Readers of HomeTheaterReview.com invest in varying grades of AV systems, from enthusiastic yet entry-level all the way to insanely expensive, purpose-built, stadium-seat epic home theaters. It's safe to say that today even a Vizio LCD and a sound bar in many ways offer a more comfortable, enjoyable experience than trekking out to the cineplex. Those of us lucky enough to own dedicated home theater rooms with front projectors can make a legitimate argument that every aspect of the experience of watching a movie at home is better. The difference between 1080p video and film on, say, an eight-foot screen is small. The audio is as good at home with DTS Master Audio and Dolby TrueHD as it is in the theater and I can guarantee you your seating is more comfortable in your living room, media room or dedicated theater than even Hollywood's best movie theaters. Simply put, home theater in many ways is just better than the theatrical experience.
Unless you are one of the top 100 executives in Hollywood who can call up a union projectionist and have a finished version of a first run, blockbuster film brought over to your home for a private screening, where home theaters falls short is access to first-run material. Yes, the lead time for big movies to come out on Blu-ray is getting shorter and shorter. Some Saturday nights you want to watch the new movie without the expensive, uncomfortable and timely experience of going to the local cineplex.
This weekend, a pro golfer friend of mine was about as hyped as anybody I have heard in recent memory to see the Sasha Baron Cohen film Bruno. I share his unbridled enthusiasm for moron humor, as my DVR is loaded with Family Guy, South Park and Aqua Teen Hunger Force. If I want to be depressed, I can look at my SEP IRA with all of the little red arrows pointing down to the depths of financial Hell. When I watch TV or a movie, I can go for a good (often tasteless) laugh.
But I am unwilling to head down to Westwood or Third Street Promenade in Santa Monica to see Bruno. I have an Xbox 360. I have Apple TV. I have a ReQuest Media Server. I have a PS3. I have a DirecTV HD DVR. I have a Blu-ray player with the latest Internet connection. Any of these sources could deliver Bruno to me for consumption in my theater, assuming the business model was there. Today, it simply isn't, but it's not hard to see how it could be.
The movie theater business is very likely going to be one of the next "old media" fatalities, along with the likes of print magazines, newspapers and radio, unless they reinvent themselves and there is no sign of that coming soon. Theaters do little other than rip you off for a tub of popcorn and amp you up on a gallon of soda while you glue your feet to the floor in their pretty underwhelming, often non-digital theaters. The experience isn't good enough for the prices charged, but studios today are comfortable making money this way, as it is the first salvo of many in the process of selling a movie to the masses. The movie I executive-produced, April Showers, was on Apple's iTunes in its second week and, because it was an indie movie, many theater chains simply refused to run it, despite the consumer demand in cities like Los Angeles and Denver. The chains are scared that, if a small-scale indie movie like April Showers was a hit at any level in the theaters as well as on download, that their business model would be dead. Here's a news flash for you - the theatrical model is already dead.
The lure of releasing a movie direct to customers is pretty sexy for studios, albeit perhaps a little early for the concept. Cable companies, satellite providers and media companies like Apple, Microsoft and others can get HD content, with no disc to rip, no packaging, no middleman, no loss of profit margin, right into consumers' hands. Apple currently has 1,500,000 users with their credit cards on file with iTunes who can buy movies. Imagine how many copies of a first-run HD movie a major studio could sell that way? Imagine how many new home theater consumers would want to buy/download first-run movies if they could watch them at home? The profit and potential is vast.
I remember when my dad bought our first VCR at a store in the Echelon Mall in Voorhees, New Jersey. The thing was a beast. The store (which sold us the same day a front-folding projection TV and an Intellivision game system) also rented movies. If you wanted to buy a movie (note: this was the very early 1980s and there wasn't a home video market yet), you would have to pay $100 or more for it. At the time, it seemed like a fair offer and we picked up copies of Caddyshack and Airplane!, which shaped my taste in movies as described above. Back to Bruno (and no, I don't know how to put the umlaut over the "u" in Bruno, but wish I could), I would pay $100 to download the movie in 1080p with good surround sound. I don't need supplemental materials. I don't need to be able to rip it to disc, although I would like the chance to buy the movie for my permanent collection at an additional fee or at a discounted price on Blu-ray disc. A family of four going to the theater to see one of this summer's big movies will easily spend $100 from start to finish. Imagine the gross for a movie if 500,000 people downloaded the movie in its first weekend. What if the movie was only available in its first weekend as a download in an effort to kiss ass with theater owners? I wouldn't care. The fact is that theater owners have nowhere else to go for content. It's one thing when some small indie movie like April Showers goes to iTunes early. It would be a whole other thing when Warner Brothers, Paramount and Sony do it.
Right now, there are enough people who own AV electronics that can download a first-run movie in HD. The profit would be off the charts for the studios and consumers would get what they want, when they want it - just how they want it - which is likely the key to Hollywood studios not becoming dinosaurs like newspapers, print media and radio.