Proposal to smash theatrical release windows has cast a pall over the industry, writes Screen US editor Jeremy Kay.
There is no question about what the biggest talking point was at last month’s CinemaCon, the annual industry assembly staged by The National Association of Theatre Owners (NATO).
The Screening Room, Napster co-founder Sean Parker and Prem Akkaraju’s distribution proposal that has incensed and scared exhibitors in equal measure, dominated the conversation in the convention halls and corridors of Caesars Palace in Las Vegas.
In an age when every year seems to bring a fiery new challenge crashing through the atmosphere and send it hurtling towards the traditional distribution landscape, this latest proposal has set the cat among the pigeons.
For $50, a subscriber to the service who has installed a $150 set-top box will get access to a 48-hour window in which to watch supposedly piracy-proof, new titles on the day of their theatrical release, from the comfort of their own homes.
These scant details, leaked to the press in March, are virtually all that is known about the proposal, although Akkaraju was rumoured to have flown into Las Vegas to reveal more in private briefings with wary exhibitors.
Already beset by paradigm-shifting streaming players like Netflix, Hulu and, to a lesser extent for now, Amazon Studios, theatre owners are desperate to remain relevant and will have taken heart from what they heard from attending studio heads.
The unanimous message that came over loud and clear in Las Vegas was that the US majors love their theatrical partners.
Warner Bros chairman Kevin Tsujihara pleased delegates when he said: “I know there’s been a lot of chatter about new players on the horizon. I assure you, we’re not going to let a third party or middleman come between us.”
But for how long? Tsujihara hinted at the need to work together with exhibitors in the fast-changing environment. One very senior studio executive expressed private admiration to Screen International over the proposal by Parker and Akkaraju.
Why spend so much money on tickets and food and parking and possibly baby-sitting costs, the executive said, when one can split $50 between a few friends and sit around a large screen sharing a pizza? Many people who spoke to Screen on condition of anonymity agreed the price point was seductively low.
Cameron champions theatrical
James Cameron, a Screening Room sceptic alongside the likes of Christopher Nolan and producer Jon Landau, was one of several film-makers who took to the stage at the Colosseum to declare his love of the theatrical experience.
In an unambiguous statement, he was the only person to defy the Voldemort effect and publicly address the proposal by name. “Regardless of what the folks at Screening Room say,” said Cameron, who jetted into Vegas to announce four Avatar sequels, “I think it’s absolutely essential for movies to be presented exclusively in theatres on their initial release.”
The crowd loved that and must have felt more comfortable listening to Cameron than they were when JJ Abrams took to the stage. NATO must have notified Abrams of his CinemaCon Showman Of The Year award before the director of Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens came out in the press in favour of Screening Room.
What was meant to be a straightforward celebration of theatre-going was deflated somewhat when he told delegates: “I’m open to points of view and ideas to keep theatres thriving. We have to adapt.”
His support for Screening Room is shared by the likes of Steven Spielberg, Peter Jackson and Ron Howard.
Napster co-founder’s PR masterstroke
While some observers maintained there was no substance to Screening Room, calling it nothing more or less than a PR masterstroke by Parker, the proposal has cast a pall over the business.
The entrepreneur allegedly proposes to give exhibitors and studios $20 apiece from each $50 transaction, while helping himself to a $10 share for a piece of the business he never had. The theatre chains are by and large against the idea, although AMC, reportedly at the behest of owners Dalian Wanda, is said to be close to signing an agreement.
The international exhibitors appear to be of the same mind. Alejandro Ramirez Magaña, CEO and general director of Mexican chain Cinepolis, delivered a clear message in his CinemaCon keynote speech.
“We think that instead of experimenting on how to shorten the theatrical window, we should work together to strengthen it and there are many ways to do that,” argued Magaña.
“[Last year] we reached almost $40bn worldwide [global box office]. Even a small dent to the theatrical window can represent billions of dollars in theatrical revenue.”
For the international community, the fear is one of piracy. An illegal upload sourced from a Screening Room user in the US could eliminate the transactional value of a theatrical launch overseas. That is what scares exhibition.
Whether that contingency, or even Screening Room itself, comes to fruition remains to be seen.
Jeremy Kay is US Editor at Screen International