CinemaCon, the annual convention of the US-based National Association of Theatre Owners (NATO) in Las Vegas, is primarily a celebration of the theatrical experience and a great opportunity for distributors, technology/equipment providers, food and beverage suppliers, et al to reach out to the exhibition community.
Every major Hollywood studio – as well as emerging production houses like Lionsgate, Amazon Studios and STX Entertainment – uses the occasion to showcase its upcoming slate to representatives of theatrical chains based not only out of North America, but also an ever-widening international footprint of exhibitors.
Typically, these studio presentations are star-studded events and the 2017 edition of the convention was no exception with such stellar attendants as Christopher Nolan, Hugh Jackman, Ryan Gosling, George Clooney, Matt Damon, Steve Carell, Vin Diesel, Ben Affleck, Charlize Theron, Mila Kunis, Goldie Hawn, Kurt Russell, Salma Hayek, Naomi Watts, Jessica Chastain, Charlie Hunnam, Dwayne Johnson, Zac Efron, Jon Hamm, Sofia Coppola, Kirsten Dunst, Colin Farrell, former US Vice-President Al Gore and our very own Priyanka Chopra.
Even more typically, virtually every presentation and star speech was peppered with effusive words of praise and gratitude for the cinema hall as the primary – and most appropriate – venue for experiencing a film.
However, beyond the backslapping and tributes, change is clearly afoot and it relates to the holiest of the sacred cows of the North American film business: the 90-day window of exclusivity that theatres enjoy before films can be exploited on other platforms.
The threat to that window was evident at last year’s convention too when Napster founder Sean Parker’s Screening Room service dominated discussions. That service envisages streaming films direct to home, simultaneous with their release, for a fee of USD 50 per film. Despite getting the backing of such heavyweights as Steven Spielberg, JJ Abrams, Ron Howard and Peter Jackson, not much seems to have happened on the Screening Room front and the outfit was conspicuous by its absence this year in Vegas.
This year, the focus shifted to the larger arena of early or premium Video On Demand (VOD) services. In sharp contrast to last year, when studios were happy to quite categorically oppose the Screening Room proposal, they largely chose to maintain a diplomatic silence on the VOD issue.
Indeed, there was a tacit acknowledgment of the tectonic shift underway in the Warner Bros presentation when the studio’s President of Worldwide Marketing and Distribution, Sue Kroll, hinted at what lay in store by saying, “Everyone is facing a challenge and also an opportunity when it comes to windowing. As consumer tastes change the way we do business, along with viewing habits and social media, they want more choices on where and how to consume our content, they want the option to engage in different ways. We have to be creative and innovative in addressing the challenges of this dynamic marketplace as we always have, together, as the way to move to a future that will be beneficial and profitable for all of us on a variety of platforms.”
The studios’ reluctance to wax eloquent on maintaining status quo is understandable given that nearly all of them, barring Disney, have presented varied plans that propose a substantial shortening of the theatrical window to allow VOD – ranging from a mere 10 days proposed by Universal to 17 days (Warner Bros) and 45 days (Fox).
Ironically, one of the strongest advocates of theatrical exhibition over the last two editions of CinemaCon has been Amazon Studios, the film arm of global digital giant Amazon. And it is not mere lip service – the studio held back the release of its highly acclaimed multiple-Oscar nominee, Manchester By The Sea, on Amazon’s own digital platform, Prime Video, till May 5 i.e. almost 6 months after the film’s successful US theatrical debut last November. Arch-rival Netflix, on the other hand, makes no bones about the fact that the films it makes or backs shall premiere first on its streaming service, even if that means being boycotted by cinema chains.
Given the near unanimity in the production/distribution community and a flurry of behind-closed-doors negotiations taking place on the subject, it is more a question of ‘when’, and not ‘whether’, the 90-day window will be shown the door. And the reset could well take place before the next CinemaCon is held in April 2018.
From an Indian perspective, prima facie this would seem a mere academic debate given that our market has been rather less reverential of, and much more flexible with, the theatrical window of exclusivity. At various points in time, we have experimented with varying lengths of holdbacks – including day-and-date releases – before films are made available on television, DTH and digital platforms or released as home entertainment products.
However, what could really set the cat among the pigeons even here in India is the fact that the complex negotiations taking place in private between distributors and a few exhibitors in the US envision theatrical chains getting a share of the digital revenues as an incentive for their buy-in. And reportedly, the figure being bandied about is a 20-per cent share of the profit for exhibitors.
Irrespective of the actual figure finally negotiated in the US, should the eventual deal accept the general principle that exhibitors need to be compensated for early availability of films on other platforms, one would be highly surprised if the Indian exhibition fraternity were not to push for a similar arrangement here. And one would be even more surprised if our distributors were to accept such a request promptly and joyfully!
Clearly, interesting times lie ahead of us and the most compelling drama, intrigue and action could well play out off-screen rather than on it.