Hollywood needs to rethink their home video release strategy immediately, or they’re going to be in big trouble when smart TVs become ubiquitous. Before I jump into why (and someone accuses me of hating the communal experience of viewing movies), let me say I love going to the movie theater. I love it so much I’m happy to go by myself, grab a big bucket of popcorn and soda, and sit in the dark with total strangers for two hours enjoying the latest onscreen magic—even if that costs me almost $35 (as it does in London, where I live).
With that being said, going to the movie theater has increasingly annoyed me since I got my Apple TV. Because, let’s be honest, there is plenty to complain about movie theaters: 20 minutes of commercials before the previews, sticky floors, obnoxious people in the audience, and smartphone users who just don’t know when to turn their devices off. But now with Netflix and the iTunes Movie Store at my fingertips, and my 50-inch television, the dollar to comfortable-experience ratio is quickly working against the movie theater’s favor. For the cost of a Netflix subscription or an iTunes rental (about $4) and a bag of microwave popcorn, I can get a pretty sweet—and cheap—theater experience in my home without the drawbacks.
Of course, you may point out that I can’t see the latest blockbusters on my Apple TV—I need to go to the theater for that. And you’d be right. For me, I accept that and that’s why I keep going. But that’s also the big problem.
Hollywood’s home video strategy hasn’t changed much since the 1980s. A movie comes out in the theater and it takes 3-4 months to make it to home video (DVD, Blu-ray, or digital download). While that may have been okay in the '80s and '90s—and even the naughties when people’s digital download options meant watching a movie on their computer—it’s not okay anymore when we can throw any video from our computer to that 50-incher sitting in our living room.
I know plenty of people who have an Apple TV (or another streaming media player) and they’ll use it to stream pirated "CAMS" (illegal camera recordings in theaters) from their computer to their TV. And I’ve seen CAMS before—they’re not as bad as you may think. And those people I know that want a crisp, pristine version of a movie for their home viewing will often wait until to download an advanced Blu-ray rip when it becomes available on the torrent sites—often weeks before the official consumer release date.
This is obviously a problem for both movie studios and theaters—and it will only get worse once smart TVs capable of streaming content from anywhere are in the norm in every living room in America. For better or for worse, we live in an age of instant gratification where we expect whatever game we want to play, whatever book we want to read, and whatever movie we want to watch, to be immediately available for download—and that expectation will only grow. But if Hollywood is smart, they can turn that to their advantage.
When it’s not available legally, people will try to get it illegally—the music industry painfully found that out in the 1990s, before Apple swooped in and saved them with the iTunes Music Store in 2003. However, the legal availability of digital music is different than digital movies. That’s because when, say, a new Jay-Z album comes out, it isn’t released in a concert hall where customers can only listen to it if they pay for a ticket and then need to wait for three months to own it. For movies that’s how it is. And it’s that long wait time between seeing a movie and having to wait to be able to buy it that encourages piracy—even among people who are willing to pay to see it in theaters and at home.
Case in point: I have a friend who loves movies, pays to see them, but then often goes on to illegally download the ones he loves because he needs to wait so long to buy them.
I asked him if he thought his illegal downloading activities were in conflict with his professed love for Hollywood and the hardworking people in the movie industry that makes the films he loves.
His answer? "Sure. But when I see a movie in a theater I love, I want to watch it again and again at home that week. If I could pay to do that, I would. I can’t, so I download."
So I asked that if after he downloads the illegal copy, will he go on to buy the legal copy once it comes out?
"Sometimes, but not too often anymore," he answered. "The ‘wow’ effect has worn off, you know?"
In sales terms, this "wow effect" he is talking about is known by another name: the impulse buy.
And I get that impulse buy a lot when I see a movie I love. I walk out of the theater and think, "If I could buy this for $20 on iTunes today I would do it." But by the time the movie becomes available on Blu-ray or iTunes three months later, I’m often left thinking, "I enjoyed it, sure. But is it worth $20? Nah, I’ll wait for Netflix."
Because of their distribution timeline—a three-month wait between the excitement of walking out of the theater, high on how good a film was—movie studios lose that all-important impulse buy opportunity (and increases the impulse to download it illegally). In contrast, due to the distribution method of music—hear a song on the radio, open iTunes and download it right away—that industry captures the impulse buy perfectly.
I’m not suggesting that Hollywood says "See you later!" to the movie theaters and releases the latest blockbusters on iTunes instead, but I am saying their current home video distribution method needs to change.
And Hollywood knows this. It’s why they are trying things like the "Super Ticket" and "Mega Ticket" combo. The Super Ticket comes to us courtesy of Warner Bros. and Cineplex Theaters in Canada. As Richard Lawler writes for Engadget:
Available at Cineplex theaters, it lets moviegoers pre-buy a digital Ultraviolet copy of the movie for $19.99 ($24.99 in HD) that's promised to arrive before anyone else can get it, plus 725 points for its loyalty program and some exclusive extra content, all viewable on the CineplexStore website.
Earlier in the summer Paramount and Regal Theaters offered a similar "Mega Ticket" promotion for World War Z. For $50, customers could go to an early viewing of the movie in 3-D and get a pair of collectible 3-D glasses, a movie poster, a small popcorn, and a downloadable HD digital copy of the movie when it's released on Blu-ray.
This is a great deal for movie studios and theaters: It sells tickets and guarantees a home video sale too. But it’s a bad thing for film buffs: why would I pre-pay for a home video copy of the movie that I haven’t seen yet? What if it sucks?
Clearly, this method doesn’t solve the problem. It can potentially alienate film buffs who feel that they’ve wasted their money on a home video copy of the movie (if it’s bad) and even if they do like it, it doesn’t stop them from downloading a pirated copy before the three-month-plus wait for the home video release.
So, what’s the answer?
Apple is the answer. Or, at least the iTunes Movie Ticket Store that I invented in my head is.
Imagine this: You buy your movie ticket via the new iTunes Movie Ticket Store. The ticket is sent to Passbook on your phone. This is a confirmed sale and gets you through the theater doors so the venues have a chance to make their profits from popcorn and soda sales.
Movie studios happy? Check.
Movie theaters happy? Check.
Now, once you leave the theater, you can log into your iTunes Movie Ticket Store account and are presented with the option of buying a digital copy of the movie you just saw, available for download that day. Movie studios get your theater ticket purchase and also get your impulse buy purchase locked in. Apple gets an iTunes sale. Film buff gets his immediate gratification.
Movie studios and theaters happy? Check.
Apple happy? Check.
Film buff happy? Check.
More so, digital downloads sold in this manner could go for a premium, say $24.99, instead of the average $15 movie price on iTunes. Apple could even offer some of their 30% cut of download sales to the theater chains as a way to sweeten the pot for their involvement (besides, Apple would be getting a slice of ticket sales).
Even if Apple and the studios imposed reasonable time limits—such as requiring you to decide whether you want to buy the movie within 24 hours of seeing it, or not making it available for download to your account in the first week or two of a movie’s theatrical release; even limiting it to one device, like an Apple TV—everyone still wins.
Will such a distribution method ever happen? As a movie fan, I hope so. Apple, studios, theaters, and viewers all benefit. If not, as smart TVs and home theaters get better and better, as a consumer’s expectation of instant gratification only grows, movie piracy will continue to increase—and in the end, that’s bad for everyone.
[Clapper: Pavel L Photo and Video via Shutterstock]