In the world you and I know, there are basically two legitimate, legal opportunities to catch a new flick. First, of course, there’s the theater, where we pay anywhere from $10 to $30 for the privilege of sitting in a velour seat of dubious sanitation next to talkers and texters hell-bent on ruining the experience, all while our shoes stick to years’ worth of petrified Coca-Cola, popcorn, and Sno-Caps. The next opportunity comes several weeks to several months later, when titles make the transition to on-demand streaming services, and eventually to other premium services like HBO and Netflix.
That’s about it. Unless you’re an oil baron or a venture capitalist, that is.
Last Friday we were invited to the Brooklyn offices of ultra-high-end smarthome integrator OneButton to get a demonstration of PRIMA Cinema, which is billed as the one and only way to get first-run movies in the home — quite often on the same day that they hit theaters. It’s basically a set-top box on steroids, except the box is so big that it’s rack-mounted in a closet. (Also, there’s a separate biometric authentication station.)
PRIMA requires a thumbprint scan on its authenticator in order to rent a movie.
Using PRIMA is an interesting juxtaposition of opulence and normalcy: really, you’re just watching a movie on your couch, just as you can on any one of dozens of streaming set-tops. But the fact that you’re doing it with a film that just hit theaters feels special and weird — and considering PRIMA’s luxury target audience, you’re also probably doing it in an unusually amazing home.
Studios don’t simply sell first-run movies to anyone who wants them, because theaters are notoriously protective of their precious revenue streams, which are almost entirely predicated on getting new movies first. The notion of an affordable rental option from, say, iTunes on the same day as the theatrical release scares the hell out of the AMCs and Regal Cinemas of the world, and — for the moment, anyway — studios are generally sympathetic of their plight. All this means that getting a day-one movie release into a private residence requires a rigamarole of the highest order, and PRIMA answers the call with an extremely complex and highly secure setup. That complexity and security also affords it some degree of buffer against competition; no one else currently does this.
No one else currently does this
The only way PRIMA works — the only way studios and theaters are cool with its existence — is by being heart-stoppingly expensive and Fort Knox secure. It needs to be so ridiculous that it doesn’t pose even the smallest threat to the theater business. Without user intervention, movies are automatically delivered to the PRIMA box several days before their theatrical release over its business-class internet connection at 40 gigabytes apiece. There they sit, encrypted, until the studio signs off — and that’s when the biometric authentication comes into play. Only authorized users can rent a movie, which requires that they swipe their thumbprint across the futuristic, angular security terminal designed by BMW’s contract design arm, DesignworksUSA. (Billionaires wouldn’t be caught dead with ugly biometric scanners on their coffee tables.)
The "set-top" is actually a big, rack-mounted box with a bunch of hard drives inside.
The theory behind requiring the biometric authorization is that authorized users (usually just the homeowners) are less likely to invite shady characters over for a viewing party — the kinds of people who might covertly record a movie and post it online. And at $500 per 24-hour rental, you don’t want someone renting Hot Tub Time Machine 2 without your explicit permission, anyway.
The rackmount PRIMA box is crazy, too. It has yet another thumbprint scanner, dual HDMI, dual gigabit Ethernet, dual power supplies, and a RAID 5 array where all the movies are stored. In other words, absolutely everything is redundant. "There’s no single point of failure for anything on this device," says Shawn Yeager, PRIMA’s co-founder and CEO. "If anything goes wrong, it’s going to really have to go wrong before it upsets your client."
Airtight security and redundancy everywhere
The box is also equipped with accelerometers and will stop working if it’s moved (to quote Yeager, it "Mission Impossibles itself"). It’s tied to an individual homeowner, and an invisible watermark on every movie identifies which box is in use. That way, if a recording does show up online, an owner can be identified and put in the hot seat very, very quickly.
You can’t stream movies with PRIMA — everything needs to be entirely pre-downloaded ahead of time. And as with the hardware’s redundancy, it’s all about keeping customers happy. "A client doesn’t really care if the reason the movie is stopped is that Comcast has done something silly, or Time Warner has done something silly. All they know is they can’t watch Minions, and that’s your problem," Yeager says. That’s why every available film automatically downloads well ahead of its release date. Needless to say, this system wouldn’t play well with ISP data caps.
Airtight security and redundancy aren’t the only hoops that PRIMA has to jump through, though — the company encodes the films itself, and it needs artistic sign-off on those encodings. "We actually got Insurgent a week before it was released," Yeager says. "The problem was that the director hasn’t signed off on the color space conversion. Unless the director signs off on the color space conversion, you can’t do it. So the amount of stuff you have to go through, it’s remarkable."
The interface doesn't look much different than any other digital movie service.
All of this is happening in the background, though. From the wealthy family’s perspective, they’re just chilling on their couch, powering on PRIMA from a very expensive universal remote control system and navigating it much as you would a sub-$100 streaming box or stick. Upcoming new films show as "Coming Soon" and quite often have trailers available — sometimes both green-band for kids and red-band for adults — while released movie rentals are just a thumbprint scan away. The system is strictly for new-release films; if you want to watch a classic, or even a movie that’s a few months old, you’re still going to need to fire up your gold-plated Apple TV.
Movies look great on PRIMA. They’re not 4K yet — Yeager says the company is waiting for the technology to mature — but they’re encoded at 10-bit 1080p 4:2:2, which is shorthand for "very high-quality with a lot of colors." If you have the system hooked up to good AV equipment and a good television (which, as a wealthy individual, of course you would), everything looks wonderful. Put it on a big enough flat-panel or projection system and I’d challenge you to say it’s noticeably worse than a good theater.
The PRIMA system wasn't a tough sell
As a half-dozen or so Verge co-workers lounged on OneButton’s leather sofa while Furious 7 started, the PRIMA system wasn’t a tough sell. The bathroom wasn’t far away. The only talking was amongst ourselves. Now I understand what it means to be wealthy: it means you can watch Vin Diesel kick some ass from the comfort of your home, while the little people like me toil away in Midtown and head to a gross theater after work.
As I mentioned before, PRIMA is just as expensive as it sounds. The equipment alone runs $35,000 — yes, "35" followed by three zeroes — and the movies are $500 each (some indie titles cost less). There’s no way to buy movies through the system, it’s rental only. The good news is that there’s no subscription fee once you get started, but new users are required to pay for ten movies ($5,000) upfront just to establish a relationship with PRIMA and make sure that everything is working correctly.
Not to say the expense is scaring people away, anyhow: Yeager says he can’t make the systems fast enough. Sell your company recently? Get on PRIMA’s waiting list.
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