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What is Block Booking?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 23, 2024
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Block booking is a movie distribution tactic that involves forcing theaters to take a group of movies together, rather than allowing them to pick and choose which movies they want to show. Although this practice has been officially outlawed, many independent movie theaters are still forced into block deals through the use of tools like creative pricing. For example, a theater may be quoted a very high price for booking a major film, and a lower price for booking that film with a smaller film, thereby essentially forcing the movie theater to take both.

The 1930s and 1940s saw the heyday of block booking. Movie studios would force theaters to take an entire year's worth of movies sight-unseen; it was an all or nothing deal. If a theater balked at the idea of booking the entire year ahead, the studio simply refused to ship anything, putting the theater at a disadvantage as patrons clamored for particularly anticipated films.

For studios, block booking made perfect economic sense. The studio could afford to invest in smaller, less-anticipated films if it knew that those films would be booked no matter what, and a number of now famous films actually got their start through this method. Star Wars, for example, was included in block packages when it first came out, with theaters being forced to take the film if they wanted a major blockbuster.

As the practice became more widely publicized, attempts were made to rework it. Outright year-long deals were the first thing to be banned, followed by bundled packages. Studios and distributors were forced to resort to creative means to distribute small films, like generating economic incentives for theaters to take less-desirable movies.

While block booking is outlawed today, some form of the practice is still alive and well. Although it can be viewed as an illegal and manipulative tactic, the fact that small films get a fighting chance through this type of booking is something that many fans defend. Studios are more willing to take a risk on unknown actors and directors if they feel confident that enough copies of the film can be distributed to at least recoup the expenses; without block booking, studios are often more inclined to focus on known actors and crews, making the industry even harder to break into than it already is.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a WiseTour researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By julies — On Apr 25, 2012

We have one local theater in our town that specializes in movies that are not as well known as the major blockbusters.

This happens to be my favorite movie theater because I am always more interested in these movies than many of the well known ones.

This theater has been in business a long time, and although it is not very big or fancy, it has a loyal following of customers.

I have no idea if they were ever required to receive movies through block booking, but they have found a way to make a living showing films that most people have never heard of before.

That is the biggest reason I frequent this movie theater. For the larger, popular films, I usually wait until I can rent them.

By myharley — On Apr 24, 2012

@Mykol - I agree with you on the price of going to watch a film at the theater. If they had to rely on people like me to make their living, they would have been out of business a long time ago.

If I am not familiar with a movie, and have not had a recommendation from someone I trust, I will wait until it comes out on DVD.

This is probably one of the reasons the practice for block booking is so unfair for theater owners. It would be hard for them to make a living if they couldn't have a say in which movies they chose to show for their customers.

Knowing that a movie with a popular cast will bring in many customers, I can see why they would want to pick and choose which movies are sent to them.

By Mykol — On Apr 24, 2012

When you think about it, there is usually one big 'sleeper' movie of the year. If this had been included in a block booking of movies, it would benefit everyone involved. I can understand why block booking is outlawed, but can also see the other side of the story.

The movie business is so competitive and there should be some way of introducing smaller films to the people. Being able to include an unknown film with some of the larger films with well known actors does give them a better chance of being noticed.

From an independent movie theater point of view, this can also be a large gamble. For many years, this business has really struggled, and I think most movie theaters have a pretty small profit margin.

Movies are also quite expensive when you go to the theater to watch them, and most people don't want to spend their money on something they don't know much about or don't think will be very good.

By orangey03 — On Apr 23, 2012

I never knew that theaters had to pay to book movies. I just thought that the movies came to them as they were ready, and the movie producers, actors, and theaters made their money off of selling tickets.

It's kind of a dirty practice that theaters were forced to participate in back in the day. I can imagine that it upset quite a few theater owners.

It's good that some actors and films got exposure through it, though. Sometimes, good things can come out of bad deals.

By LisaLou — On Apr 23, 2012

I am not surprised to learn that some movies that are now famous got their start through block booking. You never know which movies are going to appeal to the general public and become much more popular than they ever anticipated.

There have been many films that were lower budget films that ended up becoming block busters. One that I am reminded of right off the top of my head is 'My Big Fat Greek Wedding'.

This movie ended up becoming much more popular and bringing in more money than they ever anticipated.

If this movie had been included as part of a block booking of movies, it would have been one that out-performed what they anticipated it would.

By anon20800 — On Nov 06, 2008

I have a question, did the theater owners who signed these contracts knew the actors they were going to get along with the movies, or it was up to the studio to determine?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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