Is The Small Screen Replacing The Silver Screen?

fromKCRW

As DVD sales decline, Hollywood studios are looking for ways to get movies straight to consumers' living rooms. This has some industry insiders worried that Hollywood is jeopardizing its most valuable asset: the theatrical release date. The movie industry is looking to change the way it distributes content.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Its MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Im Steve Inskeep. The movie business is fighting with itself right now. Hollywood Studios are trying to guess how you will watch movies in the near future, and maybe influence it as well. The question is whether you will watch premieres of first-run films in theaters as people always have or right on your television at home. Reporter Kim Masters is covering this story and joins us once again.

Hi, Kim.

KIM MASTERS: Hi, Steve.

INSKEEP: So hows this playing out?

MASTERS: Well, you know, almost every day theres an announcement of some kind as the studios grapple with what they should do in the digital era. So in the past few weeks, weve seen Sony move up the movie Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs. You can watch it, if you have an Internet-enabled TV, less than three months after its in theaters. Thats much shorter than the usual waiting period for a DVD release. But they will stream it to your TV even before its available on DVD.

Weve seen Paramount rush out the release of G.I. Joe, which I know is very exciting for you, Steve, probably.

INSKEEP: Oh, definitely. Yeah, Im right there (unintelligible).

MASTERS: And weve seen the studios go to the government. Theyve gone to the FCC, the Federal Communications Commission, and asked for permission to disable certain outputs on your TV because they want to be able to gear up to stream those movies directly to you, as you mentioned in the beginning, without even necessarily you having to go to the theater. And they want to minimize their risk of piracy by making it harder for you to copy those movies. And all of this augers change in the way that we are going to watch movies.

INSKEEP: So instead of going to a theater and buying one ticket, two tickets, five tickets, however big the family or the group is, just everybody gathers around the living room. They pay one price, and then they see the film?

MASTERS: You know, the time-honored tradition has been what we call windows. This is an orderly succession of releases. First you go to the movies and you pay to see the movie. Then you buy it on DVD and you pay to see the movie. Then you get it on HBO, and youve paid again to see the movie.

But the trick here is that each time, the studio is charging you a fee again to watch that movie. And up until now, every time theres a new technology, thats another window. So the studios have relied on that for decades. It has been, of course, hugely profitable.

And the problem right now is that DVDs, which have been the most important part of that chain, they are not selling very well. So the studios are panicking, and theyre looking around for a new way of doing business.

INSKEEP: So the DVD window is closing a little bit, but it sounds like they want to jump past several windows. Arent they missing some income opportunities if they do business this way?

MASTERS: Well, thats exactly the point. There are a lot of veteran studio executives - they feel that were in an era now where these studios are owned by big companies like Sony owning Columbia Pictures, GE owning but about to sell to a cable company, NBC Universal. They feel that some of those big companies, theyre looking to make a profit, but they don't get the movie business. They don't get how crucial those windows are and that when they move that back window - which would be you supposedly seeing it maybe on your television - up to the front of the line, they will destroy this business. They will not be able to wring the kind of income out of that system of release that pays for Spiderman or Avatar or these big effects movies that we expect to see as the product of Hollywood.

INSKEEP: That said, though, isnt the theater experience still rich enough? I mean, its survived television. It has survived DVDs and any number of other things. People still go to the movies and pay, you know, $7 for a gigantic bucket of popcorn.

MASTERS: People do, but the fact is, if you had the opportunity to say I really want to watch, lets say, New Moon, the Twilight saga, and I would pay -what would you pay? I don't know. Lets say you were a Harry Potter fan. Youre in the Harry Potter fan club. Would you pay $150 to watch it before its in theaters? Those are the questions.

And theres a school of thought in Hollywood, you know, theyre saying this is the future. Its all going to be digital and streaming. We may as well jump in there now and just go for it. And there are people saying: Are you nuts? You're going to destroy this industry.

INSKEEP: Are theaters going to survive this?

MASTERS: Many of them will not. You know, those maybe that have upgraded, that are digital, that give you that better experience, those will be fine. But I know theater owners are very, very concerned about this, and some of them believe that their businesses will be closing by the score.

INSKEEP: Kim Masters hosts THE BUSINESS on member station KCRW.

Kim, thanks very much.

MASTERS: Thank you, Steve.

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