It’s Popcorn Time. Not. (See demo video below.)
As studio lawyers played whack-a-mole with yet another Torrent streaming movie site, things wrapped up Thursday night at CinemaCon, the annual convention mounted at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas by the National Association of Theater Owners (NATO), which represents some 30,000 movie screens in the United States and cinemas in fifty countries worldwide. I devote a chapter on the battle between the studios and exhibitors amid the shift to digital in my HarperCollins book “The $11 Billion Year: From Sundance to the Oscars, an Inside Look at the Changing Hollywood System,” which I excerpt a bit below:
About five thousand people—NATO exhibitors, major studio chiefs and key marketing staff, independent producers and distributors, concessionaires, agents, and trade press—congregate for four days and nights to review the past and get a glimpse of the future. Longtime partners, the majors and exhibitors have historically struggled in their symbiotic relationship, but cannot thrive without cooperating. That partnership has never been more fractured than it is now, as their mutual interests are no longer the same.
The CinemaCon annual rituals are simple: the major studios display their wares via show reels and fly a few stars into Las Vegas by company jet. The stars understand that the theater owners are their bread and butter: the work owners do to sell movies locally to moviegoers helps to build actors’ careers…
Like everyone else, theater owners and studios are dealing with the shift to digital, which has radically changed everything about how movies are produced and released. The internet gives and takes away, competing for eyeballs with so much noisy content—video games, social media, streaming, downloads, video on demand— that studios and theaters need to be smart about reaching consumers and luring them to the multiplex…
While the theater chains are unified in their mission to hang onto moviegoers for dear life, the studios have their own conflicting agendas. They are well aware that they have many more distribution options than ever before: the global theatrical market is just the most crucial and potentially lucrative.
And the studios watched the music business lose its profit margins to rampant piracy, which was about consumers wanting to consume what they wanted when they wanted, for free, mostly. The music companies ignored for too long the signs of changing demand. It took Apple chief Steve Jobs to radically alter the economic model and devise a profitable way of selling music to buyers by the download.
Luckily for the Hollywood studios, digital piracy of feature films required far more bandwidth and was more difficult to accomplish—for a while. The question was, would the studios bend to consumer demand, giving them what they wanted, or hang on to their tried-and-true—and lucrative—ancillary windows, which required movie fans to either go to theaters or wait months for video on demand and DVD?
Here’s the old paradigm: premiere a movie in theaters, then make it available three or four months later at a high premium cost via VOD, then sell and rent DVDs, then show it on pay cable, and then make it available on broadcast television all over the world.
The theaters were happy because they were the sole venue for selling movies for three to four months. They wanted a space of time so that moviegoers wouldn’t think, “Oh, I’ll just wait for cable.” The studios were happy because they could collect revenues from every stream. But piracy was growing all over the world and eating into revenues, no matter how vigilant the fight against in-theater camcorders. Hence more studios started to favor opening films in theaters around the world ahead, or at the same time as north America, to cut that risk; 3-D was another hedge against copying.
Meanwhile, studio DVD revenues continued to plateau after the 2008 recession, when consumers stopped stocking their home video libraries. And Netflix somewhat clumsily began to encourage its customers to subscribe not only to rent DVDs via their signature returnable red envelopes, but to online streaming as well. in 2012, Netflix changed the conversation entirely, competing with television directly by producing its own high-end programming. (in March 2013, after Netflix made available the entire season of David Fincher’s $60 million, thirteen-episode remake of the Brit series House of Cards—relocated to Washington, D.C., and starring Kevin Spacey, Robin Wright, and Kate Mara—the company’s stock soared and subscription services like HBO, along with the mighty networks, faced increased consumer demand for binge-viewing, the ability to watch an entire season all at once.)
Consumers, thanks to such independent companies as Magnolia Pictures and IFC Films, both owned by cable operators, were getting used to being able to download and stream via Netflix, iTunes, Hulu, TiVo, Roku, Playstation 3, and Amazon. They could even watch premium subscription VOD on their local cable system weeks before a movie hit theaters…
Clearly, it’s in the interest of the studios and exhibitors to get along. But this standoff is not going to be resolved easily. The overt hostilities have stopped. But the theaters are dependent on robust commercial product to survive, while the studios are struggling to figure out the best way to give consumers what they want. The digital wars are not over.
So what happened this week at CinemaCon 2014? Here’s the studio-by-studio breakdown:
Tentpoles: Two were from Michael Bay, including his reboot of Nickelodeon’s “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” (August 8) and 14 minutes of the fourth Hasbro “Transformers” film, “Age Of Extinction,” starring Mark Wahlberg, who promised exhibs that when the picture opens June 27 it will not only be the biggest film of 2014 but will outgross the other three films combined. (Bay is also producing “Project Almanac” for Paramount for January 2015.) The third less surefire entry was MGM’s “Hercules,” starring Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson (let’s hope it does better than Lionsgate’s “The Legend Of Hercules”).
Hohum Sequels: Not generating much enthusiasm were “Hot Tub Time Machine 2” and “SpongeBob Squarepants” in 3D.
Oscar Talk: More promising was Paramount’s potential awards contender, Christopher Nolan’s “Interstellar” (November 7), which stars Oscar-winner Matthew McConaughey. (Later in the week, Nolan gave a keynote on the future of film that stressed his love for 35 mm.) And Jason Reitman’s follow-up to “Labor Day” is “Men, Women & Children,” starring Adam Sandler in more serious vein and Reitman regular Jennifer Garner.
Tentpoles: Studio Chairman Donna Langley debuted the first footage of “Fifty Shades of Grey,” which she described as the “next iconic screen romance.” The footage from the first installment of E.L. James’ S & M trilogy included some kissing and an elevator scene between Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan) and Anastasia Steele (Dakota Johnson)—nothing too scary for exhibitors, who tend to be a conservative middle-of-the-road group.
The studio is also teasing their “Jurassic Park” reboot and sequels “Dumb and Dumber To,” which brings back Jim Carrey and Jeff Daniels, “Despicable Me 3” and “Fast and Furious 7,” starring the late Paul Walker alongside new villains Jason Statham and Kurt Russell.
Breakout: Universal screened in full for exhibs Nicholas Stoller’s raucous R-rated comedy “Neighbors,” which having seen I can say will be a huge hit. Seth Rogen and Rose Byrne are here to stay–and so is Zac Ephron (if he stops lurking around downtown Los Angeles in the middle of the night).
Lower-Budget: Universal showed a trailer starring Scarlett Johansson as yet another femme fatale in “Lucy,” and promoed a Jason Blum low-budget thriller “The Purge: Anarchy” and “Ted” writer-director Seth MacFarlane’s “A Million Ways to Die in the West,” in which MacFarlane meets his match in gunslinger Charlize Theron.
Oscar Talk: White-clad director Angelina Jolie is bidding for awards with her sophomore directorial effort “Unbroken,” the Louie Zamperini biopic due on Christmas Day.
Tentpoles: The studio screened 30 minutes of sequences from Marc Webb’s “The Amazing Spider-Man 2,” starring leads Andrew Garfield and Emma Stone and villains Jamie Foxx (Electro) and Dane De Haan (Green Goblin).
Comedies: The studio teased “Sex Tape,” starring “Bad Teacher” duo Cameron Diaz and Jason Segal and “The Interview” with James Franco and Seth Rogen.
Musical: Will Gluck’s latest movie version of the Broadway musical “Annie” stars Foxx, Rose Byrne and Quvenzhane Wallis.
Sequels: Channing Tatum and Jonah Hill are back in highly anticipated “22 Jump Street,” and there’s also “Think Like A Man Too.”
Oscar Talk: Scott Rudin is producing the latest untitled Cameron Crowe film, which is set in Hawaii and stars Bradley Cooper, Emma Stone, Bill Murray and Alec Baldwin. And there’s also David Ayer’s World War II drama “Fury” (November 14) starring Brad Pitt, Shia LaBeouf, Logan Lerman, Jon Bernthal, Michael Peña, and Jason Isaacs.
Tentpoles: Disney touted Marvel’s “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” and “Guardians of the Galaxy” but did not disclose details for Lucasfilm’s “Star Wars” (December 15, 2015) except to say that the film set 30 years after “Episode 6″ and starring three young actors starts shooting in May. Disney chairman Alan Horn admitted that Pixar won’t open a feature in 2014, because animation czar John Lasseter wants to keep working on two for 2015, including Pete Docter’s ambitious “Inside Out”–footage wowed the exhibs– and “The Good Dinosaur.”
Fairy Tale Movies: Angelina Jolie stars in production designer-turned-director Robert Stromberg’s vsually sumptuous “Maleficent” (May 30), which has had reshoots, and Christmas brings Rob Marshall’s big-budget Stephen Sondheim musical “Into the Woods,” starring Meryl Streep. In 2015 comes Kenneth Branagh’s live action “Cinderella,” starring Lily James, Cate Blanchett and Richard Madden.
Oscar Talk: The studio screened the entire India-set sports drama “Million Dollar Arm” (May 16) written by Tom McCarthy and directed by Craig Gillespie, starring Jon Hamm as a down-on-his-luck agent looking to turn cricket players into baseball stars, which Horn said tested off the charts. The score is by “Slumdog Millionaire” star A.R. Rhaman.
Studio chairman Jim Gianopulos introed three would-be blockbusters: Bryan Singer’s “X-Men: Days of Future Past,” Matt Reeves’ “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes”
and DreamWorks Animation’s anticipated “How to Train Your Dragon 2.”
The studio also gave a peek at Ridley Scott’s “Exodus: Gods and Kings,” starring Christian Bale as Moses, its latest Bible entry, as well as David Fincher’s “Gone Girl,” starring Ben Affleck, and Guillermo Del Toro’s animated adventure “Book of Life.”
Comedies: Jake Johnson and Damon Wayans Jr. star in Luke Greenfield’s “Let’s Be Cops” (August 13), and Cameron Diaz and Leslie Mann topline Nick Cassavetes’ revenge fantasy “The Other Woman.”
Hohum Sequel: Ben Stiller is back in Shawn Levy’s “Night at the Museum 3.”
Breakout: Fox unveiled a scene from Matthew Vaughn spy thriller “Secret Service,” starring Colin Firth and Samuel L. Jackson.
Oscar Talk: “Divergent” star Shailene Woodley is building buzz for her role in the film based on John Green’s weepie “The Fault in Our Stars.”
Tentpoles: For the first time new studio topper Kevin Tsujihara introduced the footage, including Gareth Edwards’ mega-monster movie “Godzilla,” starring Bryan Cranston. Peter Jackson provided a New Zealand video intro to the final installment of his second JRR Tolkien trilogy, “The Hobbit: There and Back Again.” Johnny Depp and Morgan Freeman accompanied Christopher Nolan cinematographer-turned-director Wally Pfister’s directorial debut, “Transcendence.” Tom Cruise and Emily Blunt costar in Doug Liman’s big-budget sci-fi war flick “Edge of Tomorrow.” Channing Tatum and Mila Kunis star in the Wachowskis’ bid for comeback, “Jupiter Ascending.”
Comedies: Pregnant Drew Barrymore and Adam Sandler cracked up the crowd for Frank “Wedding Singer” Coraci’s comedy “Blended,” while husband-and-wife writer team Ben Falcone and Melissa McCarthy did the same for R-rated “Tammy,” which stars McCarthy and Susan Sarandon.
Disaster film: Steven Quale’s “Into the Storm” may tap into weather anxiety.
Low Budget: The film adaptation of Gayle Forman’s YA novel “If I Stay” stars Chloe Grace Moretz as a teen who must decide how to survive the deaths of her parents in a car crash.
Oscar Talk: Clint Eastwood introduced his Frankie Valli 60s movie musical “Jersey Boys” (June 20).
Meanwhile what the studios and exhibitors should be thinking about is what free streaming site Popcorn Time (which keeps shutting down) supplies via uninterrupted Torrent sharing: a sweet user interface and a well-organized searchable deep hi-res library of old and new titles easily loaded in less than 30 seconds (a much better sampling than Netflix), from current releases “Frozen” and “The Wolf of Wall Street” to the “Star Wars” and “Godfather” films (see demo below). This is the (illegal) fantasy site that audiences really want. The studios balk at even considering such a site because of the long-term billions still to be gained from the old windows model (thank you HBO) and fears of piracy. The NYTimes addresses this here. (Warner Bros. recognized the limitations of studio site UltraViolet when it tried to supply customers with “Veronica Mars” downloads.)
Consumers shouldn’t have to navigate hideous passwords and multiple clicks to get to a movie–with Popcorn Time, two clicks and you’re there. There’s no longer any technological barrier to delivering streaming to consumers. The barrier is the studios’ refusal to understand who their audience is. They are accustomed to dictating down to them with their mighty ad dollars–“you will buy this!” Well, they’re already figuring out that they can no longer get away with shoving lousy product down moviegoers’ throats. Hence tinkering, reshoots and redos are the order of the day on such films as “Where the Wild Things Are,” “World War Z” and “47 Ronin.”
As the studios and theater owners continue pursuing the popcorn-movie model–and yes, I believe people will continue going to movie houses for years to come– they may also want to invest in growing their potential audience via an alternative streaming portal like Popcorn Time.
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