Texting, Streaming, Panicking: The Horrors of CinemaCon

CinemaCon

This past week has seen Las Vegas play host to the annual CinemaCon, a convention where theater owners and Hollywood executives gather to show off new movies and hardware, and to panic about the future of their industry. Over the last few years, it seems like CinemaCon has always been the backdrop for the latest hand-wringing about winning over young audience members or internet streaming or what-have-you. This year’s convention was no different, and once again showcased an industry that seems incredibly desperate and oblivious to what its audience wants.

As usual, studio presentations at CinemaCon seemed to go out of their way to address/criticize streaming platforms, with Tom Rothman reportedly saying after the well-received Passengers trailer “Let’s see Netflix do that!” for absolutely no reason.* This is nothing new, having been a recurring talking point for studio executives for a few years now. However, the main focus this week was on Screening Room, the same-day-as-theatrical streaming platform proposed by Sean Parker and backed by the surprising likes of Steven Spielberg. Warner Brothers categorically refused to participate in the Screening Room, and director Todd Phillips delivered a blistering rebuttal of the concept, asking among other things “Why are we in such a rush to turn movies into television?”**

Look, I understand that the film industry, much like the music industry before it, is stuck trying to adjust to an increasingly-digital marketplace that is devaluing content on the regular. And I understand that the film industry continues to be concerned about piracy and making their content too easily available in a way that would hurt the bottom line. However, I think that their responses to ideas like Screening Room are an unfortunate combination of obstinate and backwards, and won’t really help them in the long run. I get that the studios and exhibitors want to try and maintain the system as it is because it has been pretty successful for both sides for some time now, but they both need to adjust their thinking on this issue in a more forward-thinking fashion, instead of just dismissing what new ideas are offered out-of-hand.

Of course, the one thing exhibitors should NOT do in this situation is give in to their most pandering instincts, but it sounds like that might just happen. The latest evidence of this came from the new head of AMC Theatres, who told Variety that he would absolutely consider allowing texting in his theaters in order to win over young moviegoers. To this guy, “You can’t tell a 22-year-old to turn off their cellphone. That’s how they live their life.” He believes that young adults are actively avoiding going to the movies because they are being asked to put their phones away, and that allowing phone use in the movie theater will win over the younger demographics again.***

I would just like to say, as someone in his twenties, that I do not believe anyone has EVER decided against seeing a movie in a theater based solely on the fact they would be unable to use their phone during the show. Besides the fact I can’t imagine anyone being that absurd, I also don’t think anyone in my age demographic even gives enough thought to using their phones for something like that to enter into their thinking. So allowing cellphone use during movies won’t bring in new viewers, it will just empower the few human vomitoriums that have no regard for their fellow audience members, or the entertainment they’ve paid to see. It’s a lose-lose, but these schmoes keep kicking the idea around anyway.

As always, the news out of CinemaCon paints the picture that Hollywood and its attendant industries are still incredibly anxious and uncertain about their future, and are stuck between pandering to the audience in the most obnoxious way possible and stoutly refusing to engage with the future in the most boneheaded way possible. So the question is, what can they do? Is there a solution that allows Hollywood to engage with the streaming-happy audiences of today without shutting out the exhibitors altogether?

Personally, I think so. My suggestion would be that the exhibitors themselves should offer their own day-and-date streaming services. Have AMC Go and Regal Now and Cinemark-On-Demand, so that the studios can offer their films at home for those that want them and the exhibitors can still make money off of it. I would compare it to services like HBO Go and CBS All-Access, which exist as separate from catch-all services like Hulu or Netflix. To me, this seems like the closest you can get to an “everybody wins” option, and I would be wholeheartedly in favor of it.**** In the meantime, I guess we’ll have a few more years of hand-wringing and doomsaying to look forward to at CinemaCon.

 

*This of course ignores the fact that Netflix just shelled out $100 million for Bright, a fantasy buddy cop movie starring Will Smith from the filmmakers behind Suicide Squad and Chronicle, which seems like a very blockbuster-level project no studio would pay for.

**As critic Scott Weinberg pointed out, it’s kinda hard to take this complaint seriously from the director of the Starsky & Hutch movie.

***Meanwhile, according to the MPAA, the actual number of theater admissions was up for the first time since 2012 last year, and that teens and young adults (ages 12-24) went to the movies more than any other demographic in 2015 as well. But yes, let’s keep freaking out about kids not going to the movies anymore.

****Obviously there would be pitfalls to this. For starters, how would studios and exhibitors negotiate streaming rights for new films (as opposed to theatrical releases, where every exhibitor will carry films from every studio, but show different films in different markets). But it would also allow the theater chains to expand operations to include more digital jobs, and give the studios a chance to go with the tide without having to kowtow to the likes of Netflix.

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