Movie Theaters Won’t Be Around Much Longer

April 5, 2017

It’s been a great run for cinema, a business that began with the Lumière brothers’ early creations flickering in Paris playhouses in 1895, then generated untold billions in ticket sales over its 120-plus years since. Sadly, it’s about to suffer a mortal wound, right there in your living room.

The movie theater as we know it is poised to die a slow, mostly peaceful death. But it is certain.

The cause: Premium VOD, digital on-demand delivery of films to your TV and devices on a much shorter schedule than the traditional 90 days. The latest proposals bring movies to homes 10 or 45 days after they hit theaters; others have aspired to deliver them day-of.

But these particulars are immaterial. They are coming, and they will prove fatal to the movie-theater business.

Why? Because Hollywood is selling out the one thing that’s always put butts in seats. It’s not giant screens, or booming sound, or “the communal experience of a darkened movie theater,” all things that movie people love to romanticize.

The magic of the movies has been, is, and always will be exclusive content. Something you can’t see anywhere else at the moment. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.

The major studios (minus Disney, which has its own path) are on the brink of deals that will make new releases available to stream for $30 to $50, with pricing depending on how soon they’re available, according to multiple reports out of Cinemacon, the annual gathering of movie-theater owners and the media conglomerates who supply their product.

It may take a year or two to finalize, but it’s inevitable.

While theaters and premium VOD will co-exist for a little while, make no mistake: once that deal is sealed, the doomsday clock starts ticking down. I give it 10, maybe 15 years. And I’m feeling generous.

Digital manifest destiny

Since the mid-1970s, the National Association of Theater Owners (NATO) has held its annual springtime gathering in Las Vegas, where Hollywood studios present their upcoming slates. It was nothing if not a mutual love-fest — we are making so much money together! — until 2011, when the trade press reported that certain studios were looking at renting films for $30 on a shortened window.

Theater owners were livid. Studios, caught with their hands in the cookie jar, were embarrassed. And that conflict spilled out all over the Cinemacon stage.

For the next five years, Cinemacon was peppered with fiery language, blustery speeches and robust applause every time someone implied that the 90-day window — a sacred pact that stood since the advent of VHS — was here to stay. Even last year, when Sean Parker floated his $50 same-day Screening Room streaming venture at Cinemacon, it was mostly met with ridicule and scorn.

But something was different about Cinemacon 2017 (tagline: “Celebrating the Moviegoing Experience”). Former Connecticut Sen. Chris Dodd, acting chairman and chief lobbyist for the Motion Picture Association of America and once-vigorous advocate of preserving the theatrical experience, skipped his annual address for the first time since taking the job.

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