It wasn’t too long ago that watching a movie entailed buying a paper ticket and queueing for popcorn and a drink. Today, most of us buy our tickets online and have our phones scanned on the way in. And the food choices are far wider and better than just snacks.

But it’s not just the customer-facing front end of things that’s changing. Behind the scenes, things have changed considerably too. Movies used to be delivered on rolls of film. Now, it’s all digital which is easier for distribution. No more having to deal with canisters of film!

Digital has its downsides for cinemas though. The very fact that it’s digital means it can be streamed direct to people’s laptops and mobile devices. Cinemas could potentially be bypassed and things seem to be moving in that direction.

In many ways, the cinema industry is experiencing the same kind of disruption the music industry has been grappling with for more than a decade now. The old ways of doing things will no longer cut it and new approaches need to be developed to replace outdated ones.

Streaming

Most of the big Hollywood studios have been working on releasing movies via streaming much sooner than what’s currently the norm. Today, big releases usually take up to three months before they’re made available on Blu-ray, DVD and streaming services. Many of the top studios want that time lag reduced to between 20 to 45 days.

Six of the seven biggest studios, including Fox, Lionsgate, Paramount, Sony, Universal and Warner Bros, are having ongoing discussions with major American cinema chains like Regal and AMC to shorten the release date. The most commonly cited figure is 20 to 30 days although Warner Bros has indicated a willingness to extend it to 45 days (which is still half of the current 90 days). As for pricing, the price commonly bandied about is US$30 (RM126) although figures as high as US$50 have been mentioned.

Cinema owners are naturally against this although the studios are offering them a cut of the revenue if they agree to it. But what the cinema chains hate even more is a concept called Screening Room, which is backed by some big directors like J.J. Abrams, Steven Spielberg, Ron Howard and Peter Jackson.

Screening Room calls for the movies to be made available for viewing on the very same day they’re released in cinemas. Abrams has said that the industry has to move with the times and that this is also one way to curb piracy.

“We need to do everything we can in this age of piracy, digital technology and disruption to be thoughtful partners in the evolution of this medium… We have to adapt. It’s going to be required of all of us. We need to meet that challenge with excitement, and create solutions ­— not fear,” Abrams said in defence of Screening Room. “As the world evolves, all of us are evolving with it. We have to adapt.”

Screening Room intends to charge US$50 per movie and users have to pay $150 for a set top box to be installed first. This plan also calls for the cinema chains to get a cut of the revenues and it’s a pretty big slice (reportedly US$20 out of the US$50) and each customer will also get two free cinema tickets to see the movie at the cinema (so, cinemas can still earn income from selling them food and drinks).

In theory, this scheme might not cannibalise cinema revenues as this service is targeted at those who would not have gone to the cinemas anyway. So, it’s actually extra income. But the cinema chains aren’t convinced and are opposing it vehemently. Industry bigshots like director James Cameron and producer Jon Landau are firmly against this idea as well. Both are big advocates of the cinematic experience.

“Both Jim (Cameron) and I remain committed to the sanctity of the in-theatre experience. For us, from both a creative and financial standpoint, it is essential for movies to be offered exclusively in theatres for their initial release,” said Landau. “We don’t understand why the industry would want to provide audiences an incentive to skip the best form to experience the art that we work so hard to create. To us, the in-theatre experience is the wellspring that drives our entire business, regardless of what other platforms we eventually play on and should eventually play on. No one is against playing in the home, but there’s a sequencing of events that leads to it. The in-theatre communal experience is very special.”

The cinemas will probably be able to delay these developments but they won’t be able to stop it. The popularity of streaming services like Netflix has made it obvious that it’s just a matter of time before consumers will have the option of watching movies online soon after their release or even on the same day. So what can cinema chains do?

Immersive experience

If you look at what the likes of Cameron and Landau are advocating, it’s the overall experience of going to a cinema. As such, cinemas should be looking at making that experience so distinct and superior to the convenience of watching that same movie at home, that there’ll be consumers who’ll always prefer going to the cinema.

Offering a more immersive viewing experience is one key differentiator. Anyone who has tried IMAX knows what a difference its large screen and superior sound system makes especially for action- and special-effects-driven movies.

Barco Escape is a three-screen video format that offers a kind of panoramic experience that goes beyond what IMAX can offer. Star Trek Beyond had a special version which expanded the storytelling across the three screens for key moments in the movie. All in, about 20 minutes of the movie was optimised for the Barco Escape format.

Then there’s Magi, a new system that captures images in 3D and “4K” ultra-high resolution and displays the resulting frames at five times the usual rate. It’s designed to create movie experiences that are more immersive than regular 3D or giant-screen IMAX.

No home theatre system, however sophisticated, will be able to compete with the likes of IMAX, Barco Escape or Magi. So that may be the kind of thing that cinema chains will have to invest more heavily into.

Kinetic seating is another way to provide audience members with a unique experience that they’d not be able to get from watching a movie at home. There are already some so-called 4D auditoriums where seats move and other effects like wind, water and even odour come into play, although these are very much a novelty at the moment. Perhaps the wind, water and smell aspect is a bit over the top, but the notion of moving seats that make you feel like you’re part of the action is a practical way to enhance the immersive experience.

Luxury service

Cinema food traditionally comprised snacks like candy and popcorn and a soft drink. That’s all starting to change. In the US, a growing number of cinemas are offering lush seats and food options that equal a full restaurant experience. Audience members can actually dine in comfort within the cinema itself.

Obviously with proper dinner fare, the amount spent at the cinema will be much higher and such luxury offerings are targeted at an affluent demographic. But there’s sufficient interest in this that AMC, one of the largest cinema chains in the US, is converting about half of its 600 plus cinemas to become dine-in establishments. Cinemark, another American chain, has already converted about half of its 340 outlets to feature enhanced food options.

iPic Theaters offers a wine-and-dine concession stand that features a cinema-friendly (meaning suitable to eat in the dark) chef-driven menu from acclaimed Chef Sherry Yard, prepared to order for guests to take into the cinema hall. It even offers an assortment of cocktails, beer and wine contained in special Cocktail Shakers so they can be brought into the cinema.

Experience vs Convenience

Cinemas as we know it are changing. They have to if they want to weather the digital onslaught. That’s why you’re seeing new, more immersive formats emerging and why cinemas are investing in top-notch sound systems. It’s also why some cinemas are offering luxury chairs and restaurant-quality food and beverage options.

Ultimately, it’s about experience versus convenience. There’s no way cinemas can compete on convenience with movies that are streamed directly to the desktop, laptop or handheld device. But they can offer a rich experience that go beyond just delivering a way for people to watch a movie. It’s the key to their survival.

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