It’d be a pretty sweeping generalization to say America is turning into a nation of shut-ins, but man, a whole lot of recent innovations revolve around eliminating the need to leave the house. Start-ups have materialized to offer delivery of every item under the sun, more full-time jobs than ever take place completely remotely, and now Sean Parker wants to make sure you never suffer the gross indignity of a trip to the local cineplex ever again. With Netflix, Amazon and other online video-streaming platforms having effectively wrestled television out of the TV, the American economy has turned its sights on the movies. If Parker’s unprecedented, ambitious plan for the venture known as The Screening Room can reach fruition — and it’s really starting to look like it might — the entire culture of movie exhibition and viewership will change forever, and whether that change will be for better or worse remains another huge question mark.
What could be the most urgent new chapter of film history began one week ago, when Napster founder Parker (y’know, this guy) and his partner Prem Akkaraju pulled back the curtain on their radical new business plan for The Screening Room. Their promise was simple but significant: They want to make brand-new theatrical releases available to watch at home on the same date as their public release. It wouldn’t be cheap, at least not at first, with a price tag of $150 for a set-top box that would enable this streaming, and then $50 for each movie, which would only be available within a two-day window before expiring. That might seem like a prohibitively high cost for the convenience of not schlepping down to the mall or wherever your neighborhood cineplex might be, but over the years, it has been conclusively proven time and again that rich people will pay for anything. This is to say nothing of the brutal math of moviegoing once babysitters become a necessity, turning a cheap night out into a small investment.
The real pushback has come from theater owners, who hear their own funeral dirge in the fanfare announcing this new service. Parker and Akkaraju promised to placate exhibitors by throwing them a hefty portion of the $50 rental fee with a quote hovering around 20 percent, and that’s before Screening Room takes its 10 percent. But many exhibitors refused to be satisfied with this offering, making their grievances with the highly disruptive proposed service known. The NATO — no, the other NATO, the National Association of Theater Owners — voiced its reservations with the Screening Room model earlier this week, taking the stance that if in-home exhibition really is the way of the future, “those models should be developed by distributors and exhibitors in company-to-company discussions, not by a third party.” (Or, in layman’s terms, “We’re not opposed to the idea, but we really think we should stand to gain more money from it.”)
Some exhibitors have been more straightforwardly opposed to the process, such as the signees of an open letter in protest from the Art House Convergence, a group of approximately 600 independent and specialty theaters. They expressed worry that the Screening Room would open the floodgates to pirates, making movie copying and torrenting easier than ever. An excerpt: “This loss of revenue through box office decline and piracy will result in a loss of jobs, both entry level and long term, from part-time concessions and ticket-takers to full-time projectionists and programmers, and will negatively impact local establishments in the restaurant industry and other nearby businesses.” (Parker and Akkaraju have given their word that the streaming content will, somehow, be piracy-proof.)
With such a unified pushback from theater-owners, pushing this plan through to its realization might seem like a pie-in-the-sky endeavor, but support from prominent parties has brought the Screening Room dangerously close to the realm of viability. Parker has claimed to have taken meetings with representatives from all the major studios, and what’s more, some key voices in the film community have come out in support of the planned revolution. Such esteemed filmmakers as Peter Jackson, Martin Scorsese, the Brian Grazer/Ron Howard team, Steven Spielberg, J.J. Abrams, and Taylor Hackford have all thrown their support behind Screening Room in the form of shareholder investment.
The involvement of Scorsese and Spielberg, fierce defenders of cinema that they are, draws special attention. If the No. 1 warrior fighting for celluloid’s preservation can get behind this idea, maybe it’s not the harbinger of doom it sounds like? Jackson himself has even stated his opinion that this would widen a movie’s appeal instead of narrowing it, saying, “Screening Room will expand the audience for a movie — not shift it from cinema to living room.” James Cameron and producer Jon Landau, however, were not so jazzed about the idea, declaring, “[We] remain committed to the sanctity of the in-theater experience… For us, from both a creative and financial standpoint, it is essential for movies to be offered exclusively in theaters for their initial release. We don’t understand why the industry would want to provide audiences an incentive to skip the best form to experience the art that we work so hard to create.”
All of this hemming and hawing might appear to be a sign this sweeping restructuring of the production-distribution-exhibition system is too controversial to actually happen, but the vigor with which theaters and creatives have rejected this idea betrays their nervousness over just how close this is to reality. Indie films have met with great success by dabbling in this practice, offering excellent but less-than-lucrative movies On Demand the same day as limited theatrical releases in major cities, and subsequently making the film available to huge swaths of potential viewers who could never have found it otherwise. While a select few rightfully champion the theatrical experience — the dissociation of being alone yet surrounded in a dark, silent room that allows a viewer to get absorbed in a film — as something worth preserving for its own sake, American viewers clearly have little compunction about catching new films at home. And as for the roadblock of the piracy question, Parker has hinted at new technologies to ensure the sanctity of the films offered, though Hollywood will only believe that when and if they see it. The lone argument from the theater-owners against the Screening Room plan that holds water is their concern that they’ll all go out of business, which is to say that a more generous share of the profits is all it’ll take to get them on board. Once it can be completely ensured that all parties will get the money they need, tunes will most likely change.
Parker’s plan is far, far from full implementation — but not entirely removed from it. And so perhaps the real issue is not whether exhibitors are doomed, but whether we, the humble watchers of movies, are doomed. A potential future without theatrical exhibition would be a dystopia on par with #TrumpsAmerica, a sad end to the sensation of being ravished by an exhilarating film’s blend of overpowering sound and image. It’s hard to imagine in-home viewing completely shutting out the picture show; perhaps the act of moviegoing would turn back into a momentous event, cause for the finest attire and a feeling of occasion rather than the part of the date that happens before you’re both permitted to start drinking. But murky as the future may be, it’s clear that the industry is approaching a period of great flux, where decades-old practices could get revitalized, changed, or completely done away with. It’s an exciting, faintly terrifying time to be watching movies.