April 29, 2016

What ‘The Screening Room’ Teaches Us About Priorities

Sean Parker, former president of Facebook and co-founder of the controversial Napster music-sharing site, wants to change movie distribution. Specifically, he wants people to be able to watch theatrically released movies in their homes on day one, rather than wait for the theatrical run to end before the movie moves to on-demand and home theatre. This isn’t a new idea, but the only existing options are prohibitively expensive. Sean Parker’s ‘The Screening Room’ would cost around $150USD for the set-top box and $50 per film for a 48 hour period.

Predictably, people are crying foul. While filmmakers like Steven Spielberg and Martin Scorsese support the idea, others such as James Cameron and Christopher Nolan are staunchly against it — as, understandably, are exhibitors. People won’t go to the movies, cinemas will close, and films will never again be appreciated in the environment they were meant to be if people can just stay at home.

Which really says a lot about the cinema experience.

Specifically, it says there’s a lot wrong with it.

[Before we go further: there is also, arguably, a lot wrong with The Screening Room’s specific proposed model, and this open letter outlines a lot of them. What we’re looking at is specifically the argument against day-one on-demand streaming as a concept.]

Hollywood has a long and storied history of screaming that the sky is falling the moment anything threatens their carefully crafted ecosystem. Television, for example, was meant to kill the cinema over 60 years ago, but we’re still here. In fact, rather than kill the cinema it arguably drove it to create a better experience for the audience.

TVs have the same square screens as the cinema? Then we’ll go widescreen. Hell, wide screen? Why stop there? How about we just make the screen obscenely large? Here’s IMAX, enjoy counting the hairs on people’s faces. Stereo sound is becoming commercially available? Here’s surround sound just in time for Apocalypse Now.

But now we’re in a similar situation, faced with the idea that people won’t have to go to the cinema even on the first release, and people are immediately assuming it’ll kill the act of going to the big screen. To quote John Landau,

“[James Cameron and I] don’t understand why the industry would want to provide audiences an incentive to skip the best form to experience the art that we work so hard to create. To us, the in-theater experience is the wellspring that drives our entire business, regardless of what other platforms we eventually play on and should eventually play on. No one is against playing in the home, but there is a sequencing of events that leads to it. The in-theater communal experience is very special.”

The problem with this line of thinking is that it’s looking in the wrong direction. It’s saying ‘if people have the option to stay home they won’t go to the theatre, therefor, letting them stay home is bad’. The direction it should be looking, however, is ‘if people have the option to stay home they won’t go to the theatre, therefor, how can we make the theatre more attractive?’ We see the same issue playing out between taxis and Uber — instead of fixing the problems in their business that Uber is addressing, taxi services want Uber to shut down. They want people to stop talking about the fact there’s a problem, rather than do anything to fix it.

And the ugly problem cinemas don’t want to admit to is that going to the theatre really isn’t that pleasant a lot of the time. Floors are sticky, seats are stained, and there’s almost invariably somebody talking loudly, or who didn’t turn their phone off, or who’s blocking your view by sitting in front of you, etc. There are lines and the food is obscenely expensive.

The communal experience is nice, but not when it’s punctuated by someone three rows back laughing during a scene that’s not meant to be funny.

If day-one on-demand streaming becomes a reality then yes, many theatres will be forced to close. But many others won’t; those that put the effort into the audience’s experience in the theatre itself. In Australia, Reading and Event cinema chains have Gold Lounge/Gold Class screens that sit around 40 people in comfortable reclining chairs with in-chair dining service. It’s considerably more expensive than a regular seat, but the experience itself is so much nicer. Nobody is inappropriately loud, it’s clean, the seats are spaced so nobody can block your view, there are no lengthy lines. It feels like a luxury.

And it’s almost always full.

IMAX is also unlikely to be harmed by day-and-date VOD releases. The experience is simply too specific to the environment to ever be replicated in a home.

This proposed distribution system will only harm cinemas that don’t step up their game and provide a better experience to patrons. Even if that means the death of the standard screen and a push exclusively towards IMAX or Gold Class setups, cinemas can still survive by listening to their customers and provide them with a service that they want to use, rather than one they feel they have to because there aren’t any [legal] options.

And this goes for every business. The world is changing rapidly and complacency will only end in failure. You must be diligent. The taxi industry thought it could get away with poor service because it was the only option; now Uber is proving them fantastically wrong. The film exhibition industry thinks it can maintain the general subpar standard of customer service and survive, but even if The Screening Room dies, the push for day-one VOD is only ever going to get stronger. The less care the cinemas put into the customer experience, the more attractive such disruptive alternative services will be to the public.

Change is hard, but it is also necessary. As the saying goes, adapt or die.