Note: I wrote this some months ago for another website. They have experienced a 'changeover' where think pieces like this aren't welcome, so here it is:
Think about it. The last time you saw a film, where was it? A multiplex? A little neighbourhood cinema? TV? A DVD or Blu-Ray? Or on your laptop? Does it matter? The film industry is undergoing the biggest technological and societal change since it was invented in 1895. How Hollywood and the UK players react might make the difference between survival and death.
In the 1950s, as TV emerged in living rooms across the world, cinemas feared the worse: why pay good money for a ticket when you can watch moving images at home, on your sofa? And although the admissions fell from the dizzying heights of the 1940s (in 1946, 1.6 billion, yes that’s with a 'B', cinema tickets were sold) that wasn’t just TV’s fault: families bought cars, went on holidays, started having more babies – society as a whole changed the way it spent its time
Thirty years later, the industry went into another episode of self-induced panic, when the VCR became widespread and video shops popped up on every corner. The End of Days was once again announced, and audiences would never step foot in a cinema again. Fast forward that scratched-up tape to twenty years later, and VHS seems as antiquated as that black and white television with just one channel. Now consumers have DVD, Blu-Ray, Sky, Internet, Video on Demand, Lovefilm, 5.1 surround systems, plasma and LCD flat screens – the possibilities on offer are endless. And yet, cinema admissions for 2009, not just in the UK, but worldwide, have been record-breaking. How does that square with the industry’s claims that piracy will destroy cinema, and that unless we stop downloading it’s all over?
Recently, parliament passed the Digital Economy Bill, a law almost universally opposed by internet service providers, digital rights groups like the Open Rights Group, and by all techies, geeks and hackers around Britain. Passed in the middle of the night with only an hour for debate, the bill turns internet service providers into spies on their own customers, with disconnection for people who are found to be in ‘copyright infrigment’ with no right to appeal. This is the equivalent of BT cutting your phone off because you sang a copyrighted song over the line, or your access to post taken away because you posted photocopies of copyrighted books back and forth with someone. The fact is that there do need to be laws governing the internet, but they need to be debated carefully and thoughtfully, with testimony from intelligent people, as opposed to debate amongst MPs that barely know how to use email.
I bet you never though you’d be debating theatrical windows, the time between a film’s release and its eventual arrival on DVD or Blu Ray. When the ‘big three’ (Odeon, Vue, Cineworld) threatened a boycott of Alice in Wonderland, the concept was in all the headlines. Right now, that ‘window’ is set at 17 weeks but it’s as doomed to history as the Betamax format. The ‘media chronology’ where a film must follow a cycle of life starting at the cinemas and winding up on television will come to an end because consumers are demanding their content in different ways now. And why should companies decide when and how we watch films anyway? Offer us the options and the audiences will make the choices that best suit them.
I am no advocate of piracy. I would never download a film for free and watch it at home, I understand that every cinema ticket sold, every rental of a DVD and every legal, copyright-protected viewing of a film makes sure that films get made. It makes sure cinemas stay open. It makes sure that my favorite filmmakers (from Michael Mann to Ken Loach) have a job. But at the same time, burying our heads in the sand and pretending that the way people consume entertainment isn’t changing radically would be a mistake. Speaking to a leading French distributor recently I learned that they monitor downloads of their films in advance of the release to determine how many people will come out to see it.
Luckily, we have some examples as an industry for reference: the music business went through this same process about ten years ago. After decades operating a business model where they charged us £20 for a CD that cost £1 to make, they have had to re-think how and where to make money, allowing artists to distribute their music online either through a paying platform like iTunes or for free (and often both) and earning more off their income from touring. The publishing world is experiencing the same problems – they are also finding new ways to create revenue that don’t involve the 400 year old technology of printing paper. All media content is questioning how to survive.
One thing I know: in over 100 years of cinema, audiences have never stopped paying to go into a dark room to be entranced by what’s on the screen. I don’t think they ever will. What they will do though, is stop paying for sub-par service and experience. As a cinema operator, you can’t just give people a seat and expect the money to roll in. Comfort, service, top-notch sound and image technical quality, atmosphere and convenience are all elements that cinemas have to provide if they want to compete in the 21st century. And 3D is a first step, but we’re going to need bigger and better, especially as 3D TV rolls in this year.
Running a small independent cinema, as I do, a lot of these debates fly above me, since our customers are less fickle than the teenage audience that Hollywood and the multiplexes have invested all their marketing energies in. Our customers value the social experience of the cinema as much as the content itself, and like being able to drink a beer or glass of wine while enjoying the latest Haneke film (which they are unlikely to download or want to watch on a 13” monitor). That said, eventually the changes that are affecting the big boys will have repercussions for everyone.
How will it all end? If I had the answer to that, I could print my own money.