In his story about Christie Digital’s recently announced cinema-to-home movie-distribution technology, John Sciacca posed a simple question: Is this “a good or bad thing for commercial theaters“? Not to be completely contrarian here, but I think that’s the wrong question. What I wonder is whether it’s relevant at all.
And look, I don’t mean to dismiss Christie Digital’s technology out of hand here. To get a sense of what that technology is, exactly, and how it works, I downloaded the patent application and read it from beginning to end. What’s found within is an explanation of some pretty cool tech. What the patent makes clear (and Christie’s announcement doesn’t) is that this new distribution method won’t require the use of Christie hardware on both ends. From the patent:
As described below, these systems and methods provide a hardware based technological solution that enables the mirroring of movie theater content and the insertion of targeted advertisements to offsite locations and devices (e.g., a remotely situated projector, a user’s television or mobile device, etc.).
In other words, once this new system goes live (assuming it actually does), you’ll be able to log into a website or an app on your phone or smart TV (or, one would hope, your streaming media player) and reserve a viewing of a film. According to images embedded in the patent, it should work just like buying tickets for a show at your local cineplex: You pick your movie,
pick your start time, then sit back and watch all of the attached trailers and promo spots for the concession stand that you would see if you were actually sitting in your local IMAX, along with a few additional ads targeted at home viewers.
The one extra step required (if my reading of the patent is correct) is that you may also have to select your playback resolution, as it says 4K streams may cost more than 2K streams (each of which, by the way, would be transcoded to Ultra HD [3,840 x 2,160] or HD [1,920 x 1,080] resolutions from 4,096 x 2,160 or 2,048 x 1,080 to account for the differences between digital cinema and home video formats).
While a cinema can have any number of “virtual” screenings, and while they don’t necessarily have to be tied to the start times of in-person screenings, the schedule of these streams will still be dictated by the cinema. So, hypothetically, if you want to start watching Dune at 7:45 and your local cinema is only streaming it at 6:30 and 9:00, you’re out of luck. (There is, buried in the patent, a provision that would allow cinemas to reserve an Integrated Media Block [IMB] and Secure Content Transcoder [SCT] on their end for single-ticket VOD purchases, but I hesitate to speculate what that luxury would cost. At least in terms of server and hardware commitments on the part of the cinema, that’s effectively the same as letting you rent out an entire auditorium, since you and you alone would be consuming the output of one virtual screening system.)
If all of this had come out a year or two ago when we were all still speculating about how day & date would work, you could have easily argued that Christie’s solution to first-run movie-viewing at home was the simplest and most likely to succeed.
Fast-forward to this dumpster-fire of a year, though, and it all seems too little too late. We’ve already seen day & date work, and it doesn’t require this convoluted Rube Goldberg reliance on someone at your local cinema pressing a button that allows you to start watching at their convenience. We’ve seen films like Onward hit Disney+ as well as other digital platforms like Kaleidescape and Vudu. We’ve seen Bill & Ted do the same. We’ve seen movies like Enola Holmes go from being prospective commercial cinema tentpoles to Netflix exclusives.
While we’ve seen so many potential blockbusters get pushed back and back and back again, we’ve seen others—like Hamilton—get moved forward in the release schedule and dropped right into our laps at home. And, of course, there’s Disney’s risky gamble with Mulan, which reportedly paid off big-time. So much so that the company is restructuring its media and entertainment divisions and doubling down on its commitment to streaming as the future of cinema.
In other words, Hollywood has proven to us that commercial cinemas don’t have to play a part in a viable film release. The fact that they continue to do so with certain films is a choice, pure and simple. And much like this country’s broken private-medical-insurance scam, it’s a choice that doesn’t benefit the end user in the slightest, instead benefiting only the racket-like middleman we’ve all been conditioned to believe is essential to the process.
When things finally go back to normal, or when we finally arrive at a new normal, and are able to safely attend mass gatherings, I have to wonder if audiences will return to commercial cinemas in anything approaching the same numbers as before. Sure, the pathological extroverts will flock to those sticky floors, busted speakers, and overpriced concessions like moths to a flame, since their own laughter and cheering is meaningless to them unless a few dozen of their closest strangers are there to affirm their emotional reactions. And it would be unfair to overlook people who don’t have high-performance AV systems at home. They benefit from a trip to the local megaplex, as well.
But the rest of us have been to the promised land, and we’ve learned from experience that the horse-and-buggy method of film distribution isn’t necessary anymore. And I just don’t see many of us tolerating the vestiges of a dying model (locked-in start times, forced commercials, etc.) when we know it doesn’t have to be that way. You can’t blame Christie for trying, since they have a vested interest in the success of commercial cinemas. But all of this seems to me to be a solution to a problem that doesn’t have to exist.
Dennis Burger is an avid Star Wars scholar, Tolkien fanatic, and Corvette enthusiast who somehow also manages to find time for technological passions including high-end audio, home automation, and video gaming. He lives in the armpit of Alabama with his wife Bethany and their four-legged child Bruno, a 75-pound American Staffordshire Terrier who thinks he’s a Pomeranian.