There’s an interesting article in the New York Times today about a growing feud between movie studios and the theaters that show their products.
Studios, exhibitors and filmmakers are arguing about the future of the business, and whether people in coming years will be more likely to watch movies in theaters or in increasingly sophisticated home setups mimicking the quality, immediacy and, perhaps, cost, of today’s theatrical experience.
Last week, four studios — Sony Pictures Entertainment, 20th Century Fox, Universal Pictures, and Warner Brothers — took the first step in their arrangement with DirecTV to release films two months after their theatrical release.
The first premium on-demand offering came on Thursday, as DirecTV offered Sony’s “Just Go With It,” with Jennifer Aniston and Adam Sandler, for $30. Two dozen filmmakers, including James Cameron and Peter Jackson, fired back with an open letter criticizing the experiment as a threat to theaters.
I find this interesting for a number of reasons. As a cinephile, my first inclination is to side with the exhibitors and filmmakers who are arguing that the movie theater is a vital part of movies as an artform. It is disingenuous of studios to claim that this is anything other than an attempt to make more money by cutting theaters out of the process. Anyone who thinks that the move towards on-demand will stop with putting out movies two months after their theatrical release probably also thought that shutting down Napster would end music piracy. If nothing else, it is incredibly shitty to force theater owners to spend billions of dollars upgrading to digital 3D technology and then pull the rug out from under them by moving to on-demand distribution.
And yet, I don’t actually think I agree with the directors on this one. We live in a country and an economy governed by the ideas of a free market and a healthy competition and I think some healthy competition might be the best thing to improve an experience that is, quite frankly, not all that special at all anymore. Leaving aside the common complaints of too many commercials, obnoxious cell phone and baby wielding patrons, and the exorbitant prices, going to the movies is a frustratingly impersonal experience. Every theater near me has between 12 and 24 screens and the charm and warmth of a Wal-Mart. It is, frankly, an alienating experience; one that I am not willing to fight for and would be more than happy to abandon were a better opportunity to come along.
At first I was somewhat resistant to using on-demand to watch movies, but more and more, I’ve come around to it. Especially living in Charlotte, services like IFC On-Demand offer me movies that I would otherwise not have access to. It has broadened, not narrowed, the range of movies I can see (which seems obvious, but the open letter from the directors argues the opposite – that we need theaters to bring attention to “specialty films” – as if I even have the option of going to the theater to see movies like “Certified Copy” or “Super” if I wanted to). And I get a much more enjoyable experience watching a movie in my home.
The answer is not to stop on-demand home viewing right now (although by charging $30 for movies like Just Go With It, the studios may take care of that themselves). The answer is to evolve, like the business had to do in the 1950s with the invention of television. Places like the Alamo Drafthouse have found a way to make people WANT to go to the movies again (interestingly, one way they’ve done so is by showing a lot of movies that aren’t new studio releases, which is a topic for whole other blog post) and they’re doing quite well for themselves. Like the music industry and the publishing industry, movie theaters find themselves in a time of transition, dealing with a new technology they don’t quite understand. Some will be able to adapt successfully and survive and some won’t. But one thing they can’t do is stop people from wanting and obtaining new technology. Going to the movies used to be an event, the places where they used to be shown were called palaces. Now going to my local AMC or Regal theater has all the appeal and glamour of a trip to Applebee’s. Offer a superior product and people will come.