Why the Screening Room Debate Could Prove "More Damaging" in Europe

Illustration By Michael Kirkham

As the exhibition converges on Barcelona for the annual CineEurope confab, insiders say Sean Parker's disruptive startup could spell disaster for independent theater owners on the Continent.

Amid lighthearted chatter about Cheetos-flavored popcorn and cinema seats that blast water in moviegoers' faces, a somewhat darker buzzword — OK, two buzzwords — circulated through Las Vegas during CinemaCon in April.

Sean Parker's Screening Room concept overshadowed much of the conversation on the trade-show floor, and not in a good way: The plan to offer new releases to at-home viewers for $50 a go was received as one might expect from an industry already under fire from emerging technologies.

Two months on, the chatter now moves across the Atlantic. Disney, Paramount, Universal, StudioCanal, Warner Bros. and DreamWorks Animation are set to show off upcoming wares later this month in Barcelona at CineEurope, the official convention of the International Union of Cinemas trade body, but the talk among European exhibitors likely will center on this new threat to their precarious traditional business model. While much of the vocal opposition to Screening Room's disregard for the theatrical window has been confined to Hollywood circles, European cinema owners could feel the punch harder, according to several executives.

"In the U.S. there are vast parts of the country not heavily screened, where it might take one or two hours to get to the next theater, so it might have an advantage," says Martin Moszkowicz, head of TV and film at Constantin, Germany's largest movie producer and distributor, which also owns several multiplexes. "But in Germany this doesn't exist; there are screens everywhere, so it would be more damaging."

Jan Runge, CEO of the Brussels-based IUC, says the cinema landscape is far less consolidated throughout Europe, with a bigger tier of medium-sized companies and far more local theaters. "Day-and-date releases of films would hurt many of these smaller operators," he says.

The frequency of cinemagoing also varies wildly. Whereas in the U.S. it is considered part of the weekly routine, Europeans are a decidedly more fickle bunch.

"Here it's more eventized," says Moszkowicz, who cites a landscape of "incredible" free TV already pumping quality content into homes. "People go to movies less frequently, especially in Germany, and if they go it has to be something special."

With considerably steeper ticket prices (the U.K. average is nearly $3 higher than the U.S. average, and in parts of Scandinavia tickets can top $15), any additional incentive for uncommitted cinemagoers to stay home could pummel the industry further.

But naturally, not everyone is concerned. Curzon, one of the U.K.'s smaller cinema chains with 11 operated sites, launched its own VOD service in 2010 and has been at the vanguard of day-and-date releasing since, thanks to its own distribution arm. In April, it revealed plans for a curated SVOD platform with 100 to 200 titles — even as it continues to roll out physical theaters.

"I wouldn't be spending millions of pounds on new cinemas if I thought it was cannibalizing our business," says Curzon Home Cinema director Philip Mordecai, who asserts Screening Room is "fantastic" and "well overdue."

Mordecai, who is surprised others have not followed Curzon's digital model, says the chain plans to push its physical presence to 20 to 25 sites and about 70 screens. He believes a less-is-more approach to bricks-and-mortar theaters is key to his company's survival during a post-Screening Room era.

"If you're Odeon or Vue or Cineworld in the U.K. and you've got thousands of screens each, and if more and more films go to being available day-and-date, then a large proportion of people who currently go to the cinema to see these new films won't have to and won't go," says Mordecai. "But I'm not trying to build 1,000 screens in the U.K." 

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3 Barcelona Bars Not to Miss
Very much a nocturnal animal, Spain’s most cosmopolitan city doesn’t take kindly to those planning an early night. Once CineEurope’s free bar dries up, sample the offerings at three of the city’s finer cocktail establishments.

Dry Martini
162-166 Aribau

With world-class mixologists trained at a nearby cocktail "academy," this cozy, dark, wood-clad and exceedingly classy shrine to late-night drink is the famed flagship establishment of Javier de las Muelas, aka the High Priest of the Martini. Be sure not to miss the masterful concoction that gave the place its name.

Solange
143 Aribau

Formerly named Harry's Bar in honor of the Parisian legend, this slick golden-tinged lounge was taken over by noted mixologist family the Pernias in 2014 and renamed after Daniel Craig's first Bond girl in 2006's Casino Royale. Try the El Senorito, a Spanish take on 007's drink of choice that includes a dash of chocolate molé bitters.

Bloody Mary
3 Ferrer de Blanes

Lounge on a sofa and celebrate all things tomato juice, vodka and Worcestershire sauce in one of Barca's newer, hipper establishments. While the classic remains just that, take a chance and sample the clam juice-spiked Bloody Caesar, the Orient Express' sake-and-wasabi twist or the bourbon-soaked Bloody Kentucky.

This story first appeared in the June 24 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

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