When huge directors like Steven Spielberg, J.J. Abrams, and Peter Jackson agree that something is the future of cinema, you'd expect large swaths of Hollywood to be on board with them. But that's not the case when it comes to releasing huge movies straight to your living room. Despite backing from three of the biggest names in filmmaking, the startup Screening Room, which hopes to let people rent movies that are still in theaters for around $50, has been the subject of much industry criticism and concern over the past few weeks.
"We are not going to let a third-party middleman come between us."
Perhaps unsurprisingly, one of the strongest statements against Screening Room came last night at CinemaCon — the official trade show of movie theater owners. "I assure you," Warner Bros. CEO Kevin Tsujihara told attendees, "we are not going to let a third-party middleman come between us." The Wrap reports that the statement was greeted with "wild applause."
Though Tsujihara doesn't call out Screening Room by name, it's clear what he's referring to. Theater owners hate the prospect of major movies going directly to consumers, since it means that people would no longer have to pay them to see a new film (and then overpay them for popcorn and drinks). And while Screening Room might not be an immediate threat to their existence — after all, many small films already pull off the feat of simultaneous release — it would be a big step down a road that theaters don't want to see traveled.
To some extent, Tsujihara has to oppose Screening Room in front of an audience of theater owners. Were Warner Bros. or any other studio to partner with Screening Room, it's very possible that theater chains would fight back by refusing to play that studio's movies; we've already seen the United States' largest theater chains refuse to screen Netflix's Beasts of No Nation and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon sequel because of their immediate online release. Netflix can ignore that because it's never cared about what theater chains do. Warner Bros., on the other hand, would be in bad shape if it couldn't get its films into theaters.
Theaters fight back when they're excluded
That said, Tsujihara seems to leave some wiggle room for Warner Bros. "We know the status quo is not an option, but we will meet the challenges before us," he said yesterday, according to The Wrap. Essentially, movie studios and theater chains both want to do something about online piracy, which often starts even before a film leaves theaters. They just don't know what to do about it, and theater chains aren't huge fans of anything that's going to cut into their revenue.
Naturally, theater owners have spoken out against Screening Room directly, too. The National Association of Theatre Owners issued a statement saying that theater owners need to be included in conversations about release windows. "Those models should be developed by distributors and exhibitors in company-to-company discussions, not by a third party," it writes. A group representing 600 art house theaters criticized Screening Room as well, saying that it "strongly opposes" the startup, arguing that it would increase piracy.
"The in-theater communal experience is very special."
Screening Room has answers to these questions — theaters just don't like them. It intends to share profits with theaters (up to $20 of the $50 rental fee could go to them, presumably in appeasement). Screening Room customers would also be required to buy a $150 secure streaming box, which is designed to prevent piracy.
Others in Hollywood are opposing Screening Room for reasons beyond profits. James Cameron and Jon Landau, his producer, said last month that they are "committed to the sanctity of the in-theater experience," Landau said they both believe the film industry shouldn't give consumers an incentive to skip going to theaters, which they view as the "best form" to experience their work in. "The in-theater communal experience is very special," he told Deadline.
Christopher Nolan followed up with similar remarks. According to The Hollywood Reporter, he said that theaters provide "the best possible presentation" of movies, an important "social experience," and the sense that a film release is a "unique event."
M. Night Shyamalan followed up in a series of tweets, also calling out movie theaters' "communal" element.
I agree—I am completely against the Screening Room. Film is one of our last communal art forms.https://t.co/Rnjsli5Cq6— M. Night Shyamalan (@MNightShyamalan) March 18, 2016
There are other ways to experience art on your phone & laptop. But cinema is a group of strangers sharing stories & it belongs in a theater.— M. Night Shyamalan (@MNightShyamalan) March 18, 2016
Once filmmakers & theater owners open the door to this idea, there is no going back. The movie going experience is something to fight for!— M. Night Shyamalan (@MNightShyamalan) March 18, 2016
Watching a movie by yourself & watching a movie in a theater are two very different experiences. Film is meant to bring people together.— M. Night Shyamalan (@MNightShyamalan) March 18, 2016
Roland Emmerich, who made Independence Day, also tweeted out again Screening Room:
I'm with Nolan, Landau and Cameron. It's crucial that we support and protect the cinematic experience. https://t.co/yFiFl5UGLf— Roland Emmerich (@rolandemmerich) March 17, 2016
All of which highlights just how much Screening Room has working against it. It may have some high profile support — it may even have the tech to make it work and the money to get attention and build it all out — but there's still one thing that Screening Room doesn't have: the deals. And this immediate backlash shows hard it's going to be to get Hollywood's most vocal names, biggest theater chains, and actual movies studios onboard.