April 15, 2016
The first quarter of 2016 has brought some upbeat news to the movie industry, including the hits “Deadpool” and “Zootopia” which created a 12 percent uptick in box office compared to the same quarter last year. More long-term problems — stagnant attendance and the lure of Internet content — still threaten the bottom line. But what many exhibitors are really worried about is Screening Room, the brainchild of Napster co-founder Sean Parker, which offers first-run movies at home, at the same time they debut in theaters.
According to Bloomberg, even though it’s too early to tell if Screening Room will be viable, a long list of industry players are weighing in against it, including nearly every exhibitor. Steven Spielberg, J.J. Abrams and Peter Jackson are backing Screening Room, reports The Verge, but many other filmmakers, including James Cameron and his producer Jon Landau, Christopher Nolan and M. Night Shyamalan have come out against it, in part because it takes away the communal experience of the movie theater.
“Screening Room is going to overshadow anything that is officially going on,” said Exhibitor Relations Co. senior box office analyst Jeff Bock. “It’s the future of the industry in some ways — or the future that right now the industry doesn’t seem to want but may be inevitable.”
It also underlines some of the industry’s other problems. Cowen & Co. says that 25 percent of last year’s box office revenue came from five films, the handful of tentpoles that the major studios have gravitated towards, aimed almost entirely at young men. At the same time, Netflix and its ilk are releasing movies with very little, if any, theatrical window.
Exhibitors say that Screening Room will increase piracy, but the company notes that viewers must use a $150 set-top box that should prevent that. “What I like about what Screening Room is talking about is it allows everyone to be part of the process, to be at the table,” said Abrams. Screening Room will also pay exhibitors up to $20 of the $50 charged to view a first-run film, notes The Verge.
At CinemaCon, the movie theater owners trade show, Amazon Studios and STX Productions were welcomed as newcomers with plans to show their films in movie theaters. Warner Bros. chief executive Kevin Tsujihara, meanwhile, drew enthusiastic applause to his vow that, “we are not going to let a third-party middleman come between us,” obliquely referring to Screening Room.
With opposition from studios, Screening Room may not be able to make the partnerships it needs to be a player. As The Verge says, “It may have some high profile support — it may even have the tech to make it work and the money to get attention and build it all out — but there’s still one thing that Screening Room doesn’t have: the deals.” But even Tsujihara noted that, “we know the status quo is not an option.”