A few weeks ago, Bollywood actress Kriti Sanon was on a flight to Delhi with her mother, and just so happened to peek in the direction of the passenger sitting next to her, who was watching a movie on his phone. She couldn’t help but notice that she was the star of the movie that her neighbour was watching, and she also couldn’t help but notice that it was her most recent movie, the big budget Bollywood blockbuster Dilwale, that he was watching on his phone. The problem here was that Dilwale had only been released in cinemas the previous week, and therefore the passenger sitting beside Ms. Sanon was obviously watching a pirated version of the movie, badly filmed from the cinema audience. She was annoyed, and did what any girl in her mid-20’s would do when annoyed: she vented on Twitter, posting a picture of the passenger to her (almost half a million) followers.
So, this guy, in the course of a plane flight was shamed online by one of India’s most popular actresses, all for simply watching a(n admittedly terrible copy of a) movie on his phone. This story stuck with me for a while, as I myself was at the time enjoying the spoils of this year’s DVD Screener season (a late December/early January online release of every movie hoping to be nominated for that year’s Academy Awards. The movie studios send DVD quality ‘screener copies’ to those who vote for the awards, and one of these always leaks online, meaning that it is possible to download a perfect copy of the years “best” movies often weeks before the movie actually opens in cinemas). I didn’t really see anything bad in downloading these movies: for one thing, I already had purchased a ticket to see The Hateful Eight in the cinema when it was released at the end of January, and I knew full well when purchasing the ticket that I would have seen it already by the time the ticket is validated.
It did get me thinking however. I am someone who keeps track of every movie I see, and by my Rotten Tomatoes reviews, I saw 75 movies released in 2015. I paid to see 9 of them, and of those 9, 2 were on Netflix and therefore included in my subscription plan, leaving me with 7 movies in the past year that I have paid to see as an individual product in a cinema. I paid around €85 to the movie industry in 2015, yet by their estimates the bill would probably run closer to €1000. Am I, and Kriti Sanon’s unfortunate airplane buddy, destroying the movie industry?
What is a Cinema?
A movie is made, it is promoted, it is released in cinemas, and then a few months later it is released on DVD/BluRay/Digital Download for purchase. This conveyor belt model of a movies product life cycle is common knowledge to us all, as we grew up with it as part of our lives, yet really the truth is that the whole thing doesn’t make a lot of sense. To us it is natural that a highly reproducible and distributable product like a movie remains available only for viewing in a few select physical locations for the start of its life cycle, and that a premium must be paid to watch this copy at that location.
For a very long time, this was actually true. Before TV, before video, before the internet, a movie theatre was the only place anyone could watch a movie. The building was a necessary physical infrastructure to any community, built big and expansive so that as many people as possible could fit in a room and watch the same movie. Obviously since there were so many people there, a social aspect developed, as well as the idea of a trip to the cinema being a classic ‘date’ event. For decades, cinemas held a monopoly in access to movies of any kind for the general public, and this was only threatened once VCR/video players reached critical mass in the late 1980’s. Since most high-end movie markets could now choose to watch movies at home, cinemas emphasized the social aspect of physically ‘going to the movies’, and differentiated the singular experience of seeing a movie as a large group rather than in your own living room. However, once DVD’s replaced VCR and HDTV’s replaced screen static with clear digital images, cinemas faced a new challenge: the home copy of a movie was actually better quality than the one shown at a premium in the local crappy fleapit. The social experience argument wouldn’t win this one, so the product differentiation had to come in the form of a switch in movie production from film to digital, and most abhorrently: the rise of 3D movies, an experience which (unless you are an idiot who bought a 3D TV) could not be replicated at home.
What A Cinema Is Now
So the humble cinema/movie theatre has come a long way in its existence over the past century: from acting as an absolute monopoly for many decades, to qualitatively differentiating its product due to the threat of competition, and more recently to being forced to invest in new technology in order to actually make the act of going to a physical location to watch a movie worthwhile, and perhaps even good value relative to the cost. Nowadays a cinema is merely a way to watch a movie, rather than the way to see a movie. If you want to see the movie in 3D, you pay a ~€15 fee, and you are ok with it because there is no other way to see it in that format. Plus, it is genuinely more enjoyable to see a movie with a large crowd of people (if that movie is actually entertaining). I have watched The Force Awakens twice now, in 3D and in IMAX, and it was worth every cent of the circa €30 in total I spent to see this movie.
The same could not be said of Spotlight, a film I had been looking forward to for a long time, and yet one I knew I would never pay to see in the cinema. The movie tells the story of a Boston newspaper that fights to unearth the culture of child sex abuse in the Catholic Church. It’s obviously not in 3D. It was filmed digitally, yet the digital rendering would probably be crisper on an average HDTV than a large cinema screen. Therefore the only reason I would go to see Spotlight in a cinema was if I enjoyed the social aspect of the experience. I’m going to state this for the ages: I don’t necessarily want to be in a large room full of people who want to be in a room full of people who want to watch a movie about child abuse. The only reason I would ever pay to watch this in a room full of people would be if this were the only way to watch it, and due to the DVD Screener season, it obviously was not.
The pressing issue here is that in 2016, there are precisely two ways to watch a copy of a highly reproducible, highly distributable, new movie: either pay €10+ to watch it in public, or else download it illegally. Cinemas obviously are not the only way to watch a movie, they are a way to experience one: either through advanced technology (digital 3D, IMAX etc.) or the social aspect of seeing a movie in a large group. If this is the case, then the movie itself is not the product, and therefore cinemas actually sell their own specialised qualitative good (as well as expensive popcorn) that cannot be replicated outside their walls. If this is actually the case, then it follows that as well as being released in cinema on opening day, a good copy of the movie should be available to download online for a reasonable fee, directly from the movie distributor, free from the moral dilemma of piracy. The technology to price discriminate certainly exists, and it is only the industry power of cinema chains that maintain the antiquated monopoly power of their business model. I for one would certainly consider paying €5 to watch a newly released movie, especially without the threat of being unable to pause it in the middle to go to the bathroom.
There is definitely a romantic aspect to the cinema, we all remember the first time we were taken by our parents, and we all remember some iconic scene in a movie like Cinema Paradiso that celebrated the escapist power of a movie theatre within a community. What needs to be realised however is that even when most people reading this paragraph first visited a cinema, their business model was out of date. The movie theatre industry has been redundant for over 30 years, and has kept on going as if nothing has happened, as if it still owned monopolistic access to a movie for the first few months of its life cycle. A cinema obviously does have a product to sell, in its social aspect and high resolution 3D display, yet still it exists now as a slightly unnecessary middleman in the otherwise straightforward distribution of a single mp4 file. Some might say that it is unethical to engage in movie piracy, and that all should pay the market prices for a unit of entertainment such as a movie. The thing is, the market price for a product is dictated by the price and ease that product is available for, and therefore for example if it is a choice between paying €15 for a movie that starts at a specific time and in a specific location, or downloading a good copy for free and watching it whenever you want, the real market price is probably closer to €0 than it is €15. Something else must be inflating the cost, and it is probably worth the industry’s time in discovering what that something is. Answering my moral dilemma, in the wake of Kriti Sanons Twitter shaming of a man who didn’t want to pay to see her movie in a cinema: in a capitalist society, it is not the duty of customers to ensure the profit pools of an industry, it is the industry’s responsibility to adapt to a market disruption and find new ways to extract profit from its customers within the new business environment. Don’t blame the customers, blame the business model. We are already there, you just haven’t organised us yet.