U.S. Mulls Changing Movie Rules for the Big Screen
MIDDLE RIVER, Md.—On a moon-filled Saturday night, D. Edward Vogel stood in the projection room of Bengies Drive-In Theatre, surveying a field of cars that turned out for a chilly November triple feature.
“How many think we should return ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ next week? Flash your headlights,” Mr. Vogel said over the sound system during an intermission. Several cars did.
The Bengies, owned by the Vogel family since it opened in suburban Baltimore in 1956, retains the décor and atmosphere of that era, complete with vintage trailers and a nightly rendition of the national anthem. Mr. Vogel, 60 years old, does his own negotiations with movie studios for what he will show each week. “There is less wiggle room than ever,” he said, with studios pushing for evermore favorable terms. “We are on pins and needles to book movies.”
These days his worries extend to Washington, D.C., where the Justice Department is considering whether to wind down the legal decrees that have governed movie distribution and limited strong-arm studio leverage for 70 years, since the Supreme Court dismantled Hollywood’s monopoly over the cinema business. The decrees largely prevent studios from owning movie theaters or imposing onerous terms on theaters, such as setting minimum ticket prices or demanding screen time for a studio’s entire slate of films.
“All of it has me kind of flipped out,” Mr. Vogel said.
The Justice Department’s review of the so-called Paramount decrees, named after the lead defendant in the case, is the highest-profile part of a broader initiative to terminate older antitrust legal settlements that time has passed by. Unlike modern settlements, which sunset after a limited period, many earlier decrees had no end date and remain on the books.
The department has proposed ending dozens of settlements, including those addressing markets for typewriters, horseshoes and ice-cream cones.
The department hasn’t yet decided whether to ask a court to cancel or modify the movie decrees, but it has noted the film industry has changed greatly since the court battles of the 1930s and 40s, when most theaters were single-screen palaces and consumers didn’t watch motion pictures on television, much less on streaming services like Netflix.
“We should not ignore the fact that there have been significant technological and market changes affecting how American consumers watch movies and how filmmakers distribute such movies,” said Justice Department antitrust chief Makan Delrahim.