VOD Views – March 16, 2016

Back in the early web era piracy threatened to decimate entertainment businesses far and wide because it was easier for us to illegally swap rather than buy music, movies, TV shows or games online. iTunes became a byword for buying music legally – even though it came too late to save the music industry.

Movies are pirated and shared online just as much, but (no matter what the cinemas and studios tell us) the jury’s still out on how much that’s eaten into the profits of the movie business – there’s plenty of research to suggest people who pirate movies also pay for them.

According to many people the problem is that, unlike music, there’s no ‘iTunes for movies’. Several players including the studios themselves have tried to roll out digital services for their wares, but most of us are hard pressed to even remember what they’re called, let alone use them.

There are armies of movie lovers for whom the cinema experience is superfluous, who hear about a movie they want to watch and go online expecting to watch it, not caring about the labyrinthine rights and legal restrictions of theatrical windows or territorial release dates.

Now Sean Parker wants to change that. In this week’s biggest streaming news, the former Napster and Facebook wunderkind (portrayed in David Fincher’s The Social Network by Justin Timberlake) has announced a broad plan to let users pay a premium price of US$50 to watch movies online the day they’re released in theatres through a set top box.

Called The Screening Room, the plan has divided Hollywood. A-list names like Peter Jackson, James Cameron, Chris Nolan, Ron Howard and Steven Spielberg have come down for or against the plan, with theatre owners and studios barking up the rear.

There’s a lot of early support among powerful directors, but Nolan and Cameron and producing partner Jon Landau are early dissenters, Cameron’s longtime producing partner Jon Laundau saying the initial release of films should happen in theatres. Somewhat predictably, the US National Association of Theatre Owners has come out staunchly against the plan too.

Expect a lot of rhetoric in the next little while about the purity of the theatrical experience (watch for phrases like ‘shared experience’ and ‘200 strangers in a dark room’), but there’s a lot more at stake on balance sheets.

Theatre owners have a lot of power in the movie industry simply because they’re the conduit through which Hollywood sells movies to the public. Studios rely on theatres for their very existence, and the reason it’s historically been so difficult to mess with the traditions of the theatrical-only window (before a film goes to DVD, streaming or TV) is because Hollywood doesn’t want to bite the hand that feeds it.

Past plans to compress or remove the theatrical window – even ones that would benefit the studios – have been piecemeal so as to appease theatre chain owners, often faltering or failing for the same reason.

If a plan like The Screening Room goes ahead and catches on it will upend movie distribution. The movie theatre business will be eviscerated even further (and popcorn and soft drink will be even more extortionately priced). Hollywood simply can’t afford to lose the theatre end of the business without distribution infrastructure that’s just as proven (and big) to assure the continued delivery of its product at the price it needs to charge.

It’s bound to be a fraught discussion simply because there are so many angles. Ask a millennial on the street if they’d rather go to the movies or stream on Netflix (or download pirated movies) and they’ll probably snort and call you a granddad or grandma for believing in a concept as antiquated as a movie theatre.

But as a NATO statement pointed out, the theatrical release of a movie is an extremely visible event that creates considerable brand awareness and translates into more potential revenue downstream. Though DVD sales are flat or declining nowadays, there was a time when the theatrical release of a movie could be a loss leader or break-even expense, the movie then going on to make a profit in the home market – a situation we might see again if VOD reaches the heights DVD once did.

With a lot of very powerful names lining up on both sides, one’s reminded of the trailer and promotional posters for Captain America: Civil War. Quick, who’d win in a fight between James Cameron and JJ Abrams?!?

Also coming up, the Oscar nominated The Big Short, director Adam McKay’s off-the-wall look at the global financial crisis through the eyes of the players who saw the whole rotten system for what it was.

You’d expect a movie dealing with genetically modified organisms (GMO) to be another dry documentary, guilt at not watching prompting you to seek it out rather than any real desire to see it. But Consumed is a fictional narrative about a mother looking for the cause of her son’s illness, an Erin Brockovich for a modern, hot-button issue.

Also out, the final chapter of the juggernaut YA thriller franchise Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 2.

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