Screening Room: What Is It and What Does It Mean for Cinema?

A new streaming service aims to bring us the latest cinema releases at home - for a cost. We take a look at Screening Room...

This article originally appeared on Den of Geek UK.

You may have already noticed that the common story in two of this year’s biggest films is of heroes who become sworn enemies. In one corner, we have Batman V Superman, with the Caped Crusader and the Man of Steel locked in a furious battle seemingly orchestrated by Lex Luthor. In the other there’s Captain America: Civil War, which sees the Avengers split into two opposing factions – one supporting a government register for those with super powers, the other against it.

A similar rift appears to be opening up in the film industry – this time over a new streaming service called Screening Room. Proposed by Napster co-creator Sean Parker, Screening Room will, if it goes ahead, allow its subscribers to watch brand new films in their living rooms on the same day they come out in cinemas. Already, the idea has received both strong backing and vehement rejection from some of Hollywood’s biggest names. So how does Screening Room work, how much does it cost, and could it be the future of cinema, at least for some of us?

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How it works

First, using Screening Room won’t be as simple as downloading an app. Prospective customers will first have to purchase a set-top box — a piece of hardware designed to prevent films being pirated as well as stream the movies to televisions — at a cost of around $150. 

That box will then provide access to day-and-date access to new movies, with the 48-hour rental of each movie costing $50 each. Of course, that sounds quite steep when you could simply head to the cinema and watch a movie for the fraction of the cost, yet there are always other costs to factor in when heading to the cinema – especially if you have kids. By the time you’ve accounted for gas, snacks, a babysitter (or your kids’ tickets if you’ve dragged them along too), then maybe $50 won’t sound like such a bad deal.

Sean Parker, who’s hatched Screening room with music industry exec Prem Akkaraju, has said himself that Screening Room is aimed at those who don’t go to the cinema rather than avid movie-goers. At the same time, the service will attempt to offer an olive branch to cinema chains, first by cutting them in on a percentage of the profits from each Screening Room transaction – which could amount to as much as $20 for every $50 users spend. Screening Room customers will also get two free cinema tickets – presumably to coax them into experiencing their favorite films again on a larger screen.

The system isn’t necessarily without its merits. But what’s interesting about Screening Room isn’t so much the service itself, but who’s come out in support of it…

Those in favor

Given that Hollywood’s most successful directors rely on the sales of cinema tickets to make their living, you might think they’d be against Screening Room. Yet among the service’s highest-profile supporters are J.J. Abrams, Steven Spielberg and Peter Jackson – in other words, the directors of some of the most popular films of all time. So what is it that they like about Screening Room.

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Well, you don’t have to look far to see how greatly technology has changed our viewing habits. Smartphones, tablets, YouTube and Netflix – there are more devices and entertainment services competing for our precious spare time than ever. Then when you throw in things like the prevalence of online film piracy, steadily falling DVD and Blu-ray sales and the ever-rising price of cinema tickets, a fairly strong overall picture emerges. Audiences are still hungry for entertainment, but the demand appears to be for greater flexibility and better value. In short, if there’s hours of entertainment on Netflix for relatively little cost, consumers need a compelling reason to leave the comfort of their couch in order to purchase a new Blu-ray or head to the cinema.

There have been attempts to launch a similar video-on-demand service in the past, such as DirecTV in 2011, but the objection has long been that such a service will simply hasten the industry’s demise. For supporters like Peter Jackson and J.J. Abrams, Screening Room seems to offer convenience and flexibility while at the same time feeding the industry as a whole with a cut of the profits. Here’s what Jackson told The Hollywood Reporter at the SXSW:

“I had concerns about DirecTV in 2011, because it was a concept that I believe would have led to the cannibalization of theatrical revenues, to the ultimate detriment of the movie business,” Jackson said. “Screening Room, however, is very carefully designed to capture an audience that does not currently go to the cinema […] Screening Room will expand the audience for a movie – not shift it from cinema to living room. It does not play off studio against theater owner. Instead it respects both, and is structured to support the long-term health of both exhibitors and distributors – resulting in greater sustainability for the wider film industry itself.”

Those sentiments were echoed by JJ Abrams, who argues that, far from reducing theatre owners’ profits, Screening Room could actually provide a much-needed boost.

“I responded to that system mostly because it actually is beneficial to the exhibitors,” Abrams said. “I think the metrics on that are very impressive and they’re targeting groups that actually don’t go to the movies at all. If they could harness even a fraction of the number that don’t [go to cinemas], the amount of money that would go to the cinemas is significant and actually is amazingly helpful to the cinematic experience.”

It’s not just filmmakers who like the sound of Screening Room, either. THR also reports that AMC Entertainment, one of the largest theatre chains in America, is interested in the service, while ex-Sony executive Jeff Blake is consulting with Akkaraju and Parker on their venture.

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So if Screening Room users get to watch new movies in their own home – at a cost, admittedly – and cinema chains still get a profit, then everybody wins, right? As you may have gathered, it isn’t as simple as that…

Those against

J.J. Abrams, Steven Spielberg, Peter Jackson. Those are some great names to have on-side. But the filmmakers in the opposing corner are big Hollywood players, too. First up, there’s James Cameron – the kind of filmmaker you definitely wouldn’t want to get into a shouting match with. Speaking on behalf of Cameron, Jon Landau, the producer on Titanic and Avatar, said:

“Both Jim and I remain committed to the sanctity of the in-theatre experience. For us, from both a creative and financial standpoint, it is essential for movies to be offered exclusively in theaters for their initial release. We don’t understand why the industry would want to provide audiences an incentive to skip the best form to experience the art that we work so hard to create.”

Christopher Nolan concurs with Cameron and Landau’s view. In an email to Variety, the filmmaker wrote, “It would be hard to express the great importance of exclusive theatrical presentation to our industry more compellingly than Jon Landau and James Cameron did.” 

Ultimately, though, it isn’t filmmakers who hold the greatest sway over Screening Room’s future, but cinema owners. They’ve successfully blocked attempts to change the gap between theatrical and home releases in the past, and the creators of Screening Room know that if they face significant opposition from this sector of the business – even with the olive branch of free tickets for customers and a cut of the profits for exhibitors – then their service will be cut down before it’s even launched.

The news thus far seems decidedly mixed. While AMC Entertainment appear to be receptive to Screening Room, The Hollywood Reporter’s insiders suggest that two other major US cinema chains, Cinemark and Regal Entertainment, are not currently in favor of it. Speaking to the outlet, Cinemark boss Mark Zoradi was non-committal at best.

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“The exhibition window has been the most stable window long-term and the theatrical success of a film drives the value proposition for the studios’ downstream ancillary markets,” he said. “Cinemark believes that any day-and-date propositions must be critically evaluated to avoid the devaluation of the exhibition window and all subsequent revenue streams of our content providers.”

More worryingly for Screening Room, American cinema-chain representatives The National Association of Theatre Owners (or NATO) has also stated its disapproval of the service.

“The exclusive theatrical release window makes new movies events,” NATO wrote in a statement. “Success there establishes brand value and bolsters revenue in downstream markets.”

So is it the future?

As wonderful as the cinema-going experience can be at its very best, it’s clear that on-demand services like Netflix and Amazon Prime are here to stay. The best approach for the film industry as a whole is surely to find a means of accommodating those who want to enjoy their entertainment at home and those who see the latest releases as events to be enjoyed in a cinema with friends. On the face of it, Screening Room seems like a reasonable middle-ground; the main sticking point, we’d suspect, is its cost. If the service is aimed at those who don’t go to cinemas, will they be willing to stump up $50 to watch a new movie – and if so, how often will they be able to afford to do so?

At the very least, the support for Screening Room indicates that the industry is seriously looking at how to keep the theatrical experience viable in an age of streaming video. In the late 1990s, the music industry responded to the existence of Napster with litigation and anger, rather than try to see its emergence for what it was: a demand for a more convenient, up-to-date means of buying and listening to music.

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Screening Room isn’t necessarily the perfect solution, but it does at least appear to have been developed with the best intentions at heart. Not everyone has the time, inclination or ability to get out of their house and head to their local cinema. Screening Room – or at least something like it – could give those people a means of seeing the films they’re interested in while at the same time supporting the traditional, theatrical experience for the rest of us. Because let’s face it, it’s on the big screen where movies truly belong.