You may not know Ted Sarandos, but if you’ve ever watched anything on Netflix, you’re likely familiar with his work. Mr. Sarandos is Netflix’s Chief Content Officer. This means he is quite literally The Man when it comes to what movies and television series end up on Netflix. Last month, Mr. Sarandos called upon movie theatre owners, and the movie industry at large, to allow movies to open on Netflix day and date with their theatrical releases.
Today, Mr. Sarandos reversed course on his previous statements. He now claims that his initial call was only for moving up the windows between theatrical and digital releases. Regardless of if Sarandos is bowing external pressure or if the entertainment media got it wrong, I think there’s value to his original his idea. Primarily because movie theatres are awful places.
I’m not joking. It’s time to set aside childish notions of being teleported to new worlds, and accept the fact that movie theatres are a hangover from the days when a radio was the most expensive appliance in a person’s home.
Consider how easily a trip to the movies compares with air travel. Both experiences cram people into a space with the population density of your average Chinese metropolis such that a single person sneezing into the air becomes a vector for contagions. Movie theatres and airlines fix their prices so that both activities cost the most during peak hours and days. Enjoying either experience is largely dependent upon the ability of your fellow watchers/travellers to act like decent human beings; whereby they are exercising appropriate restraint in using their mobile phones, controlling any idiot children in their charge, respecting arm rest conventions, and adhering to a dozen other largely unwritten but mostly well known social expectations.
When a person witnesses a fellow movie-goer or flyer violating the dictums of common seating, said individual is largely powerless to correct the offending behavior without risking a confrontation. At least flights have sky marshals and federal regulations governing acutely poor behavior. The movie theatre has high-school students in matching baseball caps as arbiters of justice. How intimidating.
Nor should we forget that both contemporary experiences are a step-up from the days of yore. Scant decades ago both flights and movies offered smoking and non-smoking sections, much to the chagrin of a generation of second-hand smokers.
The germane difference between air travel and movie theatres, at least for the purpose of this essay, is that the wonders of the modern age have given consumers an alternative to the movie theatre monopoly. Between the prevalence of inexpensive and high-quality monitors/tv sets, high speed internet, and surround sound technology, the movie theatre’s days of being head and shoulders above home entertainment in audio and visual fidelity are long gone. Innovations like the Occulus Rift similarly deliver nails in the coffin of movie theatres reinventing themselves as the bastion of 3D technology. In short, home movie theatres are no longer the exclusive domains of the embarrassingly wealthy; they are rapidly becoming fixtures of middle-class homes.
How then do we account for the movie industry, potentially, digging in its heels such that Netflix’s content boss had to back pedal? Netflix and streaming video already killed Blockbuster and nobody seemed to mind – except the Blockbuster’s shareholders. Why not take the next step and start laying into the movie theatres?
But Adam, that will destroy an entertainment institution.
No it won’t, and also shut up. The institution at hand is the motion picture, not the movie theatre – with the exception of historic buildings that have managed to maintain themselves as independent businesses. Largely, the movie theatre/multiplex is nothing more than a series of dark cubes owned by a large corporate entity. Their business is dependent upon being the only show in town capable of delivering a certain level of experience. Now that there’s a potentially better and cheaper show in everybody’s basement, they can’t compete. Arguments on selfishness and insular societies aside, the market delivers what the market demands.
Naturally, I imagine there will always be a demographic more inclined to movie theatres over streaming, if only out of habit and/or nostalgia. I can also anticipate some movies which will offer a more intrinsic appeal to the biggest screen possible. For example, were Gravity available to rent from home on day-one, I still would have gone to see it in a theatre.
There’s also the much more pragmatic argument that day-one digital releases will be a good thing for movie producers. The late Master Jedi Ebert places a given theatre chain’s take on box office sales at a little less than 50%. The rest of the revenue goes to the studio in the form of licencing fees. For reference, I paid about $15 to go see Gravity in 3D.
Imagine then a Netflix “Gold” service, which priced day-one releases at $7.50 for a 24 hour rental. If it meant I could watch new movies in the comfort of my own home, eating leftover risotto rather than stale Skittles which I smuggled in from a bulk store, partly as a snack and partly as projectile deterrent to assholes who talk through the movie – Yes, I’m that guy – I would pay up.
I also admit that I’m probably in the vocal minority on that front, at least for now. However, as high speed internet and high-end home entertainment systems continue to penetrate the market, other people will quickly wonder why they are blowing money on going out to a movie when they have a comparable experience at home. When that happens, people will stay home in droves. I suppose the question studios ought to start asking themselves is when they would like to start making money off people already staying home. When that day comes, they need only follow the model set by Steam, Valve’s digital video game service, to make paying for product more convenient than stealing it, thus ensuring the viability of their digital product.