Photo Credit: modified CC some rights reserved photo from Flickr user Pedr0

Netflix Cinemas?

I love watching film in bricks and mortar cinemas. The combination of watching movies as they were likely intended, in a room full of people that you don’t have to interact with is pretty unique. Yet there is no doubt that movie theatres are having a tough time attracting audiences in an age where the standard of technology and content in the home is so high.

For quite a while now, and to the dismay of cinema owners, a strange audience repelling force-field around their establishments has formed and is strengthening, slowly but surely. The main, loosely-bound variables that control this force-field include ticket-prices and average movie quality (unfortunately an inverse relationship), location and choice (movies, times, drinks & snacks). No doubt we all immediately have a strong mental image of the force-field around our local cinemas.

However, there is another force-field at play here, a new-ish one, wrapped around us, the audience. Its strength is determined by one major element— the disappointment factor. Unlike the ever-increasing cinema force-field, ours waxes and wanes, and it has a memory. See an incredibly moving 90 minute film in a comfortable cinema with a warm audience and our force-field powers down somewhat or perhaps completely. See an awfully disappointing, overpriced two-and-a-half hour train-wreck in a cold cinema with a talkative audience? Thung! The disappointment factor goes through the roof and the force-field magnetically propels you out onto the street outside where you proceed to huff and puff and kick pebbles all the way home.

A common thing you hear from people who have recently had this experience is, ‘there’s 3 hours of my life I’ll never get back’. (this of course is especially common with long disappointing films). The force-field will remain high in such a person for quite a while, and what is there, waiting at home with a hot whiskey and toasted sandwich to comfort the sobbing and bitterly disappointed movie-goer? Netflix. Amazon. Google Play. Apple TV. etc.

Now, funnily enough, I’ve yet to hear the hours-of-life-wasted line from anyone — including myself — after most certainly watching (many) hours of disappointing crud from the likes of Netflix. Why is that? Probably because it’s not really time we mind wasting, it’s a combination of time, effort and belief. It takes effort to go to the cinema and it takes belief to make the decision to go — belief that the experience will be worthy enough to overcome the force-field from the last experience.

As an aside, the other clear win for streaming services at home is the freedom to halt that train-wreck of a movie just in time to squeeze in a quick compensatory episode of that half-decent series you started a while back that everyone’s been raving about.

So that’s it? The fate of cinemas will be that of the physical video rental store — eventually wiped out by web-based services and new media consumption paradigms? That’s like saying bars and pubs will be wiped out by app-controlled home cocktail makers and brewing machines. Or restaurants even, by high-end meal delivery services. Cinemas, bars and restaurants are social spaces and we are the most social creatures of all — they aren’t going away any time soon.

The recent release of Cary Joji Fukunaga’s Beasts of no Nation by Netflix could be the beginning of a cinema revolution. If you haven’t read about it yet or seen it, Netflix has rattled movie theatre owners by releasing an important piece of cinema directly on its streaming service with only a limited simultaneous theatrical release, possibly only for it to qualify for cinema awards that require a film to be released in theatres on or before its release date on television.

Fukunaga, the exciting and talented director behind the phenomenal first season of True Detective, recently hinted at the potential for Netflix and its ilk to revolutionise cinemas by saying

“I want to convince Netflix to open up their own cinemas and show their content on the big screen…”

This statement is pretty huge and possibly (hopefully?) prescient. Think about it, large recent ‘tech’ companies seem to have a loose cycle of inhaling — traditional, physical products; reinventing the market and re-educating audiences, and finally exhaling the fruits of their labours and acquisitions as new or transposed physical products and experiences, on top of all their intangible offerings of course.

Google started with search, data and social, it’s now working on robots and self-driving cars. Amazon started selling physical books, then e-books with physical readers, it’s also now testing delivery drones to delivery physical products. The most successful companies do both the intangible and the physical really really well at the same time. Interestingly, Apple stores are the possibly the first successful new social spaces.

To become truly successful and huge, Netflix might have to get physical, and not set-top-box physical but social-physical.

Cinemas might not know it yet, but they are dying for an intervention. The engine of the audience-repelling force-field needs disrupting. Now, I’m not saying I immediately like the idea, but the future of cinemas based on what Fukunaga said could look like this: Netflix (or Amazon etc.) start by taking a screen or two in multiplexes that are willing to play along. Movies in these screens are free to Netflix subscribers based on availability — simply book a seat on Netflix for a movie that has the ‘screening in a cinema near you’ badge.

Netflix’s huge and sophisticated analytics system will likely be able to predict and cater for the tastes of cinema-going audiences. Next, Netflix will acquire whole theatres, small at first, possibly full multiplexes as it grows in confidence. Anyone can pay and enter at the door as normal, but the majority of patrons will have heard about and booked the movie through Netflix or a social platform like Twitter (using a dedicated rich tweet).

Now, I’m dreaming here but the choice and quality of food, drinks and merchandise will improve enormously as these new theatres will rely on supplementary expenditure by the punters to balance the increased costs over streaming the movie to a home viewer. Perhaps Netflix cinemas will partner with a new-fangled food delivery service or two and take a cut — pick up your Sprig movie meal just before heading into the screen? The possibilities here are endless.

Wait! you cry, what about VR? That’s going to inflict wounds that streaming services never dreamed of? Yes there was some buzz a while back about VR cinema etc. But really, I think we all have a suspicion of where VR is not going. We definitely can’t say where it is going but new technology often has a habit — a need rather, to emulate existing physical things and experiences along the path to discovering itself. Take PC pinball machine simulators in the early 2000’s, new graphics and physics capabilities dying to find an outlet. They looked fantastic and they were fun. I’m sure they’re still out there but haven’t seen one in a long while and meanwhile physical pinball machines have experienced a huge and deserved revival. Computer-gaming has thankfully headed off surprising and often abstract directions, impossible to physicalise.

Above, I hesitated in saying that this potential new world of streaming service-owned cinemas is a good thing. Well, I’m hoping that cinemas re-invent themselves before then! All the tools and information is out there if cinema owners care to look and learn. More importantly, there’s an audience out there too. If cinemas like Dublin’s Lighthouse and IFI cinemas and all the other independent cinemas out there that are working hard to keep up and reinvent themselves continue to do so, they will most likely play a huge part in where cinema goes next.

I’m off to see Sicario at the cinema now. Except it’s sunny so maybe I’ll go to a late show. Oh wait, no late shows tonight. I ‘heard’ it’s excellent, so I’ll perhaps I’ll go anyway.