J.J. Abrams Embraces the ‘Inevitable’ End of the Theatrical Window Like It’s a Good Thing (It’s Not)
According to J.J. Abrams, the closing of the window between theatrical releases and at-home viewing is nigh. The director is one of a handful of Hollywood filmmakers to have endorsed Screening Room, a premium VOD service cooked up by Sean Parker (you may remember him best as Justin Timberlake in The Social Network) which would make new movie releases available to rent at home for $50. Despite push-back from fellow directors like Christopher Nolan, Abrams remains dedicated to the concept, something he says is “inevitable” as the quality of the theatrical experience continues to decline.
While speaking at the Milken Institute Global Conference last night (via Variety), Abrams used one particularly sub-par theater to support his argument for streaming new movies at home. Although he didn’t call the chain out by name, Abrams lamented the apparent lack of consideration for both the moviegoing experience and the customers — many of whom, he says, “have better TVs at home”:
There is a theater chain that I’m convinced hates movies. You go there. They’re angry with you. It’s cold. There’s no music. The lights go out when the movie starts — there’s no ceremony. It’s the most uncomfortable seats ... You’re convinced there’s something in front of the projector. Meanwhile, most people in that audience have better TVs at home than the image you’re seeing.
These problems aren’t limited to a single theater. As Hollywood has moved to embrace digital and abandoned traditional film, chains are no longer hiring actual projectionists, resulting in increasingly prevalent issues like improper masking (more on that here), poor sound and inadequate image quality. And that’s before you even get to the basic problems, like people talking and using their phones throughout the film.
It’s no secret that the theater business is struggling, but as ticket prices increase annually, some have begun to wonder if going to the theater is even worth it anymore. As Abrams puts it, “…If [theater chains] don’t make it worth people’s time, you better not call people to the theater and give them that kind of experience.”
He’s not the only major director to lend his support to Screening Room. Steven Spielberg, Peter Jackson, Ron Howard and, perhaps most surprisingly, Martin Scorsese, have also endorsed Parker’s concept (one of several currently in development). For a premium fee, people will be able to rent new movie releases the same day they hit theaters. It’s an appealing idea for many, and particularly those in often overlooked portions of the consumer base: Parents with infants or small children, people in remote areas, cinephiles with limited access to decent theaters (like the residents of that Alabama town where the local drive-in boycotted Beauty and the Beast, maybe), or those with disabilities or caring for loved ones with disabilities. Screening Room could make it easier for more people who love movies to actually see them, and for not much more or less than they might spend on their average trip to the theater.
Aside from adding bigger screens, better sound systems and / or comfy new seats (the default go-to for any chain hoping to lure customers back), theaters are largely stumped when it comes to improving the quality of the moviegoing experience. Over the last couple of years we’ve heard about all kinds of wacky ideas, from installing play areas in auditoriums (really?!) to iPhone’s rumored “theatre mode” feature (which seems like it would actually encourage more phone usage), all of which makes Abrams’ attitude seem less like that of a capitalist cynic than someone who has accepted defeat and chosen to embrace a feasible compromise.
Even then, wouldn’t Abrams and Spielberg, et al.’s efforts (and money) be better spent trying to find a solution that gets people in theater seats? You can’t tell me these guys actually believe that the ideal viewing experience for The Force Awakens or Ready Player One is in someone’s living room on a 36-inch TV. (Or, worse, at your parents’ house, where they still haven’t disabled motion-smoothing because your dad thinks “it looks sophisticated” or whatever.)
Personally, I dislike the idea of Screening Room and its ilk — movies deserve to be experienced in a proper theater, or most of them do, anyway. But that’s my opinion. There are millions of people who will probably love Screening Room, and their preference should have no bearing on my own; hey, a few less chatty people, crying babies and cell phones in the theater, right?
But this isn’t just about personal preference, aesthetics, or the desire to see a film projected the way the filmmaker intended. If platforms like Screening Room succeed, it may very well be another nail in the movie theater coffin. With all films, big and small, available to watch at home the same day they’re released, why would anyone leave their house to see a movie ever again? We already know the answer to that question. Go ask your local video store.