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Sean Parker’s streaming service will change the film industry forever - is this the death of the cinema?


It was Bargain Wednesday at our local Odeon, we were soon reminded of this when we were greeted with hundreds queuing impatiently in the foyer.

The five euro deal available only on Wednesdays, obliterating the sky-high standard adult ticket rate of €11.95, was evidently irresistible to cinema goers.

Recent reports in the media had detailed sharp declines in cinema attendance, but there’s nothing quite like dropping the price by two and a half times the going rate to ramp up capacity.

We were packed like sardines into the theatre, ready to watch new comedy Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates. Admittedly the lewd comedy market would not be my preferred pedigree but I quickly found myself laughing along.

In fact, everyone in the theatre was the same, regularly on the brink of tears from laughter. Thinking back on the raunchy comedy, it's likely that many of the jokes would not have landed as successfully had there been more empty seats. I thought how the packed rows, munching sounds and infectiously uncontrollable laughter dictated the atmosphere and the way in which the movie was received.

This was how Billy Wilder directed Lemmon’s cross-dressing turn in Some Like It Hot.

Lemmon shook the maracas with rehearsed staggered breaks - to allow for audience laughter to die down. In doing so, he ensured they wouldn't miss any dialogue. Wilder knew the anatomy of an audience, where people in close confines are likely to laugh in rhythm with each other. It begs the question whether the atmosphere of a movie theatre is as valuable as it once was.

I’m inclined to think so - it certainly made a cheap comedy more enjoyable.

Yet with an unpredictable environment emerging punctuated by strong rivals, Netflix, Sky Cinema and potentially The Screening Room, the intangible solidarity and cohesiveness of an audience could be placed under threat. As we have witnessed with other industry heartbreakers like Spotify and Netflix, all that is needed is a controversial startup premise to put the fear of God into those comfortable with the present business model.

Sean Parker, the first president of Facebook and creator of music-sharing website Napster, announced his intention to back the start-up Screening Room and it sent mixed shockwaves through the industry.

He plans to rival cinemas by creating a distribution network that would allow customers access to films from the comfort of their own homes - on the day of their release in cinemas. Similar to the Sky TV setup, Sean Parker proposed the development of a secure box with access to recent releases. Given his Napster venture which shook the music industry, Parker seems have a habit of crushing the dreams of solid distribution networks.

Parker outlined the pricing guidelines, where it would cost $150 for the secure system itself. On top of which comes a steep $50 surcharge per viewing - a long way from Bargain Wednesdays.

Once parted with their money, customers would have forty-eight hours to watch their movie. The reception for Screening Room has been mixed. James Cameron, whose filmography boasts epic animated feature Avatar and the monstrous Titanic, is firmly opposed. In fact he recently vowed to churn out four additional Avatar sequels - perhaps in an attempt to prolong the current state of the film industry by guaranteeing thrillers generally reserved for the picture house. Martin Scorsese however has voiced his approval, as has Spielberg and Ron Howard.

Studios also remain divided on the proposed new business model. Parker disclosed that cooperative distributors would receive up to 20 percent of the per-view fee, adding an additional revenue stream to the partnered studios. Not only would they receive the distributor's cut, Parker’s secure software would essentially guarantee studio returns for their investment, by alleviating the prevalent issue of illegal downloading.

Cinemas would not be left in the dark either, with Parker proposing that two free tickets will be given to view the same movie rented for $50 in the customer’s local theatre. This could be beneficial particularly for DC and Marvel films where repeat audience attendance is crucial to elevate box office takings. Opposition to this incentive has been raised however. CEO of Cinema group AMC recently voiced his opposal for the Screening Room which would eliminate the release window between cinema distribution and home viewing, stating that ‘We are not going to let a third party of middlemen come between us.. fundamentally, we believe in windows.’

Then there is of course the matter of Netflix, and the always improving Sky Cinema, known previously as Sky Movies. Sky’s recent rebranding venture is a telling indication of where their sights are set. Both have had their fair share of criticism, regularly coming under fire for their poorly stocked catalogues. They’ve combatted this well, with Netflix doubling as a studio with its batch of exclusive content and Sky Cinema stocking up on new acquisition titles every Friday. While Netflix and Sky Cinema are still competitors, new releases are still exclusively shown in cinemas and therefore are not direct competitors. In comparison The Screening Room has the potential to replace the movie-going experience entirely.

Shauna Lyons, Public Affairs and Marketing Director at the Irish Film Institute insists that the current at-home viewing is having little impact on their business.

She detailed how, from an exhibitor's point of view, people were still buying tickets for that ‘communal experience, where they are fully engrossed in the film and their smartphones are switched off.’

Ms Lyons added how the IFI was launching it's own IFI Player online this September, allowing access to the IFI archives, beginning in 1910.

This online feature hints at a welcome augmentation of the movie-going process as this move will give individuals an at-home experience, while they can continue to visit cinemas for new releases.

Looking forward, inevitably Parker’s Screening Room will find an audience. Whether the market-size is of proportions similar to Spotify or Segway, it is unclear. The high cost to screen at home is also questionable.

Customers may find themselves footing the bill for Parker’s software only to find themselves reluctantly running a home cinema for close friends and family. But the pressing issue is if society as a whole will accept this new shift.

After Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates, one of my friends commented that it was a ‘cinema movie,’ implying that she couldn’t imagine watching it at home - a group was needed to support the laughter.

At the end of the day, the masses will ultimately decide which direction the industry will proceed in. Are we really willing to pay a premium to watch films alone and at what price do we really place on laughing together?

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