If there’s one positive result from the decision by Sony Pictures to release “The Interview” straight to video instead of exclusively in movie cinemas first, it’s that it has people once more talking about the future of cinema. That’s because “The Interview” got more streams than anyone expected (two million in the first four days) and made more money than anyone expected during the first weekend ($17.8 million), all while playing in a relatively limited number of independent cinemas.
You almost couldn’t have a better template of how to make money without the need for a film to play in a real world cinema.
Sure, you say, those numbers would have been so much bigger if “The Interview” had been allowed to show in big theater chains the way all blockbusters do. By some estimates, that $17.8 million opening weekend take should have been $100 million, and that’s a lot of money left on the table. However, it stacks up pretty well with the first weekend theatrical box office take of the 2013 movie directed by Seth Rogen (“This is the End”), which pulled in $20.3 million. And by all accounts, “The Interview” was much more of a PR success than a critically acclaimed artistic success. Who knows, maybe the film might have bombed if it were shown in theaters first?
“The Interview” reminded us that, despite the incredible number of tickets Hollywood sells each year in North America (1.26 billion in 2014), today’s movie cinema model is remarkably archaic. Sitting next to hundreds of noisy strangers in uncomfortable seats, paying outrageous prices for a film that might suck, being forced to watch an interminable number of movie trailers before the film actually starts, and having your view partially obstructed by people in front of you are just some of the problems that has been made all the more acute by the remarkable ease of streaming a movie on-demand in your living room on an HD-TV for just $5.99. Plus, throw into the equation not being allowed to pull out your mobile devices for a full two hours at a time — where else does that happen, other than on airplanes?
From this perspective, you can think of recent innovations in the cinema experience as a massive technology arms race to keep people coming back to the cinema, to keep ticket prices as high as possible, and to keep the Hollywood box office numbers going up and up. That’s the reason we have Dolby, IMAX and 3D. That’s why some theaters now offer reclining seats and the ability to order meals and alcohol while you watch a film. Theater chains are doing their best to make the cinema experience so much better than the home experience that you have no choice but to go to the cinema.
And, yet, despite all these wonderful innovations, Americans are not going to the cinema the way they once did. Cinema attendance is actually down — Hollywood box office numbers are being kept artificially inflated by higher ticket prices. Unfortunately, many of the new cinema innovations — like 3D — are not that great. According to M.G. Siegler of Google Ventures, for example, IMAX is a keeper but “3D is a dud” and 4D is a “total disaster.”
So if all these innovations are not having the desired effect, what comes next?
If you were to ask someone like filmmaker Christopher Nolan, cinemas won’t actually go away, they’ll just become bigger and better. As he wrote in a Wall Street Journal op-ed last summer, “The theaters of the future will be bigger and more beautiful than ever before.” They will showcase “spectacles” that take advantage of “expensive presentation formats that cannot be accessed or reproduced in the home.”
Push on that concept hard enough, and you have a vision for cinemas transforming into massive pleasure palaces for watching films. Imagine cinemas as “theme parks of the mind,” where people experience films as part of a “multi-sensory journey” that includes 4D or virtual reality (or whatever new technology Hollywood dreams up next), where people are no longer just staring at “a rectangle of light in a dark room,” but are fully immersed in the film experience.
That’s the optimistic scenario – that despite sagging attendance figures, Hollywood continues to produce the blockbuster franchise films that people want to see, and then uses new cinema theme parks to showcase them in the type of premium, high-end experience that will continue to increase the average price of every ticket sold.
But that ignores the fact that the long-run economics just aren’t that great for movie cinemas. Can every mall multiplex really transform into a cinema theme park? Movie theaters go empty most of the day unless it’s a blockbuster hit. And what happens to movie cinemas late at night, in the morning or even during the daytime? You don’t have that problem with digital.
No wonder ideas are continually floated to absorb some of the “down time” in cinemas by showcasing other spectacles — something like the Metropolitan Opera’s live opera in HD program. There have even been ideas floated for “movie cinema subscriptions” — where you subscribe to a cinema the same way you subscribe to Netflix in exchange for access to as many high-quality, exclusive films as you want. Would you pay $30 a month for unlimited movies in theaters?
And it’s thinking about a Netflix subscription model that gets you from point A to point B – from a physical world consumption of cinema content to a digital world consumption of cinema content. The fact that you can (legally) watch “The Interview” on iTunes, on YouTube, on Google Play, on Xbox, it’s all mounting proof that a purely digital model for cinema is coming – and coming soon. According to CNN, 55 million pay TV households now have access to “The Interview” through satellite or cable subscriptions, making “straight to video” a much more palatable option than it was just a decade ago.
Sure, old-time movie cinemas may still exist in 20 years — the same way you can still come across an indie bookstore selling paperbacks or an indie record store selling vinyl — but digital consumption is the wave of the future. The good news is that, by changing the economic model for cinema, we might actually get better films — not just huge Hollywood blockbuster and franchise films. Instead of trying to make a minimum of $100 million during the opening weekend of every film by blasting them out to as many cinemas as possible, studios might one day be happy with $20 million from a lower-budget straight-to-video film with fewer stars and a smaller marketing budget.
“The Interview” is definitely a great example, perhaps the defining example and reminder, of how we don’t really need movie theaters in the digital era. Lots of people saw the movie even if the theaters didn’t make it possible. By initially refusing to show “The Interview,” the big theater chains may have actually shot themselves in the foot and reminded us of their weaknesses.