One of Hollywood's top filmmakers delivered a rallying cry to the nation's theater owners Thursday, warning that one of the great American traditions -- the collective moviegoing experience -- was being threatened with extinction.
Speaking at the annual ShowEast convention in Orlando, Fla., M. Night Shyamalan, the director and writer of such blockbusters as "The Sixth Sense" and "Signs," condemned those who are pushing to eliminate what has traditionally been a months-long delay between the release of a movie on the big screen and its debut on DVD. Doing away with that window will not only destroy the exhibition industry, Shyamalan warned, but it will also diminish the artistic integrity of moviemaking.
"Art is the ability to convey that we are not alone," Shyamalan told the gathering of more than 800 theater operators and suppliers at the convention's closing night dinner. "When I sit down next to you in a movie theater, we get to share each other's point of view. We become part of a collective soul. That's the magic in the movies."
Then he added: "If this thing happens, you know the majority of your theaters are closing. It's going to crush you guys."
The proposal to simultaneously release movies in theaters and on DVD is the most pressing issue facing the exhibition industry today. Since this summer, when incoming Walt Disney Co. Chief Executive Bob Iger told media analysts he was open to the idea, it has exploded into an industrywide debate.
But until Thursday, the discussion had focused largely on the need to increase the studios' bottom lines amid this year's box-office slump. For the most part, members of the creative community have kept quiet -- a fact that Shyamalan said bespoke a regrettable apathy among his fellow directors.
In an interview, Shyamalan said his speech at ShowEast was intended to address what he believes has been sadly missing from the debate: what he called "the human factor" of the moviegoing experience. Simply put, he said, part of what makes movies an art form is that they are viewed on a big screen with a big audience.
Shyamalan's effort to shift what has largely been an economic debate to an artistic one puts him at odds with another high-profile writer-director, Steven Soderbergh.
An Oscar winner who has made such films as "Traffic," "Ocean's Eleven" and "Erin Brockovich," Soderbergh has been a fierce advocate of eliminating the window during which movies can be seen only in theaters.
As recently as June, at a Directors Guild of America event in New York, Shyamalan and Soderbergh argued vehemently -- though respectfully -- about Soderbergh's support of simultaneous release, according to someone who witnessed the exchange. The spirited discussion was notable in part because both are regarded as creative risk-takers, not mere purveyors of formulaic "popcorn" movies.
Shyamalan declined to discuss the summertime spat, saying only, "We're both fiery and passionate." Shyamalan said he believed Soderbergh "loves cinema," but if he prevailed, "I think he's going to kill it."
Soderbergh, who was unavailable Thursday for comment, announced last spring that he planned to make six high-definition movies for simultaneous release in theaters, on DVD and on pay cable. His goal: to give consumers more choices as to how and when they see movies.
"I'm sure some people will say, 'Why do this?' And my response is, 'Why wouldn't you?' " Soderbergh said in an April interview with The Times. "The film business in general is using a model that is outdated and, worse than that, inefficient."
In August, Disney's Iger weighed in, telling a group of industry analysts that studios should consider releasing their DVDs at the same time movies show in theaters.
"I think that all the old rules should be called into question because the rules in terms of consumption have changed so dramatically," Iger said, suggesting that decreased theater attendance and slowing DVD sales should be a "wake-up call" for the industry to change its ways.
Not all studio chiefs feel as Iger does. Sony Pictures Entertainment Chairman Michael Lynton said Thursday, "We at Sony believe very strongly in the theatrical window. It is our lifeblood as well as that of theater owners."
Lynton said that the theatrical window was essential to preserving not just the theater business, but the popularity of movies in general. "Busting it up," he said, "is dangerous."
While the rise of piracy had already prompted studios to shorten the traditional six-month window between a film's theatrical and video release by about two months, Soderbergh and Iger's comments have sparked a firestorm.
John Fithian, president of the National Assn. of Theatre Owners, publicly attacked Iger for reducing movies to little more than "commodities."
"I'm not sure who was asleep, but it wasn't the exhibition industry," Fithian said in response to Iger's remarks. "Here's what we know about 2005: The movies aren't as good."
Shortly after his public spat with Iger, Fithian received a call from Shyamalan's agent. The soft-spoken director wanted to speak out.
"I don't get involved in too many causes, but this is what I do for a living," Shyamalan said in an interview.
Two weeks ago, as he was preparing to host ShowEast, Fithian and his organization's general counsel flew to Philadelphia to visit the director on the set of the movie he is shooting, the fantasy thriller "Lady in the Water." After hours of discussing the hot-button issue, Fithian suggested that Shyamalan make his first public statement in Orlando.
At Thursday's closing night dinner, Shyamalan assured his audience that his movies are made to be viewed in theaters. DVDs, cable and all other ancillary markets are just "souvenirs," he said, that are meant to enhance -- but not replace -- the theatergoing experience.
"I came here to tell you that what you do is something sacred. Nobody has benefited more from DVD sales than me. I bought my house on DVD sales from 'The Sixth Sense.' But take away my house. That's not why I do what I do."
"If I can't make movies for theaters, I don't want to make movies," Shyamalan told The Times. "I hope this is a very bad idea that goes away."
Times staff writer Richard Verrier and Orlando Sentinel reporters Mark Chediak and Roger Moore contributed to this report.