Would you pay $50 to stream Adam Sandler's next movie for 48 hours?
BY LEE PFEIFFER
If you haven't heard of The Screening Room, you surely will. It represents a new technology championed by Silicon Valley wiz kid Sean Parker (one-time founder of Napster and President of Facebook) that would allow movie lovers to stream new films in their homes on the same day the film opens in theaters. There is a catch- and it's an expensive one. The program requires you to purchase a set-top box for $30 and then pay $50 for the privilege of streaming a new movie for a period of 48 hours. We at Cinema Retro have long railed against the extortionist price of movie theater tickets but this almost makes them look like a bargain. The Screening Room is obviously gambling that there are enough well-heeled movie fanatics out there who will find this to be yet another excuse not to get up from their living room recliners and journey out to a theater. Nick Schager, writing in The Daily Beast web site, points out that the advantages might be the ability to enjoy a new film without rude people around you texting, chatting or trying to shut up their screaming toddlers. Fair enough. But the technology would also increasingly alienate people who have already become socially alienated due to their obsessions with social media. How many times have you gone to dinner with people only to have someone whip out a mobile phone and begin breezing through E mails and instant messages? It has happened enough to me that last year I posted a plea on my Facebook page: if you find my company so boring that you can't sustain a conversation with me over a dinner table for an hour without being tempted to see who E mailed or texted you, then kindly make an excuse when I ask you to join me for a meal and spare me the indignity of competing for your attention. Remarkably, I had some people take issue with my request, saying it's part of contemporary society to engage in such behavior. To that I responded, "Well, would it be appropriate if I was a dinner guest in your house and during the meal I took out "Moby Dick" and began to read it?" Inevitably, the answer was met with silence because the logic is obvious: it would be inexcusably rude to read from a novel at a dinner table just as it would be rude to read a cell phone. New technology such as streaming movie services is wonderful in many ways but there it might diminish the collective experience of seeing movies with appreciative audiences. Even the best of screen comedies are so much better when you are joined in the laughter by others. In the case of The Screening Room, there is scant evidence that this particular program would be successful. Pay for View concerts and sporting events can command such prices but they are largely paid by groups of people who gather in the same room and share the expense of streaming the one-time event. Does anyone think they will be able to rally friends and neighbors to chip in to see the latest Nicolas Cage or Adam Sandler flick? Then there is the instinct among moviegoers to share the experience of seeing a major new film in a state-of-the-art theater with superior sound and a giant screen. It's doubtful that anyone would have bypassed the chance to see the latest "Star Wars" or James Bond flick in a theatrical environment where such movies are often attended by groups of friends who enjoy debating the merits of the film afterward.
Despite the drawbacks associated with the Screening Room business plan, Nick Schager points out that once such technology has been invented it seems unlikely it won't find a way on to the market in some format. Certainly Sean Parker knows this. Napster was founded because record companies were tone deaf to hearing about the prospects of allowing people to download music legally for a fee. Thus, Napster allowed them to download songs illegally. Suddenly it was all the rage. Instead of embracing the technology the record companies took legal action to close down Napster...but it was too late. Ironically, when the record companies finally did reluctantly embrace legal downloads, the technology proved to be the remedy for sinking CD sales. Basically, it saved the music industry. It seems likely that the ability to download and screen current movies that are playing in theaters will indeed become a normal part of the viewing experience once it's decided to price the service at a non-prohibitive level. Movie theater owners are scared...and well they should be. The film industry had long ago declared virtual war on them by taking increasingly bigger shares of ticket revenues and mandating that theaters undergo costly conversions to digital projection (though, in fairness, studios covered much of the cost if theaters implemented the new technology by the deadline date.) As I've pointed out previously, some theaters only survive by turning into semi-restaurants. The film ticket revenues can't pay the rent so the chicken wings and pizza have to fill in the slack. The Screening Room concept has also divided the Hollywood community itself. Ron Howard and Steven Spielberg are proponents and Christopher Nolan and James Cameron have opposed it.
We don't want to adopt a Chicken Little philosophy and claim that the sky is about to fall in. The demise of movie theaters was predicted when sound was first introduced on the bizarre premise that audiences weened on silent movies would not accept the new technology. In the 1950s it was advent of television that would cause theaters to close, but Hollywood studios responded with the wonders of color, widescreen productions that no B&W TV screen could hope to match. In the 1980s it was the skyrocketing popularity of the VCR that would bring an end to traditional movie-going. It's doubtful that the Screening Room technology will ever ensure the closure of movie theaters. People still like to go to movies on dates or on family outings. However, if the concept does unexpectedly take off, it could further hurt independent small town theaters that are struggling every day to survive. We at Cinema Retro will always be advocates of watching films the way they were meant to be seen: on the big screen. (Pity the poor soul who is introduced to "Lawrence of Arabia" by watching it on a mobile phone.) Home theater advances are wonderful and exciting but there is simply no substitute for the traditional movie-going experience.