TV is the Future of Cinema?
We are nearly at year’s end and for the nation’s movie theatre owners, it’s the end of a wild few years. With movie attendance tanking in 2017, then surprisingly rebounding in 2018, attendance and concessions are expected to be up slightly in 2019. This hasn’t muted the swirl of controversy, however, as cinephiles debate the future of an industry caught between the tectonic plates of the rise of streaming services and the ever increasing reliance on big ticket/big budget films to generate studio profits.
Industry titans like Martin Scorcese have raised the alarm of the danger of mid and small budget films disappearing from movie houses and recent data suggests he is right to be worried. The crux of the problem is simple: With so many options available for streaming at home, audiences are increasingly unwilling to shell out large amounts of money for a movie experience to anything other than the most eye-popping big budget fare. Simultaneously, some of the most daring storytelling is happening now on the small screen as streaming services pour ever more money into a vast swath of content that no longer has to appeal to a mass audience, but instead creates a mass audience by offering something for every individual taste, on demand.
What can be done then when “cinema” disappears from the big screen but flourishes on the small? Could we perhaps make the small screen big? Could television be shown in theaters?
It’s a radical idea, to be sure, but not without precedent. During the height of movie
attendance in the 1930s (a time when 65% of the American populace went weekly to movie theater, compared with 10% today), people often saw more than just films on the big screen. Cartoons and news reels were standard parts of the viewing experience (content that is now shown on television exclusively). People oft spent multiple hours if not an entire day watching a myriad of content in the movie house.
One large factor accounting for massive attendance figures in previous decades was the relative low cost of movie attendance. In 1964, the average couple could see a movie for $1.86, today that same couple has to pay $29. It is no surprise then that people are unwilling to watch anything but the most spectacular film in a theater, they literally want “more bang for the buck”.
But what if the economics of theaters could be rethought? As the surprising success/failure of Moviepass demonstrated, there is still a great popular interest in visiting a movie theater regularly, so long as it’s a cheaper experience. Could streaming services such as Netflix and Amazon provide their own viewing experience?
In some sense Netflix has already thought of this, having recently purchased a pair of iconic theaters and reportedly considered acquiring the Landmark theater chain. But so far these efforts appear to have been instigated primarily by marketing and awards driven interests, with no indication that they plan to change the business of the theaters themselves.
Imagine, for a second, a Netflix Cinemas, where Netflix subscribers could watch movies for a vastly reduced ticket price? (perhaps something like $2-4). The films would be currently distributed or financed by Netflix (something that is already growing wing of their business) and would offer the a big screen experience at a fraction of the cost. Netflix Theaters would still make the majority of their profits from concessions (as all theaters do) but would not have to pay the large sums of money to rent films from the independent studio distributors that theaters currently have to deal with, thus making the lower ticket price possible.
Films would be limited run but diverse and interesting, something for everyone (in the same way that art house theaters operate). People would go primarily for the experience of movie going itself rather than a particular project. A well curated lineup could ensure they would rarely leave disappointed. Viewing options could also include popular series as television production today often matches film in cinematic quality.
The diversity that Netflix provides could be the greatest asset of the theater. While many people go to streaming services looking for a specific film or show, an equally common experience is to simply browse the sites looking for something that suits your mood. In this case, genre is often key. A viewer may be in the mood for a documentary, romantic comedy, science fiction picture, etc. Imagine a movie house with individual theaters dedicated to specific genres? The Horror Theater, the Indie Theater, the Popular Netflix Series Theater, etc. A movie house packed with people looking for a cheap big screen experience could allow this type of diversity to flourish.
What Martin Scorcese and most fans agree on is that the moving image is best seen large, loud, and projected bigger than life. MoviePass’s story proved the wanted more if it, but cheap. Netflix, and perhaps other streaming services, now potentially have the possibility to provide both. They have this power because they once had the vision to remake home viewing. Can they remake cinema as well? -Luke Rogers