Insights is a new weekly series featuring entertainment industry veteran David Bloom. It represents an experiment of sorts in digital-age journalism and audience engagement with a focus on the intersection of entertainment and technology, an area that David has written about and thought about and been part of in various career incarnations for much of the past 25 years. David welcomes your thoughts, perspectives, calumnies, and kudos at [email protected], or on Twitter @DavidBloom.
In the year that Netflix, ESPN, and Amazon won their first Oscars and a little-seen film about a gay African-American teenager (eventually) won Best Picture, the industry that runs movie theaters is busily trying to figure out how to remain relevant.
What the industry comes up with matters quite a lot. The National Association of Theater Owners (NATO) says there were nearly 41,000 movie screens in the U.S. and Canada in 2016, about double the total of 30 years earlier and the most ever. That’s a lot of real estate, and jobs, tied to a business that last year generated $11.3 billion in domestic box-office receipts.
In part, that still-hefty number is thanks to a 49% jump in average ticket prices since 2002, making up for a 16% decline in ticket sales. And most of the recent growth worldwide has been overseas, which now generates about three-fourths of film-industry revenue. Growth is particularly stout in China, where theaters are still being built at a brisk clip. And Chinese money, especially from Dalian Wanda, has been a major source of investment capital as several U.S. theater chains have been bought, consolidated and upgraded.
At the same time, however, the theater business is getting ever more complicated. More people, especially young ones, now entertain themselves with mobile phones, home theater systems, video game consoles, the Internet and more. They have more reasons than ever to skip a trip to the theater for entertainment.
The business has been further challenged by studio proposals to shrink the time between theatrical release and home-entertainment distribution on platforms such as DVD or iTunes. NATO and its members generally have fiercely opposed such proposals.
That was somewhat less the case last March, when former Napster founder and Facebook midwife Sean Parker announced a plan to launch his latest industry disrupter, called Screening Room. It would charge users $150 for a specialized box, which would allow users to pay another $50 to stream a movie at home on the same day it released in theaters. The price also included two tickets to watch the same movie in a theater. That latter move was a sop that reduced some exhibitor concerns about cannibalization of its only market.
A year later, however, Screening Room remains a cryptic one-page website listing three offices and an email address for inquiries. Meanwhile, lots of other options and alternatives have popped up, trying to change and improve the moviegoing experience.
One option is to improve the theater experience itself. I’ve long been spoiled in Los Angeles by high-end speciality theaters operated by the Arclight, Laemmle, and Landmark chains. But now the big chains are getting wise too.
Over the past couple of years, I’ve visited showcase theaters that feature cutting-edge projection and audio technologies from Dolby Atmos and Barco. These showcase facilities – such as in Regal’s 800-seat palace in L.A. Live, the AMC theaters at Universal Studios and Burbank, and the redone but still classic TCL Chinese Theater on Hollywood Boulevard – also feature far more comfortable seats, cleaner aisles, better concessions and even alcohol and reserved seating. For lovers of the big “popcorn movies” that can fill these huge spaces, it’s a wonderful improvement.
Investing in a better product is usually a Very Good Idea, so I’m glad to see the industry stepping up. And yet, those investments won’t be enough to encourage droves of people to return. First of all, it will take lots of money and many years to bring these improvements to thousands of screens nationwide. Mostly, I’m guessing a better experience will reduce the reasons people have to give up the movie-going experience entirely.
So, I’ll be watching closely some of the initiatives in experiential entertainment that are coming to theaters from the virtual-reality world. Done right, these experiences could generate more money while powering new creative opportunities to pull audiences even further into fictional worlds they love.
IMAX is perhaps uniquely positioned to take advantage of this, because it already produces content to run on the special projectors and giant screens that it owns and operates with partners. Last month, in a big shift, it officially opened its first IMAX VR complex here in Los Angeles, with promises of many more to come.
Each of 14 IMAX VR pods offers a different experience, like one set on the Star Wars planet of Tattooine, or another in the shoot-’em-up John Wick movies. The IMAX pods use one of two makers’ headsets, sensory vests, controllers and headphones to almost completely immerse users in a different world.
I talked with Will Maurer, who heads the VR and visual-effects divisions at Legend 3D/VFX/VR, about what these kinds of VR experiences could become. He sketched a vision of VR pods replacing the videogame arcades found in many theaters. And unlike those arcade games, these VR experiences could be updated regularly to tie in with films also screening in that theater complex. Such tie-in experiences could be a lucrative source of additional revenue for theaters and studios.
“It’s the way to upsell people who are already there,” Maurer said. “If you’re going to the theater to see a movie, you can pay the extra $5 for the VR experience. The aftermarket (in home entertainment) for that is pretty strong as well.”
But Maurer also pointed out several obstacles that will slow mainstream adoption, especially for theaters wanting such experiences in their existing screening rooms instead of a lobby arcade.
One is the tether. Current high-end headsets have an H.R. Giger-esque swoop of cables attached at the back to a honkin’ powerful computer that drives a lot of polygons on your screen. That tether is vital, and vulnerable. It’s just not going to work at scale in facilities with dozens of daily users stomping around.
Instead, technologies will need to evolve into something like what happens now with 3D, where lightweight, cheap glasses are handed out before the film and tossed in a collecting box afterward for cleaning and reuse.
Losing the tether also would enable more of what can only be described as laser tag on steroids, experiential entertainment centers where people can freely move within large physical spaces, navigating through a realistic virtual overlay. Imagine laser tag or paintball-like experiences within a virtual spaceship interior or some long-ago land. A version of this is starting to crop up in centers in the Midwest and in China. When this is more fully realized, we’ll be one step closer to the Holodeck of Star Trek.
Another potential obstacle lies with creators, and the way stories have to be structured for mass entertainment.
Because dozens or hundreds might be watching at once, story structure needs to be less interactive than usual in VR, while allowing some of the exploration and narrative branching that make VR so compelling.
Such approaches are often used in video games, where complex narratives allow a choice of different story lines while still ultimately converging in one ending. Done right, Maurer said, that approach can increase the social and replayability aspects, as you and friends work through different storylines, then talk about and try each other’s path.
Beyond that, we’ll need new kinds of content. Maurer envisions writers creating not just a script for a feature film but simultaneously structuring a related VR experience with interwoven story lines. To get the entire experience, you need to watch both. But you also need writers capable of writing for both platforms and connecting the story lines, on projects that already take years to realize.
I’m still a skeptic about the future of the theater business amid all the technological shifts already coming. Yes, I know many who still rhapsodize about the joys of a communal entertainment experience.
But surviving and thriving may require a continued embrace of new technologies and new ways to tell stories, an approach that could give a century-old mass medium longer legs than any of us might guess.