Is there a death looming for cinematic releases thanks to a tech-savvy world?

Warner Brothers, 20th Century Fox, Universal and Sony Entertainment, are planning to introduce a premium video-on-demand service that will allow users to stream movies on their computers/TV screens just six to eight weeks after their cinematic release dates.

For consumers, it means a night on the couch with the latest releases instead of filling a chair in a movie-theatre. Cinemas, however, aren’t quite enamored with the idea.

And can anyone blame them? The only real hitch to the whole concept seems to be the price: new releases will be available for rental for US$30, a fair way higher than what a cinema will typically charge each patron. But cinemas are fearful that many consumers will gladly fork out a higher price for the convenience of in-home viewing. And certainly if you’re watching collectively (piled up on the couch, perhaps), the price would well be a bargain seeing as you pay per rental and not for the number of people who end up watching it.

The fact is that a new film release will in any event end up in a digitally accessible format or a DVD. But what’s at stake here is the window period between cinematic release and home availability. Cinemas say that cutting the standard four-month gap between big screen and small screen will greatly reduce their income and could cause widespread cinema closures. Some chains are now blankly refusing to screen the next season’s round of blockbusters in protest.

A group of rather heavyweight Hollywood directors, including James Cameron (Avatar, Titanic, Terminator 1 and 2), Guillermo del Toro (Pan’s Labyrinth), Michael Mann (Last of the Mohicans, Heat, Public Enemies) have made it clear that they oppose the new distribution model. “The cinema experience,” Cameron quoted in the New York Times, “is the wellspring of our entire business, regardless of what platforms we trickle down to. If the exhibitors are worried, I’m worried. We should be listening to them.”

What does it mean for consumers? To be sure, it’s yet another one of the conveniences offered by modern technology. But I know of so many techno-savvy professionals who’ve become particularly adept at relying on peer-to-peer BitTorrents to source illegal copies of almost any film. Piracy remains a rampant problem in the film and music industry, so offering legitimate avenues for premium home downloads could actually end up helping production companies make up lost revenue.

Finally, are cinema’s so bad we conceive of them as a chore to visit? According to one user:

“Nothing but nothing would ‘lure’ me into the local cesspool/garage tip that are called ‘cinemas’. Not only do you risk ruining your clothing from some pig-like object who leaves a trail of detritus all over the seats, but the enjoyment is spoiled by people who leave their cell phones turned on or who even talk on them during a performance.

Then you get the parents who can’t afford a baby-sitter who permit their progeny to scream their heads off in competition with the sound track. Then there are the back row couples whose sexual antics need a separate rating from the movie.”

I’ll acknowledge that we tend to be fairly protective over our entertainment. Bad-apple cinema experiences do happen, but I wouldn’t dream of trading the excitement of the big-screen, the dimming lights, the smell of hot popcorn and slurping slushies for a more sanitisied home equivalent.



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