An Entirely Unreasonable, Completely Crazy, Theoretically Possible Idea For Movie Studios (Guest Column)
Each year for a month before the Oscars, why not bundle every best picture nominee together and offer them on-demand as a limited-time only rental premium package?
About midway through Birdman, which my wife and I were streaming via our cable distributor's on-demand platform the other night, I started to lose interest. The performances of Michael Keaton and Edward Norton were wonderful, don't misunderstand me, but I found the plot tedious and uninspired, particularly for a serious best picture contender. Another film about show business, how original and not at all naval-gazing. Of the films in contention for the coveted best picture Oscar this year, I found Boyhood to be far superior and ... well, that's the only other nominee we've seen this year. That's the reference frame through which we will be viewing this Sunday's Oscars.
You see, we are parents of a toddler — our daughter is a little over 2 years old — and we don't get out to the movies much. The last film we saw in the theater was Gravity, I think; I'm not sure. I have a hard time remembering anything I've seen that isn't an episode of Daniel Tiger's Neighborhood or Angelina Ballerina lately.
Which brings me to an entirely unreasonable, completely crazy idea that, in a perfect world where content and distribution converge to "serve and delight consumers," to use a horrible marketing turn of phrase, could be theoretically possible. Every year, for the period lasting from the day the nominees are announced until the morning of the ceremony, why not bundle every best picture nominee together and offer them via on-demand streaming as a premium package? Studios bundle their individual catalogs of past and current movies into all sorts of configurations to sell to distributors already, so for the ones that are lucky enough to be nominated in the best picture category, why not join together to put them into a package to unlock a new revenue stream?
I know, I know, ridiculous, right?
Or is it?
Hollywood has been debating and experimenting with day-and-date theatrical and on-demand releases for years, the most ambitious agreement reached last year when Netflix and The Weinstein Co agreed to release the sequel to Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon in IMAX theaters and for streaming simultaneously. Though it was a unique-use case, Sony's The Interview showed that the competing business interests of movie studios, theater chains, streaming services and traditional pay-TV providers can be put aside to come together around a common cause. Release windows have been shrinking for quite some time, and soon the inevitable march of technology and the evolution in consumption habits will unite to collapse them completely anyway. We aren't there yet, of course, and this isn't an argument in favor of day-and-date releases. Rather, it is an argument for a limited-time only, premium package of content that merges the cultural trends of binge viewing and streaming video with the massive worldwide interest in the Oscars to help hopelessly out of touch parents like myself not have to rely on The Hollywood Reporter to make our best picture bets. A majority of people now watch video on-demand, and of that audience, more than half binge-watch, which typically refers to watching multiple episodes of a television series in one sitting. It isn't hard to imagine someone downloading a best picture bundle and plowing through two or three movies a night the week leading up to the Oscars. The proposition has the added bonus of heightening interest in the broadcast, thus driving viewers to it and perhaps sparking their interest in other nominees, creating a theoretical virtuous cycle.
Think about it: Amazon sells newly-released HD digital movies for $14.99. This year, there are eight best picture nominees, so that would equate to around $120 for the bundle. A full complement of 10 nominees would cost $150. I'd pay that to have the movies available to download and watch at my convenience over the course of a month. The cost would be only somewhat more expensive than getting a babysitter and going to a single movie in the theater for us now. Here's the math: $20 per hour for a babysitter x 3 hours at minimum + $12 per ticket x 2 adults = $84 not including concessions. Layering dinner or drinks on top of that easily pushes the bill for the night into the $120-$150 range. Studios could split this new revenue stream with distribution partners, and there's no need to be exclusive with this. May as well make the offering as ubiquitous as possible — through pay-TV operators like Comcast and DirecTV, streaming services like Netflix, Amazon Prime and Hulu, technology giants like Google via Chromecast or YouTube or Apple TV, game consoles like Xbox.
But what about theater owners who are counting on second runs of Oscar winners as much as the studios are for a post-Oscar bounce? Sure, that's a concern, but given the trend lines, theater owners don't really have the leverage to dictate terms to studios; they are in the weaker negotiating position. Even so, making the bundle available only for a limited time, expiring the morning of the Oscars, is a built-in concession. To further appease theater owners, however, the movies could be programmed to erase from the package after one viewing. They would be rentals, in essence, and removed from the queue after being watched. If Snapchat can make text messages disappear within seconds, movie studios and streaming services should have or be able to develop the technology to make films disappear as well. And if they don't, maybe the people who hacked Sony can help them develop it.
More of an issue than theater owners would probably be the studios themselves, who make more from the box office than any other delivery method and would be reluctant to cannibalize those second-chance profits. Sony, for instance, is probably hoping the Golden Globes wins for J.K. Simmons for Whiplash and Julianne Moore for Still Alice, and possible Oscars wins for them both will give those films another push at the box office, where so far they have combined to gross around $15.5 million domestically, according to BoxOfficeMojo.com. Warner Bros, to use another example, has no incentive to devalue American Sniper, the one true blockbuster among this year's batch of best picture nominees, which has already grossed around $310 million at the domestic box office and is still going strong.
But it's important to keep in mind that those people who have the freedom and the means to go to the movies any time they wish and are motivated enough to see a particular film on the big screen will do so, regardless of whether they already watched it on-demand or not. People who love movies generally, and a specific movie in particular, will pay to see it in the theater, perhaps even more than once. This bundle isn't targeted at that audience, the hardcore moviegoer so to speak. It would be targeted at people like me. I don't particularly enjoy the theater experience and even before my daughter came along only went to a handful of movies per year anyway. (Personally, I'm a music guy and prefer concerts.) It is a way to grow the pie rather than taking another bite from the same slice. Put another way, I'm never going to see Whiplash or Still Alice in the theater and at this point I'll probably wait to see American Sniper until it is available on-demand anyway. Against this backdrop, I'd argue that America Sniper wouldn't be devalued in a best picture bundle, but rather a driver for consumers like me to get it, lifting the fortunes of all the other films in the process. After all, this year's batch of best picture nominees is, as THR noted, on pace to be the weakest-performing financially since the category expanded beyond five nominees in 2009. And didn't Warner Bros. CEO Kevin Tsujihara just say at this week's Code/Media conference that the industry needs to do "a better job of adapting to consumers and what they want"?
As HBO will tell anyone who will listen, despite the acclaim it gets for its original programming, movies are still cited as the primary reason why people subscribe to its service. And likely the people watching movies on HBO aren't seeing them for the first time, but rather watching the ones they like for a second or third or fourth time. Conveniently, that also doubles as a nice counter for the movie studios to any objections HBO or another network might make to the creation of this new limited-time only premium bundle.
Surely there are a myriad of issues that would need to be sorted out and rights that would need to be cleared for a product like this to emerge. That's what lawyers are for, to sort out this kind of stuff. But what do I know — this is just an entirely unreasonable, completely crazy idea I had.
Got to run now, though. My wife and I are planning to stream another best picture nominee tonight — 12 Years A Slave.