Paramount Pictures’ executive VP of domestic theatrical distribution operations, is the first distribution executive to win the Inter-Society’s annual Ken Mason Award—no doubt because of the key role he is playing in the current transition to digital projection technology and the “enhancement of cinema presentation” that is the Inter-Society’s main goal.

Christiansen has deep roots in the movie business. “There is not a better place for a kid to grow up than a drive-in theatre,” he writes in his professional introduction. “We had a playground; there were acres of mounded blacktop to ride bikes on, and new kids showed up to play every night.”

Like many executives in this industry, Christiansen was infected by the movie bug at an early age. At five, to be exact. “I had a chance to learn the basics of film projection when other kids were climbing trees and building forts. We even had a car speaker in our living room.”

Mark’s father, Bill Christiansen, was a drive-in manager for Syufy Theatres, “and in those days the manager’s apartment was in the drive-in,” he recalls with obvious joy. His family “literally lived under the screen at the 49er Drive-In in Sacramento, and then spent a couple of years living on top of the snack bar, next to the projection booth at the Moffett Drive-In, which is now the Century 16 in Mountain View, California.” It seems more likely that Mark, who names Patton as his all-time favorite, saw more movie snacks than mountains, however. “We could smell all that what was prepared at the snack-bar kitchen.”

Surprisingly, or perhaps not, he “never” got sick of that luscious scent. Christiansen still has popcorn “every time I go to the movies.” Better yet, “a great night at the movies” for him starts with “fresh, hot popcorn, a cold drink, includes having a center seat in a full auditorium, surround sound, a great picture and, most importantly, of course, a great film up there on the screen.” Admittedly, “it doesn’t have to be, but it’s always nice,” he smiles, “if that film comes from Paramount Theatrical Distribution.”

Christiansen spent many summers as a teen “cutting weeds and fixing speakers” at some of Portland, Oregon-based Moyer Theatres’ drive-ins, where Bill had become film buyer, or helping “to install burlap-type sound fold at the Tanasbourne Tri-plex when it was constructed in the mid-’70s.” But his film career truly began as a student booker at Columbia Pictures in Denver in July 1980. When he moved on to Dallas for a sales job (other branches on his Columbia tour included Des Moines and Chicago), Focus Features distribution president Jack Foley was the branch manager and Cinemark’s head film buyer John Lundin the division manager there.

Having originally received a degree in finance from the University of Oregon, Christiansen had aspirations to become a banker or stockbroker. “Like today, jobs in that field were scarce,” he recalls of his switch from drive-ins to distribution. “My dad kept after me to send resumes to the studios.” Maybe he wanted to have a spy in distribution? While Mark laughs heartily at that suggestion, he only confirms that Bill would likely concur with this author that distribution is the “evil” side.

Whatever the motivation, “the rest is history,” including additional positions at MGM/UA (1987 to 1995, culminating in the senior VP of operations post) and at DreamWorks. He started at DreamWorks with Jim Tharp and Don Harris “within a week of each other,” Christiansen reports, and “we have been a solid team ever since.” With the acquisition of DreamWorks by Paramount Pictures, Christiansen moved along in January 2006 as well. “My responsibilities include digital cinema, anti-piracy, gross analysis, accounts receivable, print control, screenings, international versioning, and administration.”

All of those areas, and his financial acumen to match, have certainly come into play during the recent announcement that Paramount will be making virtual-print-fee contributions directly to exhibitors. The available integrator deals, Christiansen reviews, “were all stalled in one way or another because of the lack of big amounts of money required. At the same time, we’d been getting numerous requests from exhibitors who had been able to work with their local banks. They either already acquired d-cinema equipment or intended to do so, but on their own terms: with their own banker, owning and operating their own equipment. There was no mechanism to support that option. So Paramount decided to address this by finding a way to help exhibitors who wanted to get financing from their own sources.

“The response out there has been very, very good,” he continues. “We have more than ten exhibitors who already signed the agreement. No one has called up and said, ‘Wow, have you guys made a big mistake!’ Had we done so,” he deadpans, “I’m certain we would’ve heard about it. We’re on our way.”

This said, “Paramount is just one studio,” Christiansen cautions. “And an agreement with one studio alone is not going to make this work. If other distributors don’t decide that this option is a good idea, the agreement will not accomplish what it was intended to do.” He believes that “just like existing integrator models required the participation of four studios to come into being,” another three distributors, at least, will create the tipping point “that creates a real alternative for cinema owners… Otherwise, there is just not enough support to really help pay for the machines.”

Reflecting on his role in the Inter-Society, Christiansen says, “I am happy to be part of an organization whose function is to help improve the manufacture, distribution and exhibition of motion pictures. I am honored and want to thank our board of directors. This was certainly a surprise, as I didn’t even know I was under consideration for the award.”

Christiansen goes on to describe the work being done on the digital transition. The Inter-Society’s dedicated subcommittee “has been very active in working out the little kinks that exist. The DCI specifications certainly give a lot of guidelines how things are supposed to work. Nonetheless, there are items not covered in those documents and the Inter-Society Digital Cinema Forum has become a place where exhibitors, distributors and equipment manufacturers can discuss those things that aren’t really explained all the way.”

Moving forward now, he ventures, “Much depends on the availability of money for the conversion. It is anyone’s guess when financing will again become more readily available than it is now.” Christiansen believes “there is great interest on the part of exhibitors to get into digital for both 3D and quality presentation purposes, along with the ability of running their theatres more efficiently. The desire is definitely there. Obtaining the means to get it done, however, is a different story.”

Needless to say, distribution is eager to see the transition completed. “There seems to be a thought out there that the studios are saving a fortune on d-cinema. At this point in time, the opposite has been true: It costs us more to be digital. Obviously, being in the middle of half-film and half-digital is the worst place for any studio to be. We do not receive the full economies of scale on our 35mm print production, and on the other hand, we don’t see the benefits that we might get from broadband or satellite distribution of files.”

Taking a global outlook, Christiansen confirms that the model of direct contribution to exhibitors will be applied on worldwide basis. “Obviously, each country has laws that vary from ours. We are currently going through on a country-by-country basis and, depending on the territory, we are looking at supporting d-cinema on different levels. Our support of digital cinema is actually a transfer of the money we would’ve ordinarily been spending on 35mm prints into the d-cinema infrastructure. In some territories we still use refurbished prints, which are obviously less expensive than new prints are. Consequently, the amount of money that we can contribute to digital cinema has to be reviewed in those territories, because it could end up costing us a lot more to do business than it does now.” In general, though, he feels “the U.S. is leading the rollout. The rest of the world is out there doing some d-cinema installations, but there’s probably about a two-year lag there.”

Ten or 15 years from now, does Mark Christiansen believe people will still be seeing films at the cinemas? “Oh, yeah!” he exclaims without hesitation. “Going to the movies is an event. It’s just not the same at home when the kids can come and bother you or the phone will ring, someone’s at the door… There are just too many distractions. Although the home experience can be very good technically, it will never be as good as in the theatre.”

Whether leading the charge at Paramount Pictures or in the driver’s seat towards excellence at the Inter-Society, Mark Christiansen is determined to ensure that this will remain the case.

For a Q&A with Mark Christiansen detailing Paramount's VPF deal, click here.

The Ken Mason Award
The Inter-Society for the Enhancement of Cinema Presentation was founded in 1978 by Ken Mason, whose name now graces the highest honor of the organization. The respected executive from the Eastman Kodak Company brought together five charter member organizations—ACVL, ITEA, MPAA, NATO and SMPTE—who then defined their purpose as “fostering interactive dialogue and joint projects among distribution, exhibition and trade organizations.” Today, membership encompasses over 50 trade organizations, corporations, studios, exhibitors and individuals. (www.inter-society.org)