Sean Parker’s Screening Room is a subtle assault on cinema

Never in the eight years that I have been writing about film in a journalistic capacity have I dedicated an entire post to news about a startup. But today we have a precedent broken. Until now, perhaps startups didn’t really possess the potential to alter the industry to the degree that Sean Parker’s Screening Room just might. Or more frighteningly, perhaps now cinema is finally reaching the pinnacle of its vulnerability in the face of television, streaming, youtube, and even snapchat.

Attention spans are fading as the once common two hour run time steadily loses steam. It started back in the fifties when television began providing recurring series in the thirty to sixty minute range. Then gradually, as advertisements crept in, that time got shorter and shorter, and broken up in ways that force the fragmented attention span that just might encourage the death of the form. The arrival of sketch and skit shows, which are getting cut together more frantically with each passing year, continued this trend of limiting the audience’s need to focus for more than a couple of minutes at a time.

And then there was the internet. This brought with it a number of influences on the medium of visual storytelling. On the one hand it allowed for voices that might never get heard to have a platform. On the other hand, it brought with it the most imbecile of distractions from not just the great visual art of films, but of the real world in general. In terms of the medium though, it brought with it  web series made up of webisodes, which bring the brief twenty minute run time of many television shows down to just ten.

This has all been widely speculated about for many years as none of these are new developments. But one aspect of much television viewing and streaming that I think gets often overlooked is the effect of being able to press pause and play at your convenience. This has the obvious benefit of providing the ability to ensure that you don’t miss anything, which contributes to the quality of viewing experience one has as most of what I’m talking about here is the amount of focus viewers give the medium.

The flip side, though, is that the play/pause control encourages viewers to break up their experience, disrupting the flow and rhythm of a work, not necessarily because something else urgent is demanding their attention, but because with such easy access to so many sensory stimuli it becomes hard not to let your focus slide in favor of laziness, choosing not to commit to the mental energy required to focus and instead mentally masturbate, getting off on the thrill of looking at something fresh, a thrill that will never last more than five minutes.

That’s why it is my belief that the only thing that keeps the form of the feature length film alive is movie theaters. And the only thing that keeps the movie theaters going is that they get exclusive access to all major feature length films almost half a year before any of the other mediums get their hands on them. That exclusive right is the only thing that keeps people going to theaters in a society that cares less and less about traditional spectacle and more and more about how many apps they can fit on their iPhone.

The theater is the ultimate tool to combat the forces that seem to be, intentionally or not, tearing down the institution of film. I live in Austin, Texas. And like most Austin residents, I see most movies at one of the Alamo Drafthouse theaters. Anyone who has been to any of the many Drafthouse theaters all across the nation will be able to tell you they put on a video right before the start of the feature that informs the audience that they will be ejected from the theater if they catch you with your phone even turned on. And they’re serious about it.

While not all theaters are that strict, it is standard theater etiquette that I would say is in general adhered to to not to use your phone during a movie. When you combine that with the lack of play/pause control or literally anything else that could possibly distract you from what is happening on screen, the effect is that viewers actually have to watch movies the way they are intended to be seen. In my experience almost anyone who isn’t a very socially awkward outsider, a film major, or both, needs this environment to really appreciate the form. That is what scares me about Sean Parker’s (of Napster) latest venture, The Screening Room.

So what is Screening Room? In case you can’t guess already (or haven’t heard yet), it is the end of that exclusive right that theaters have. As Business Insider reports, Parker proposes is a $150 box that will be installed in users homes. Users will then have the ability to rent movies that are currently in theaters for a forty-eight hour period for a cost of $50. This isn’t an entirely new concept as IFC has offered a similar IFC In Theaters service for years. Though that is strictly to help films that aren’t getting significant theatrical releases find a wider audience. Then there was Tower Heist, which had a strategy much closer to that of Screening Room offering the film for $59.95. That was a disaster. But it was just one film. Screening Room is a subscription service and one that is founded by two very successful businessmen. The second being Prem Akkaraju. This feels more threatening to the theatrical experience.

Spielberg, Scorsese, J. J. Abrams, and Peter Jackson support Screening Room

Parker and Akkaraju announced their project last week. Initially, I didn’t have much of a reaction. But as the reactions have flooded in much faster than expected, generating a lot of attention, it has become clear that this isn’t going to be a quickly glossed over idea. This will come to fruition in one form or another.

Peter Jackson, the director of The Lord of the Rings, speaks out in favor of Screening Room.

Only a few days after the initial public announcement, Screening Room got major players backing it in Steven Spielberg, J. J. Abrams, Martin Scorsese, and Peter Jackson. As The Guardian reports, Peter Jackson had this to say about Screening Room:

“That is a critical point of difference with the DirecTV approach – and along with Screening Room’s robust anti-piracy strategy, is exactly why Screening Room has my support. Screening Room will expand the audience for a movie – not shift it from cinema to living room. It does not play off studio against theatre owner. Instead it respects both and is structured to support the long-term health of both exhibitors and distributors – resulting in greater sustainability for the wider film industry itself.” – Peter Jackson

This is in tune with what Parker and Akkaraju initially stated, implying that the goal was groups such as young parents with little kids at home that keep them from being able to leave to go to the theater without seeking a babysitter. I am admittedly no expert when it comes to understanding market segments, but I can’t imagine this is a large enough group to justify the service. And the fact that Screening Room might draw some more crowds to certain films does not convince me that it won’t still have the adverse effect of doing exactly what Jackson swears it won’t: “shift it from the cinema to the living room.” And then you are back to all the distractions and pause/play control that shape our ADD world.

Both Jackson and Parker have ensured that the goal is not to end the theater business. In fact it is built into the business model of Screening Room that theaters could earn up to $20 of $50 rental price per film, which is pretty substantial.  As Screen Rant reports, the National Association of Theater Owners (NATO) had this to say regarding Screening Room:

NATO has consistently called on movie distributors and exhibitors to discuss as partners release models that can grow the business for everyone. More sophisticated window modeling may be needed for the growing success of a modern movie industry. Those models should be developed by distributors and exhibitors in company-to-company discussions, not by a third party.

This is interesting, but also disheartening. In other words it sounds like theaters have no interest in trying to save themselves as theaters, but want to continue to have their hand in the movie industry money pot somehow. And it doesn’t sound like taking a whopping forty percent cut is satisfactory to them despite the fact that it would look like one hundred percent profit from where I’m sitting.

James Cameron looks as angry as he sounds about Sean Parker's new idea, Screening Room.

James Cameron and Christopher Nolan oppose the idea

Filmmakers other than the aforementioned supporters have lined up on the other side of the Screening Room fence as well. The first to publicly oppose Parker’s latest project were James Cameron and his regular producer Jon Landau. According to Variety, they had this to say:

“Both Jim and I remain committed to the sanctity of the in-theater experience… For us, from both a creative and financial standpoint, it is essential for movies to be offered exclusively in theaters for their initial release. We don’t understand why the industry would want to provide audiences an incentive to skip the best form to experience the art that we work so hard to create.” – Jon Landau

This is a little closer to stating an opinion that aligns with my own trepidations towards Screening Room. However, I feel their joint statement may have been slightly cheapened by the emphasis they place on the financials of the situation. So far Christopher Nolan has joined them on public record in opposition of Screening Room. As The Wrap noted, Nolan didn’t contribute much to conversation, stating “It would be hard to express the great importance of exclusive theatrical presentation to our industry more compellingly than Jon Landau and James Cameron did.” They also aptly point out that it would be likely for us to see the likes of Quentin Tarantino and Paul Thomas Anderson join this side of the argument shortly, among others.

Whether or not the first incarnation of Screening Room that we end up seeing looks at all like what Parker is currently describing, it has made such a large impact in such a small amount of time that it is hard to imagine this not playing a significant role in the changing face of cinema. What saddens me is that I know from experience that few people can fully immerse themselves in a film outside of the theater setting and I believe that number is becoming fewer and fewer with each passing day. With that in mind if Screening Room succeeds and hurts the idea of the movie theater on the whole, I believe the feature length film as a form within the medium will lose its appeal even faster than we’ve already seen it fade in the past century in the face of television and the internet combined. Just look at what Parker’s former venture Napster did to the record industry. Just think about how many people you know that listen to full albums versus playlists or even soundbites and then imagine what that would look like to the film industry.

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