Who chooses what you watch on a plane?

Aug 31, 2015

Betsy Hamlin is a Los Angeles film distributor whose company, Cinesky Pictures, counts as its clients every airline in the world that offers inflight entertainment.

It is one of only a handful of companies in the world providing film distribution for airlines.

Screening films on planes sounds like a simple process – see what’s working in cinemas on the ground and whack it on the back of the seat. But Hamlin’s job is more complicated. She looks at buying a movie when it’s still at script stage.

Before she commits to buying she needs to know its director and cast, and then she takes a gamble that it will be sold into as many territories and languages (on the ground) as possible. And then there are issues of what genre of film works best in which region, plus censorship and cultural sensitivities.

When we asked Hamlin about her job, we thought we’d get the obvious Snakes on a Plane question out of the way first:

Is it true than airlines never run films featuring plane crashes and other on-board mishaps? 

While this seems to be a no-brainer, Virgin Atlantic out of the UK loves to push the box. They did actually book Snakes on a Plane, and Flight (with Denzel Washington), and they played the full, unedited long plane crash scene in Cast Away with Tom Hanks. A lot of other airlines booked Cast Away, but with an edited version.

Generally disaster airline films don’t play that well. It isn’t the best idea to take people 35,000 feet up in a hurtling cylinder of metal and then scare them.

Is there any other subject airlines won’t touch?

They tend to stay away from crashes, the overly political material – especially involving the Middle East and the current war, horror, 9/11 stories, child endangerment topics (frequent flyers leaving families behind don’t want to worry about their kids), cancer films, and socially political films such as issues on abortion.

Swearing can always be edited but if it is so incessant it can’t be done, it probably wasn’t an airline film in the first place. If a film is shot very dark and in confined spaces, it’s just too hard to see on the small, seat-back screens. Also, films that are shot in very claustrophobic spaces can be difficult, because of the feeling of confinement … for example, inside a sweaty dark submarine.

That said, if a film becomes a major hit or Oscar winner, it becomes an airline film. Still Alice, about Alzheimer’s, and Zero Dark Thirty are two examples.

So what films do they like to show?

There are some territories that like action and sci-fi over comedy and dramas. In many cases, the comedy of a “Hollywood” box-office film may not translate to all of the other countries. But across the board, most airlines want dramas, comedies, sci-fi, action, and there is usually a need for some animation and family choices.

Do different airlines have different requirements?

The different airlines will play films produced in their country, of course (German films on the German airlines, etc). They will also play films produced in countries where they may have major routes. All airlines, however, want to have an emphasis on “Hollywood” films that are dubbed in their native language.

In some cases, such as Air Canada, a particular percentage of films put onto the plane have to be Canadian made. I respect that support to their filmmakers.

Do you censor the films you sell for flights?

Yes, we have to have edit rights for the airlines when acquiring a film. It’s what you would imagine … sex, swearing, plane crashes, unnecessary violence and blood.

We do a general edit and then if Kuwait, Saudi, or Turkish Airlines decide to acquire the film, they do a further edit that might go as extreme as kissing, showing women’s arms, religious symbols, etc.

Most people would assume airlines simply choose the latest big releases. So why do airlines need you?

Sadly, I think that is the case. In the past most airlines really cared about the product and took pride in their inflight entertainment. There are still airlines that are stellar at it, like Virgin Australia and Emirates, just to name two. Unfortunately many of the airlines have resorted to output deals that commit them often to subpar product as a way to cost cut.

Airlines used to book for their major demographic, which is the frequent flyer business person. There were more films booked that were a mix of box-office and interesting and talked-about indie films.

A lot of the bookers now are either lazy and scan the box-office numbers and ranking on IMDB. Unfortunately, a much younger demographic is driving up the box office numbers, so many airlines are putting films on their channels directed to the 16-21 age bracket. So many interesting and talked-about films aren’t making the cut anymore.

So film distribution in the air is pretty much like land-lubbing film distribution?

Essentially the airline territories are a microcosm of the theatrical releases in their territory. For example, the Asian airlines lean to action films just as the Asian theatres and Direct TV viewership does, while the Europeans like a romantic comedy and a heavy drama.

(But) if a film bombs in a territory, generally the airline from the region also won’t pick up the film. So when I’m deciding what to pick up to sell to the airlines, if they have a hit, I’ll have a hit – and conversely, their bomb is my bomb!

I should point out that all of the studios have an airline division. So if a film is 100 per cent financed by a studio, I don’t have access to purchasing that film. I’m only able to acquire the airline rights for independently made films.

Do you attend film festivals to choose films?

Yes. Our main markets of the year are the Toronto Film Festival, American Film Market (Los Angeles), Sundance and the Berlin Film Festival in the winter; Cannes in the spring; and I also attend a festival/market in London the end of June.

Do you ever invest in films?

By pre-buying from script level, I am investing in the film. I’m committing to pay a pre-arranged amount for the airline rights, whether the film does well or not. I’ve committed up to $US500,000 before.

How have advances in technology changed watching movies in the air?

New technology has definitely changed viewing habits and airline buying over the years. In the old days the airlines had to “play safe” and go for mainstream edited movies. Passengers would only expect to see a couple of movies shown on a poor-quality overhead screen.

Now airlines offer a far greater selection of product than ever before – you only have to look at Qantas and Virgin Australia to see how their offerings have expanded over the years. As an example, last year Cinesky had great success with the Dallas Buyers Club; a few years ago, very few airlines could have played a movie like that.

What is on the horizon, so to speak, for inflight entertainment in the next few years?

We are already seeing cinemas offering far more immersive audio with Dolby Atmos and similar products. The aircraft is prime for improvements in audio and headset technology too.

Fibre optic platforms offered by companies such as Lumexis Corp provide almost unlimited bandwidth, so the airlines will easily be able to upgrade to accommodate these new improved formats as they roll out.

Airlines are also trialling streaming content to and within the plane. As the bandwidth of streams to aircraft is very limited right now it’s not feasible to stream a movie to every passenger on an A380 (or even a 737!), but in the next few years it might. However, no one has worked out who will pay for that uplink – I think the telephone companies will be very eager to make some extra money, but I’m not sure the passenger or the airlines themselves will want to pay!

Will airlines always offer movies when people are increasingly watching what they want on their own devices?

Right now my answer is a yes. Not all folks have their own devices, depending on the age brackets. Also, many airlines have a high pride level in the inflight entertainment they are offering and some build themes into their programming that tie in with other marketing aspects of the airline.

Originally films were put onto airlines to keep people calm and in their seats. There is still an element of that.

Do you have a favourite film to watch on a plane? 

Personally, I like a solid, heavy drama. I’m not much for action, animation, or sci-fi. If I’m in just the right mood, I’ll go for the comedy or romantic comedy. If Melissa McCarthy is in the film, I’m in no matter what.

To me bliss is to be on a long haul flight, become unavailable, have a glass of wine, and watch a film. It’s a complete tune-out!

This article was first published on The Daily Review.


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