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.