Napster co-founder’s idea for set-top box to screen new film releases could be revolutionary

Sean Parker and his music exec partner call it The Screening Room, and it would let home subscribers see films the day they land in cinemas. It’s an idea that’s sharply divided the film industry. Would it fly in Hong Kong? Or China?

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 28 April, 2016, 6:33am
UPDATED : Thursday, 28 April, 2016, 6:32am

Small enough to nestle next to your television, it’s also big enough to send shock waves through Hollywood.

Ever since information was leaked in March about The Screening Room, the new proposal from Sean Parker, the co-founder of file-sharing site Napster, and music industry executive Prem Akkaraju, rifts have appeared across the film industry. A-List directors, studio executives and cinema exhibitors have sided into opposing camps, either for or against a piece of kit that looks set to revolutionise the movie-going experience.

Then again, perhaps that should be read “movie-staying” experience.

The nub of Parker and Akkaraju’s proposal, one that’s been hawked around Hollywood these past few months, is to provide consumers with the chance to watch brand new movies from the comfort of their homes on the very same day they’re launched in cinemas.

Willing viewers will be required to pay US $150 for a set-top box fitted with anti-piracy technology, before shelling out US$50 to stream a movie over a 48-hour period.

With the rise of home-cinema technology over the past decade, The Screening Room could be the next logical step in the way we consume movies, argue its supporters.

“Screening Room will expand the audience for a movie – not shift it from cinema to living room,” says Lord of the Rings director Peter Jackson, one of several high-profile Hollywood filmmakers backing the service. “It does not play off studio against theatre owner. Instead it respects both.”

Studios such as Universal, Fox and Sony are all reported to be taking the idea very seriously. Likewise US chain AMC Theatres is said to be close to signing a deal.

One of the key ideas is that each US$50 purchase comes complete with two free tickets to see the same movie at a theatre of the consumer’s choice – a move designed to entice viewers to the cinemas at a later date, so that the exhibitors don’t lose out on the all-important concession stand sales of food and drink.

Whether this sweetener will work in reality remains to be seen: one of the reasons why The Screening Room has been gaining attention in the first place is the argument that it offers a cheaper alternative than actually going to the cinema, where other costs – transport, parking, babysitting, dining out – ensure a night at the movies is fast-becoming an expensive activity.

Why, then, would audience members want to stump up for all those costs, even if they have free tickets, for a movie they’ve already seen?

Parker and Akkaraju have so far kept their counsel, refusing to comment on their proposals until, presumably, deals are in place with studios and exhibitors (the latter reportedly set to receive US$20 per movie “sale”).

But support is growing; high-profile devotees include Steven Spielberg, Martin Scorsese, Ron Howard and Star Wars: The Force Awakens director J.J. Abrams, who recently told an audience at CinemaCon – the annual Las Vegas gathering of cinema exhibitors – “We need to adapt”.

Those against the idea include The Dark Knight director Christopher Nolan and Avatar’s James Cameron and his producing partner Jon Landau, who all avidly support what Nolan calls “the great importance of exclusive theatrical presentation”.

And it’s the word “exclusive” that’s key here. For years, studios and cinema chains have kept sacrosanct the so-called “theatrical window” – usually a 90-day time period that separates a film’s cinema release from its home-video debut.

Largely, this is at the behest of the exhibitors, who have a vested interest in keeping that in-cinemas-only window open for as long as possible.

In 2011, when Universal tried to sell Brett Ratner’s Tower Heist via premium video-on-demand – at a price of US$59.99 – just three weeks after its release, the company shelved the idea after protests. The upshot of it is, cinema chains fear anything that will cannibalise their chances of enticing paying customers into their movie theatres.

The question is, how likely is a direct-to-television model like The Screening Room liable to effect the way we consume movies?

To the younger generation, reared on the instant gratification that entertainment services such as iTunes and Netflix provides, the appeal is obvious: see a brand new movie at your convenience. Already, the notion of “big screen” entertainment has been turned upside down with viewers proving willing to watch movies on tablets and smartphones.

Yet some feel the moviegoing experience remains a vital, thriving part of popular culture.

“I still firmly believe that people love going to the theatre,” argues Felix Tsang, acquisitions manager for leading Hong Kong film distributor Golden Scene.

“Although there’s a joy to enjoying a movie at home with friends and family, it does take away from the theatrical experience of watching a movie in a theatre full of people, and with the proper projection quality and surround sound.”

Tsang is convinced that the local Asian market won’t be changed by The Screening Room, or any similar such service.

“I don’t see it having a big effect in territories like Hong Kong and Taiwan, where the culture of going to the theatre is quite a common pastime,” he says.

“Also, because of practical real estate obstacles, it is simply not possible to fit a proper screening room with a projector and surround sound into someone’s home in the city of Hong Kong. I see it happening to the elite in China, where they have much bigger houses.”

Curiously, exhibitors are happy to sanction such a service to the wealthy elite. Take the US-based PRIMA Cinema, a highly expensive way of seeing first-run movies in high-resolution in your home.

It needs technology that costs US$35,000, and each film costs US$500 to rent for a 24-hour period. The tech is also ultra-protected, with thumbprint biometric security. It’ll even stop working if you move it – all of which has pacified exhibitors, who see it as a luxury for the super-rich.

The Screening Room is a different matter, offering movies for the masses. Even without high-end home-cinema technology such as projectors or surround sound, consumers will be enticed by the prospect of watching what they want when they want.

In an age of tumbling DVD and Blu-ray sales, the notion of seeing a movie now seems to far outweigh owning it forever. Of course, the very idea of consumers playing brand new movies in their homes comes with added problems: notably piracy.

The Screening Room’s set-top box may be fitted with (as yet unspecified) anti-piracy technology but that hasn’t left industry figures feeling any easier.

“In a private setting, without any supervision, I think it is an easy way for people to pirate a film,” says Tsang, echoing the sentiments of many.

Certainly, the ramifications for worldwide distributors, who might schedule their release later than the US only to face widespread piracy, could be disastrous.

Even if consumers don’t find a way to duplicate the movie, the very nature of streaming a brand new movie to someone’s house comes with temptations.

“For US$50 you can invite 10 people over to see it and who knows, people might even start to charge admission to their house,” former Disney and Miramax International executive Jere Hausfater recently told trade site Screen Daily.

It all suggests that Parker and Akkaraju’s idea will cut into exhibitor revenues, unless cinema chains up their game. Whether it’s offering “events” that simply can’t be replicated at home, such as live Q&As with cast and crews, or creating a screening environment good enough to entice a film fan to leave his hi-tech home cinema, something has to be done – or a night at the movies might become a thing of the past.