I live in Austin, Texas, home to Alamo Drafthouse. Alamo often shows older movies as part of a theme, a "quote along" for "Spinal Tap" where the audience is encouraged to blurt out their favorite lines. Or, "Master Pancake Theater", where comedians with microphones give films the "Mystery Science Theater 3000" treatment.

My question is, how accessible are these old films to any licensed theater? What is the commercial structure (how much do they cost to show), and what are the logistics (are the films sent digitally, or do they come in 35mm? Both?)

  • 1
    Why not ask at the Alamo...you have an expert source right in town? I'm edging towards this being off-topic as "resource location" at the moment,
    – Paulie_D
    Apr 25, 2019 at 17:14
  • I forgot the term, but it was recently noted that Disney is awful at allowing such showings. So their acquisition of Fox has caused quite the uproar, since that studio has the Alien movies and also Rocky Horror Show.
    – BCdotWEB
    Apr 26, 2019 at 9:17

2 Answers 2


Professional cinemas license films directly from the major Hollywood studios. The studios, as owners of the intellectual property, directly control which licenses they make available for which of their films. The terms of these licenses are negotiated on a per-studio, per-theater, and per-title basis, but usually they offer a flat rate of between $250 and $350 or a minimum of $250 vs 35% of the box office.

However, there are some practical distribution limitations. As you are probably aware, the industry switched over exclusively to using digital projection technology about five years ago. The vast majority of cinemas no longer have the ability to play film prints. Further, maintenance of old film prints is expensive, as is converting them to the high-quality digital print required for cinema projection.

Thus, giving these limitations, the major studios have a designated set of "repertory" titles which they make available for digital cinemas. The content cinemas can play is generally limited to these titles. Other studios, particularly the "newer" variety (e.g. Amazon Studios) will allow content to be played via their streaming service or Blu Ray disk. However, the quality of these secondary sources is significantly worse and, in my opinion, unsuitable for projection in a cinema.

The only studio that regularly does not offer repertory titles is Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures. Their business practice has been to have exclusive windows for theatrical, on-demand, and purchased content, and cinema repertory is not something they offer. And, as someone mentioned, I don't know what will happen with the Fox properties - Fox has traditionally been one of the biggest repertory suppliers. If I had to guess, I'd say that Disney leaves Fox and their business model more or less intact for now.

Regarding other services (Swank, etc.) - these license arrangements specifically exclude exhibition in a professional cinema. If a cinema were to procure a license through such a service, it would likely be void as theaters have master licensing agreements with studios which would override any third party arrangements.


This was an interesting question to look into.

Paulie_D's link provides a lot of details. I found another article on Chron that covers similar info:

Different businesses have the license arrangements with different studios for different movies. Criterion, Swank and MPLC are the major players. If you're looking for specific films, contact the companies and find out which one has the license. This is their business, so they'll be happy to help you.

After you find the company to talk to, ask the cost of a license. You may have to give specific information about when you're showing the film and how often you're going to show it. MPLC offers an umbrella license, which bases fees on the size of the facility rather than the number of shows. That way you don't have to figure out showtimes in detail in advance. A typical distributor fee for a small theater might be $250 or 35 percent of ticket sales, whichever is higher.

After you've signed the license and paid your fee, the distributor or licensing firm will provide you with a copy of the film. DVD or Blu-Ray is standard – the old-school reels of film aren't used much anymore – but some films are available via streaming as well.

According to Paulie_D's link, when a DVD or Blu-Ray is not commercially available, they might send a VHS tape! I wish I still had my VCR...

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