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Theatrical vs. VOD – The Future is Now

Sunday, April 2nd, 2017

As Lindsey Bahr of the Associated Press notes, theatrical vs. VOD is a key issue for filmmakers today.

As she writes, “would you pay $40 to watch a movie in the comfort of your own home 10 days after its big-screen release? How about $30 after 45 days? These are just a few of the ideas being thrown around by major Hollywood studios looking to more effectively compete with streaming services, television, smartphones and everything else that consumers can choose to spend their time with nowadays.

Premium video on demand (PVOD) is less disruptive than Sean Parker’s troubled Screening Room idea, which would have offered movies in the home for $50 on the same day they’re released in theaters. Yet PVOD still had many questioning its merits this past week at the theater industry’s CinemaCon in Las Vegas, from big studio execs to small theater owners, and stars and filmmakers in between.

For most exhibitors, shortening the theatrical window, as the industry calls it, from the traditional 90 days is seen as a bad idea, especially for those who’ve invested large sums of money to upgrade seats and projection tools at the behest of the studios. ‘The shortening of the theatrical window would be horrible for the entire industry,’ said Glen Gray, an exhibitor from South Florida.

As would be expected at an annual gathering of exhibitors, from big theater chains to single-screen operations – many studio executives were quick to emphasize their commitment to the theatrical experience. Dave Hollis, the executive vice president of distribution at the Walt Disney Company, used his platform to speak on behalf of his company and other Hollywood studios to tell exhibitors that they ‘all believe deeply that films should be seen in a theater’ and that they ‘have a common goal to get people to see them in your cinemas.’

Even Amazon Studios, with its blatant streaming strategy, offered encouragement to theater owners. ‘We really believe in the theatrical experience by fully supporting the theatrical window for our releases,’ said Jason Ropell, Amazon’s head of motion pictures, noting that Manchester by the Sea‘ is in its ’19th week and counting’ in theaters.

But there’s no question the marketplace is changing. The North American box office may have reached record highs the past two years, yet attendance has remained nearly flat for over a decade. In other words, growth is coming from higher ticket prices, not more people seeing movies.Warner Bros. marketing and distribution chief Sue Kroll was the rare executive at CinemaCon to speak openly about theatrical threats.

Customers, she said, ‘want more choices in where and how they consume our content. Where there is demand, somebody is going to step in and fill that void,’ Kroll said. ‘We have to be creative and innovative in addressing the challenges of this marketplace, as we always have [and] move toward a future that will be beneficial and profitable to all of us.’

Moments later, director Christopher Nolan took the stage to preview footage from his ambitious, large-format celluloid epic Dunkirk and offered a different view from Kroll, who is distributing his film. ‘The only platform I’m interested in talking about is theatrical exhibition,’ Nolan said. The usually quiet audience erupted into applause. Earlier, the director told The Associated Press that while the threat [of VOD]  is nothing new, it’s also not something filmmakers are, ‘particularly excited about.’

‘You really want your film to be in theaters as long as possible because that’s where they are meant to be seen,’ Nolan said. Indeed, most of the filmmakers sided with Nolan, including Arrival and Blade Runner 2049 director Denis Villeneuve, who said he will ‘always make movies for massive screens,’ and Downsizing director Alexander Payne. ‘I don’t work in television, I work in cinema and I like my films to be seen on the big screen. Period,’ Payne said.”

And yet the future of cinema is undoubtedly through streaming platforms, in digital cinema formats, however much we might want to return to the immersive nature of the theatrical experience, sharing a viewing of a film with a large audience. But theatrical exhibition, once the norm, is now becoming a niche format, except for the most grandiose blockbusters, which seemingly demand Dolby Surround Sound and IMAX screens.

Amazon may tout the virtues of theatrical distribution, but Manchester by The Sea would play just as well on the small screen as it does in theaters, and the bulk of Amazon’s product, such as Mozart in the Jungle and the forthcoming series The Last Tycoon, is distributed through streaming video, where Amazon makes most of its money.

So theatrical is superior, but in the end, streaming video will win out for home viewers.

About the Author

Headshot of Wheeler Winston Dixon Wheeler Winston Dixon, Ryan Professor of Film Studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, is an internationally recognized scholar and writer of film history, theory and criticism. He is the author of thirty books and more than 100 articles on film, and appears regularly in national media outlets discussing film and culture trends. Frame by Frame is a collection of his thoughts on a number of those topics. All comments by Dixon on this blog are his own opinions.

In The National News

Wheeler Winston Dixon has been quoted by Fast Company, The New Yorker, The New York Times, the BBC, CNN, The Christian Science Monitor, US News and World Report, The Boston Globe, Entertainment Weekly, The Los Angeles Times, NPR, The PBS Newshour, USA Today and other national media outlets on digital cinema, film and related topics - see the UNL newsroom at http://news.unl.edu/news-releases/1/ for more details.

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