This Friday, instead of traipsing through the shockingly cold March winter to a crowded, noisy theater to watch a movie I’ve been dying to see for months, I sat down on my couch, turned on my PS4, and started playing it.
It was Veronica Mars (my review is here, for those interested) a movie that was crowdfunded into existence by fans. The side-effect was that it takes a lot more money than that to find a wide release in 3,000 theaters nationwide, so the decision was made to release the movie on Amazon and iTunes on demand alongside a ~250 theater release. And all 250 of those theaters were nowhere near me.
But as I sat on my couch in my own home having paid only $7 for the experience for both me and my wife, I thought to myself, “Why can’t it be like this all the time?”
Something just clicked with me. I would do this all the time if I could. I mean, not with every single movie. There are still plenty of films that would be far more enjoyable on the big screen. Action blockbusters like Avatar, The Avengers, Gravity, and eventual ones like Star Wars Episode VII, Batman vs. Superman, and so on.
But for “normal,” movies? Movies where there are less explosions and gunfights and more people sitting around talking? There’s little reason I need to see those in a crowded theater on a giant screen. The experience is more or less the same as if I watching on my TV at home.
You’ve probably seen those really annoying theater commercials before movies lately, where they’re showing a trailer for some new blockbuster, then the screen shrinks down to be super small, and super quiet, and is stuffed into a TV set about 1/50th the size of the screen. “A movie this big can’t be experienced on a screen this small,” the announcer says.
I’ve hated these ads not only because they often mangle a trailer I might have been interested in, but they seem dumb. Like, I’m already in the theater you idiots, why are you trying to sell me on the theater experience?
But now I get it, they’re preparing for this coming war.
If more films start adopting this day one on demand philosophy, theaters very well could be at risk. Think about it. With my Friday night Veronica Mars experience, I got to pay $7 total for two people (or more if I had a bigger family or more friends) to be able to sit in the comfort of my own house, eating my own snacks. Contrast that to “date night” which involves two $15 tickets and $10 worth of snacks to sit in a gross theater with people constantly texting or talking. The reward? A bigger screen, louder sound, and that’s it. While the experience might be worth it for many films, for many others, it simply isn’t.
Unfortunately, it’s really the only option for new movies now. Veronica Mars is the exception, not the rule. I can indeed wait to see movies at home, but that requires months of patience I don’t have, and so I go to the theater because I have no other choice. But what if it was a choice? How long would theaters survive?
I don’t know the economics behind this. I do know that out of the $40 I spend at a theater, a big chunk of that goes to the theater itself including all the concessions and at least some fraction of the ticket. But more chunks go to things like physical distribution of films across all these theaters, materials costs and so on. It has to be much, much cheaper to distribute new releases online. $7 might be too cheap to produce a sustainable model, but what about $10, $12? For two or more “tickets” that still feels like a bargain, compared to what we’ve been forced to endure so far.
This isn’t a huge problem yet for theaters as they’re usually the only game in town when it comes to new releases, but if studios catch on and realize they can beam their movies straight into people’s living rooms on day one and pocket the entire ticket price themselves, movie theaters might be scrambling for relevancy. And they’re going to need more than stupid commercials to combat the approaching tide.