Friday 19 January 2018

Screening Room lets you watch the latest films at home. Is this the death – or future – of cinema?

A new home cinema proposal has Hollywood's greatest directors at war with each other. Would you pay €45 to watch an Easter blockbuster at home with your family and friends?

Chinese fans dressed as Stormtroopers arrive for the premiere of Star Wars: The Force Awakens in Shanghai (AP)
Chinese fans dressed as Stormtroopers arrive for the premiere of Star Wars: The Force Awakens in Shanghai (AP)

Tim Robey

How’s this for an idea? Instead of hiring babysitters, trekking to a multiplex, and buying a pair of tickets for Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice on the Friday night it opens, you could watch it at home. Or you could watch Zootropolis at home (it’s a thousand times better, by the way) and nod sagely through it about your correct decision. Or you could watch them both. Legally. 

To enable this, you would need to be in possession of a set-top box (proposed cost: $150, or £105) and would pay a fee ($50, or £35) to hire each film for a 48-hour period. Get the neighbours or your best friends round. Order in pizza. Not worry about who has to drive. 

This is the concept of Screening Room, a new start-up rental proposal backed by Napster’s co-founder, Sean Parker. Hollywood is rapidly taking sides on it. Peter Jackson, Steven Spielberg, Ron Howard, JJ Abrams and Martin Scorsese are already shareholders, while Christopher Nolan and James Cameron have positioned themselves firmly in the “anti” camp.

You can expect the arguments for and against to rumble on for some time. The scheme’s fans, like Jackson, argue that it will “expand the audience for a movie”, rather than shifting it from cinema to living room. Parents of young children, for instance, who would never customarily manage the trip out, would find themselves in a position to watch new releases. Jackson sees a “critical point of difference” with earlier attempts to collapse the window between theatrical and home viewing debuts. 

JJ Abrams at the Star Wars: The Force Awakens European premiere in London
JJ Abrams at the Star Wars: The Force Awakens European premiere in London

“It does not play off studio against theatre owner,” he says of Screening Room. “Instead it respects both and is structured to support the long-term health of both exhibitors and distributors – resulting in greater sustainability for the wider film industry itself.” 

The anti brigade are wary of a paradigm shift, though, away from what Avatar producer Jon Landau calls “the in-theater communal experience”. Cinema owners obviously fear a reduction in the all-important selling of popcorn and soft drinks – the markup on these, often an exorbitant 85%, makes a critical difference to their overall profit margins, since studios can receive as much as 90-95% of the gross tickets sales in the first week. 

Cinemas are already fighting to hold on to their footfall, with the proliferation of home viewing platforms, blockbuster TV series, and the narrowing of the window between theatrical release and rental. Isn’t this yet another reason to stay at home? Theatre owners such as Art House Convergence (AHC), a speciality cinema organisation comprising 600 different businesses, certainly think so. They issued a stern open letter about the potential economic impact of Parker’s proposal.

"[The] loss of revenue through box office decline and piracy will result in a loss of jobs, both entry level and long-term, from part time concessions and ticket-takers to full time projectionists and programmers, and will negatively impact local establishments in the restaurant industry and other nearby businesses,” the letter said. The UK’s Cinema Association has also weighed in, calling it “a massive risk”. 

Parker and his co-backer, the music executive Prem Akkaraju, have nonetheless been canny about recruiting support, partly by proposing to cut in cinema chains on as much as $20 out of the $50 for each rental, and sweetening the deal for cash-strapped consumers with free cinema tickets thrown in.

This would offset what may sound like a steep rental cost, but some analysts actually view the price point as too low, pointing out that it would be possible for 10 teenage girls to hold a sleepover screening of Frozen 2 at a cost of just $5 each: good value as far as families are concerned, but “cannibalisation” in industry parlance. 

Previously, the only device which studios would permit to download (rather than streaming) first-run films was a monster of a thing called PRIMA, an ultra-high-end service you had to get installed in a closet, which cost a pretty $35,000 (£24,750) and required individual rental fees of $500 (£350) – making it singularly unlikely to threaten the mass-market dollars the cinema industry depends on.

Though a majority of the big American chains are still pooh-poohing the Screening Room idea, AMC have lately expressed interest in coming on board, bringing the Parker plan considerably closer to fruition than the last attempt to get theatrical premieres into mainstream America’s living rooms, which was proposed by the Video on Demand service DirecTV back in 2011. Then, a coalition of Hollywood names including Cameron, Jackson, Guillermo Del Toro and Robert Zemeckis managed to block it, rallying behind the National Association of Theater Owners (Nato) with an open letter. 

Screening Room opponent Christopher Nolan
Screening Room opponent Christopher Nolan

It’s interesting now to see the likes of Jackson breaking ranks. Changes in the industry have clearly made the idea more urgently appealing, and Parker is going about his deal-making with hucksterish vigour. This changing of the tide recalls the original antagonism of the record companies towards the peer-to-peer music sharing of Napster – the territorial wars and lawsuits – which have since made way for a truce, allowing the likes of Spotify, Deezer and Rdio to stream songs at virtually no cost to the consumer.

The difference, of course, is that it’s still a premium service which Parker envisages for first-run films. The danger of piracy being made much easier is a major one for the studios, though the $150 box is said to be equipped with the latest technology to combat this, so that enterprising hackers can’t cadge off the service and set up another platform like Popcorn Time, the illegal, free-to-view streaming app which the MPAA shut down late last year. 

Still, concerns are rampant in this area, with AHC founding director Russ Collins expressing a typical warning: “Sean Parker’s previous experience in media-sharing ushered in piracy, unintended as it may have been, which was highly damaging to the music industry. So it is natural that we are suspect of his ability to guard against that in this incarnation.”

More broadly, these developments are prompting renewed debate about whether the primacy of the filmgoing experience is heading further into a slump. Hugh Jackman and Taron Egerton, the two stars of Eddie the Eagle, recently got into a debate about this while recording an on-camera promotional interview. Jackman voiced his opinion that filmmakers need to find renewed reasons to get audiences into the cinema; Egerton was concerned that “shared experience” would fall by the wayside if Screening Room panned out. 

There’s much talk about the “special” value of a cinema outing, but Jackman has a point – there’s nothing all that special about being among a dozen patrons checking their phones, rustling around in crisp bags, or gossiping about unrelated topics in a puny multiplex screen. There’s having a communal experience that truly enhances the film, and then there’s the kind that makes you want to quail and run back to bed. 

Cinema owners are perhaps missing one potential upside of Parker’s idea, which is the potential it might have to rescue a certain category of underperforming theatrical releases from commercial failure. The example of Sacha Baron Cohen’s Grimsby has been discussed over at Deadline – released in the USA as The Brothers Grimsby, it has only managed to drum up a measly $6m there over a two-week frame, despite getting a Borat-level thumbs up from the exit poll Cinemascore. It simply didn’t have “event” buzz, but Screening Room rentals wouldn’t depend on that.  

The thinking is that Parker’s plan could be a godsend for the Grimsbys of this world – or indeed, the likes of modest, downbeat prestige fare such as Room, Spotlight, or 45 Years, which did very nicely indeed on its British VOD release. One UK distribution executive concurs, telling me, “I don't believe all films are appropriate for the Screening Room / premium VOD model, but I'd say 50% of what gets released in the UK would benefit from a more creative release strategy.” 

Still, regardless of the audio-visual wow factor that will doubtless tempt Avatar fans to see its sequels on the biggest screen they can find, there’s also a lot to be said for the collective, among-strangers experience even when you’re watching a low-budget drama about a mother and son being abused in a garden shed. Beyond the economics, the whole ethos of filmgoing will cease to exist if convenience (filmstaying?) becomes the gold standard. 

A quick poll among friends revealed relatively few who would leap on the Screening Room idea, except if they imagined certain conditions: having young children, owning a high-spec media room, and perhaps living some way from urban centres or multiplexes. “Potentially bloody great for parents” was the most enthusiastic response; “I would never, ever pay for this” the most bullishly unimpressed. Few thought the price was especially steep when divided a few ways, though “passing a begging bowl around” wasn’t everyone’s idea of fun.

From the sounds of it, we’ve got some way to go before the future of the big-screen night out looks truly or pressingly endangered. As another friend pointed out, Screening Room could even be the way forward for small, pop-up kino venues in their fight to offer a cheaper alternative. 

A place like the Prince Charles Cinema, in London's Leicester Square, is a great model for getting back to what cinema’s all about – not so much because it bolts on new bells and whistles as reminds us of the old ones. Their programmes of 35mm and 70mm screenings, typically of cult classics that are often available to stream at home, are wildly popular and regularly sell out. 

Venturing along for John Carpenter’s Big Trouble in Little China (1986) recently, it was hard to imagine a more convivial screening. It combined the best of both worlds: a cosy night-in-with-your-mates vibe, crossed with the excitement and atmosphere of a packed-out, like-minded communal nostalgia trip. 

It’s a film I grew up on, replayed countless times on VHS in my early teens. And there, at the same screening, was my younger brother, who just happened to have lured along a group of his own. When cinema can foster a feeling of togetherness through that kind of rare serendipity, there’s no way home viewings will ever entirely replace it.

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