A war is raging in Hollywood—and no, I’m not referring to this weekend’s titanic throwdown between the Caped Crusader and the Man of Steel. Rather, it’s a battle being waged over the future of movie distribution, and it’s been instigated by Sean Parker, the entrepreneur who rose to Silicon Valley fame as the cofounder of Napster and, later, as the initial president of Facebook. Along with partner Prem Akkaraju, Parker has forwarded an idea dubbed “the Screening Room” which will allow people to watch new movies at home on the same day they make their big-screen debuts. That proposal has led many of cinema’s biggest names, as well as the theaters themselves, to square off in a debate that, at heart, is about the delivery model that has long guided the industry.
The thing is, triumph or disaster, the Screening Room is merely another sign that the cineplex’s demise (at least as the movies’ foremost venue) is not-so-slowly approaching.
This isn’t to argue that AMC, Regal, and Cinemark—the country’s three biggest chains—should turn off the lights, lock the doors, and board up the windows just yet. Rather, it’s to suggest that regardless of the Screening Room’s ultimate destiny, the fact that such a plan has been floated by a name as big as Parker, and supported by a raft of cinematic luminaries like Steven Spielberg and Ron Howard, reconfirms the notion that in the long term, technology is apt to make the traditional movie-distribution template outdated—or, at least, a far more marginal, niche business.
This potential development warrants no joyous fanfare, since there’s still no better way to enjoy a film than on a gigantic screen, in a pitch-black auditorium, with a bucket of popcorn, a drink, and/or choice of junk food directly at hand. That experience, at once personal and communal, is at its finest so entrancing, overwhelming, and purely entertaining that its shortcomings—screaming kids, rude patrons on their cellphones, absurdly inflated ticket and concession fees—can’t overshadow its sheer sensory majesty. It is, in short, the ideal way to see a film, be it a comedy, a romance, a drama, or a larger-than-life, louder-than-loud CGI superhero action extravaganza.
And yet the Screening Room is merely the opening salvo in an assault that theaters are unlikely to sustain. The particulars of Parker’s plan are simple: purchase a $150 proprietary set-top box that connects to your TV, and then use it to rent premiere movies for $50 per title (watchable over a 48-hour period). According to Parker, this idea supposedly won’t steal business away from theaters, since it’ll only appeal to those customers—primarily older adults with kids and jobs—who don’t have the time or patience to head out to the multiplex. Plus, to placate distributors, they’ll get a cut of the set-top box fee, as well as 20 percent of each $50 rental.
Who’s on board for that? Well, apparently lots of filmmakers, including Spielberg, Howard, Peter Jackson, and J.J. Abrams, all of whom are reportedly shareholders in the venture. On the other side of the fence stand heavyweights like Christopher Nolan and James Cameron, who’ve actively spoken out against the Screening Room—as has, predictably, the National Association of Theatre Owners, who in so many words told Parker to butt out; they’ll figure out their business on their own.
Setting aside the fact that the Screening Room will invariably lead to greater piracy—there’s virtually no way its set-top box’s anti-piracy technology won’t be cracked by industrious hackers, given the coveted content up for grabs—there’s something questionable about the underlying logic behind the Screening Room. Specifically, it’s difficult to imagine there being an enormous untapped moviegoing market willing to shell out $50/title for any film. Certainly, DirecTV’s failed 2011 attempt to charge $29.99 for rentals of relatively new movies (i.e. after they’d been in theaters for 60 days) implies that such prices are prohibitive, regardless of any living-room convenience. It’s true that, if split between multiple viewers (a spouse and kids, or friends), that cost is roughly equal to a night out at the movies. Nonetheless, it remains exceedingly high when the trade-off is a smaller screen and a less-social and fun night-out-doing-something atmosphere. For that diminished at-home experience, you can wait three months for the film to hit VOD and blu-ray at a far cheaper rate.
No matter the Screening Room’s possible flaws, however, the paradigm it portends is very real, and likely inevitable. While watching movies outside a movie theater may not be preferable, the convenience of doing so is a powerful draw—and as younger generations grow up consuming videos of all sorts (not just feature films, but also TV shows and YouTube clips) on their handheld devices, and via Apple TVs and Rokus, that entitled desire for everything-at-your-fingertips expediency will grow. And then, of course, there’s the matter of streaming services like Netflix, Amazon, and Hulu, which have moved full-force into the business of producing original content—Netflix will premiere at least 16 exclusive features in 2016, many headlined by A-list stars—that won’t ever be projected in a theater.
While multiplex attendance has largely stagnated over the past decade, opposing forces have been on the rise: the ubiquity of smartphones, tablets, and Web-enabled ultra-HD TVs and home theater set-ups; escalating Internet (and thus streaming) speeds; the top-to-bottom digitization of movies’ production and exhibition; and the rampant availability of pirated movies available for illegal downloading (proven, most recently, by the pre-VOD leak of Star Wars: The Force Awakens). When taken together, it’s hard not to envision a rapidly approaching time when consumers come to expect, if not outright demand, that movies be accessible—in every form—on the day of their release.
That’s how TV shows and music work. The former may look better on a giant flat-screen than on your iPhone, and the latter may sound better on a phonograph than via an mp3 file. Yet in the evolution of both mediums, quality of consumption hasn’t been the determining factor; maximum convenience coupled with minimal cost and hassle has been. The same will invariably hold true with regards to movies as well.
In other words: The Screening Room’s fate is still unknown, but also for better or worse, cinema’s future will likely play out not (only) in a dark, crowded theater, but from the comfort of your couch—if not the palm of your hand.