On the face of it, it seemed like the beginning of the end of the theatrical movie experience.
Some studios are partnering with a major Video On Demand company to offer home viewers a chance to rent movies at least 60 days after the film begins its theatrical run. Many of these movies will still be playing in theaters. The rental is roughly $30 for a 48-hour home rental. With dwindling revenues from DVD sales, and flat (or declining) box office receipts, studios are looking for a new business model to earn revenue from their pictures.
(Read the full story in Entertainment Weekly here.)
Two dozen powerful Hollywood directors signed a petition in protest against this practice, stating that it would have a detrimental effect on film exhibition, and would keep potential theatergoers at home. Filmmakers like James Cameron and Peter Jackson issued the signed document which contained a summary statement of their concern:
"...we ask that our studio partners do not rashly undermine the current - and successful - system of releasing films in a sequential distribution window that encourages movie lovers to see films in the optimum, and most profitable, exhibition arena: the movie theaters of America."(Although it seems odd to hear this message from some of the same people, like Cameron, who inspired the idea of mass-production of 3-D films to provide enough programming for home 3-D entertainment systems...but I digress...)
Your humble narrator has always been a champion of the theatrical movie experience, so my first reaction was similar to those of the directors who have spoken out.
And then, I found out that the premiere film of this new Video On Demand launch would be none other than--"Just Go With It"--! The Adam Sandler/Jennifer Aniston film that almost nobody wants to see in theaters, and that scored a whopping 18% on Rotten Tomatoes, is the inaugural offering by which the success of the program will be judged.
On that basis, filmmakers might not have much to be afraid of. Now, if the latest Harry Potter, or Christopher Nolan, were offered on the home screen while they still played in theaters, that might cause concern among Directors whose livelihoods depend on theatrical receipts.
(I kind of suspect that the uproar is less about artistic choices for moviegoers and more about filmmakers being left out of a lucrative deal.)
I don't care for the idea myself. I think movies as an art form were meant to be experienced theatrically. This will not always be possible, but for the duration of a fim's run, it should have a fighting chance. It seems barely one step removed from piracy.
Also, if smaller theaters do close, because they can no longer compete, it is the "art" film, and foreign and independent films, that risk losing their home for theatrical distribution. We endanger ourselves of losing one of our cultural touchstones...going out to a movie, to experience "ars gratia artis". It would be like having McDonalds as one's only choice for dining out.
BUT WAIT! Why is Hollywood blind to the fact that there are millions of potential theatergoers between the ages of 40 and 70, people who were raised on movies when films were edgy, challenging, and diverse? When a film clicks with this audience now, these folks will come back to the theater. Why not take note, and create more substantial fare? Is it that Hollywood just doesn't know how to make, or promote, this kind of movie any more, except maybe four or five times a year?
Cinema has endured the advent of television, computers, download-able devices, home video and NetFlix. Sure, audiences are a bit smaller, just like they were when TV was new. And yes, Hollywood tried gimmicks then too (like 3-D!!) to keep people coming to the theater. What finally worked was that there were fewer movies made, but of better quality, and they appealed to a broader audience.
To ensure a bigger theatrical audience, why can't the answer once again be: Make Better Movies?