If you’ve gone to the movies lately, particularly to an action movie, you’ve probably been congratulated for seeing the film in question “as it’s meant to be seen,” as big as possible, and in a very large, darkened room, with strangers who have also paid for the privilege of being there. These reassurances are part of a larger effort by the film industry to convince consumers that there’s a real urgency and artistic necessity to seeing movies at a cinema, rather than waiting to watch them on a large flat-screen television on your own home, or on a tablet or smartphone screen. And it makes sense, both for theater owners, and for the movie studios whose business is not wholly dependent on them, but is deeply intertwined with them. Given how much lower home video fees are than movie theater tickets, this is a matter of urgent business sense for both parties, and it’s also what’s behind the drive to shoot films in 3D and to convert them into that format.
But the truth is that movie theaters are always going to face a significant challenge as long as they don’t have an exclusive lock on their product. While blockbusters can still still rake in enormous amounts of money, audiences are showing increasing patience when it comes to consuming content they’re exciting about, whether they’re holding out to binge entire seasons of television, or hosting Marvel movie marathons. If theaters want to keep viewers in seats–and it’s not as if ticket sales aren’t capable of increasing even in present conditions–I wonder if theaters have to follow the example of their competitors like Netflix and Amazon and start locking up exclusive content. In the current media environment, it’s not merely a matter of having content first. It’s about having content that isn’t available anywhere else.
I’m reminded of all of this because of the news that Netflix, which is also considering getting distributed through cable subscriptions, is contemplating producing serial content for movie theaters that would air there and become available on Netflix after their theatrical runs. These long-running mini-series, with an episode released every other month, would make movie theaters more like television, a place you’d need to revisit on a regular basis to catch up on the same story. And the months-long delay between episodes would presumably heighten viewer anticipation in a way that waiting to see a whole season at once doesn’t.
Similarly, I think Pixar’s been wise to attach exclusive animated shorts to its movies, replicating a part of the movie-going experience that’s largely been replaced by animated dancing candy and extended commercials prior to the regular-sized commercials that air when the lights go down. Seeing a short with the movie is a palate-cleanser from the commercials that air before the movie. It’s something small and special. And it makes the experience of going to see a Pixar movie feel different from attending a film from any other studio. It distinguishes the brand, just as the content of the film itself does.
Going to the movies has never been more expensive, but it increasingly feels less special. The theaters are dirty, the food is bad and hideously expensive, and the hurdles to get to the content are exhausting. Giving us more content for the price of our tickets, would be one way to rectify the ways in which the moviegoing experience as become degraded and commercial. And making that content special would make the prospect of going to the movies feel like we’re genuinely getting access to something we can’t get anywhere else. That’s a much better pitch than simply offering us bigger and louder.