“These are two different experiences, like going to a football game and watching a football game on TV.”
Nope. There is no analogy that’s more annoying than the one above, this time spoken by Netflix’s chief content officer, Ted Sarandos. Watching a movie at home is slightly like watching a live sporting event on TV, but going to the movies is nothing like going to a live sporting event, whatsoever. Not even the most lively, infectious, communally synched audience at a movie theater is a fraction of that of a football stadium crowd. And there’s nothing relating moviegoing to the excitement of being there on game day and being part of a unique moment that isn’t replicable. I can say this as someone who loves the theatrical movie experience and pretty much never goes to football games. If there is anything remotely close, it’d be the difference between attending the world premiere of Veronica Mars at SXSW, with the cast and director present on stage, and seeing the movie at home via VOD.
Sarandos was of course making the analogy, as it’s often made, in defense of day-and-date releases, claiming that a video-on-demand option of a movie simultaneous to its theatrical opening isn’t any more of an issue than a TV network broadcasting NFL games as they’re happening. This time it’s because Netflix itself has announced its first day-and-date release, for the sequel Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon: The Green Legend. The movie will be available for subscribers to stream on its release date, August 28, 2015, when it will also debut in cinemas solely on IMAX screens. The large-format exclusive isn’t an intentional arrangement, but reportedly no theater chains are interested in booking the movie because of the Netflix deal. Here’s the thing, though: it will be on IMAX screens housed in major chain theaters, because apparently IMAX gets to make that decision.*
Here’s another thing: this is not the end of the world, nor is it really that big a deal.
First of all, this is merely the latest instance of a day-and-date release, of which there have been hundreds in recent years and at least one a week these days. The only distinction with Netflix getting into this, compared with Magnolia and IFC Films, is that theirs will be immediately and “freely” available to a customer base of 36 million in the US. The usual day-and-date model involves viewers paying upwards of $10 as an additional fee to their cable subscription costs or as a la carte items from a non-subscription-based outlet like iTunes. When Sarandos hinted at the idea of Netflix day-and-date releases a year ago, the industry had a fit. But the only complaint I found to be warranted regards filmmakers being shut out of the sort of revenue they get with VOD as opposed to Netflix Watch Instantly. Around the same time, though, nobody believed a movie as big as this would happen so soon.
But is it a big movie? This is a modestly budgeted sequel to Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, the breakout wuxia martial arts film from 2000. Ang Lee is not returning as director, nor is cinematographer Peter Pau, and Michelle Yeoh appears to be the only original star who is back (she’s joined now by Hong Kong action star Donnie Yen). It won’t be a huge hit like the original nor similarly win any Oscars. Basically it’s a glorified direct-to-video release that will get a bonus showing in IMAX. Much of its target audience is the sort who would wait for video anyway, but if director Woo-ping Yuen (mostly known here as a fight choreographer for The Matrix, Kill Bill and the original Crouching Tiger) and cinematographer Newton Thomas Sigel (X-Men: Days of Future Past) can make something that looks magnificent enough to call for giant-screen viewing, at least once, much of that audience will also make a point of leaving home to see it.
That’s always been the case, not just with day-and-date releases but also pirated content. Maybe if there was no such thing as home entertainment of any kind then theaters would be booming, but as things are this isn’t about versions of the same product being in competition with each other. In response to the Sarandos controversy last year, Drafthouse’s Tim League said it best, by paraphrasing part of a keynote speech by indie producer/distributor Ira Deutchman: “It has been proven time and time again that cinema is not competing against home entertainment … a person makes one critical decision on a Friday night: to stay in or to go out. Cinema doesn’t compete with the ‘stay in’ options like Netflix, Redbox or even reading a good book. It competes with dinner, bowling, roller skating, going to a bar, etc, the ‘go out’ options.”
By boycotting movies like The Green Legend, theater chains do more harm to themselves. They’re agreeing that this is just something that should be direct-to-video, but the problem with that thinking is that eventually all movies could just be direct-to-video if the model suits the distributors and winds up being more lucrative. If Netflix ever did manage to get a deal for something like an Avengers movie day-and-date, and the theater industry boycotted the release and Marvel somehow made the same profit that it would have from cinemas, then why would any studio or distributor need to bother with the theaters again? Why deny your customers the option, anyway? It’s not like every screen in a multiplex is booked with something selling out the auditorium.
Theater owners aren’t crazy to be concerned about their industry, but there are ways for them to adapt and/or revolutionize their business (just ask League), and both complaining and boycotting are lame responses to the continuing changes going on, changes that League notes have been happening for the last 60 years. Instead of fighting with another industry that they depend on for their own, theater owners need to work on better joint deals and strategies. Why shouldn’t cinemas be able to offer a cheaper ticket price to movies that are day-and-date available on VOD, which tends to offer those same movies at higher prices than most VOD titles – a kind of balancing act? Why can’t the chains work with distributors like The Weinstein Company, which is attached to The Green Legend, to take much more of the box office split for a movie that’s also immediately on Netflix?
I’m just spitballing there, but I don’t work for a theater chain (anymore) nor the National Association of Theater Owners. And I’m sure they’ve already gone through those ideas and deemed them no good. So, they just need to keep working at it. Maybe try to find what will actually make going to the movies more of an equivalent to attending a live football game, or continue to evolve as a unique experience all its own.
*Update/correction: reports initially claimed that IMAX gets to decide what plays on their screens in major chain multiplexes, but according to boycott statements issued today by Regal, Cinemark, Carmike and AMC, this is not true. Here is a stern statement from AMC:
AMC Theatres and Wanda Cinema are the largest operators of IMAX-equipped auditoriums in the world. We license just the technology from IMAX. Only AMC and Wanda decide what programming plays in our respective theatres. No one has approached us to license this made-for-video sequel in the U.S. or China, so one must assume the screens IMAX committed are in science centers and aquariums.
Related Topics: Netflix