Many millions of Americans would probably be willing to spend real money to watch first-run movies from the privacy of their own homes for the sheer convenience and being able to avoid the aggravation of the modern theatre experience.
Like millions of other Americans, my wife and I braved the brutal summer heat this weekend, left our air-conditioned home and sat down for two hours at our local movie theatre to watch Captain America: The First Avenger.
I liked the movie a lot. The movie experience itself? Not so much.
As a young child, I used to love going to the movies. It was a time before the Empire, before the giant media and theater conglomerates owned everything.
A long, long time ago, in an era that is now far, far away, movie theaters used to be fun, especially the old, plush movie palaces that served real on premises-popped popcorn with real butter and had good movie candy, not the pre-popped, shipped in giant plastic bags from a central location and corn-syrupy crap that they serve now.
It was a time when you could get the original Goldenberg's Peanut Chews (long before they purchased by Just Born and lost their identity) and old school Ice Cream Bon Bons, and nobody knew what hell "Movie Nachos" were. And we liked it that way.
I also remember when it didn't cost a king's ransom for mom and dad to take their kids out for a movie night.
Now as I get older, I dread the entire experience of going to the movies. Let me begin with my list of grievances.
First, is the entire thing of having to drive half across your 'friggin county in the blazing heat and traffic to get to a movie theater. Which sucks.
Since most independent and small-town local movie theaters have gone extinct thanks to Regal Entertainment Group, AMC, National Amusements and Cinemark you now have to go to a multiplex/megaplex, which are typically attached or near some sort of shopping complex, usually a mall.
So now you have to fight with everyone else and their brother in that mall complex for a parking space, whether it's prime movie-going hours or not. Lately, it seems like there's never a good time to go to the theater, especially during the hot summer months when movie-going is at its peak.
It doesn't matter if you go to an early matinee, late afternoon, early evening or the late evening showing, the entire parking-lot thing is enough to drive me completely out of my mind and abort mission. In fact I have aborted mission just on the state of the parking lot alone.
Once you've parked your car, which is now 1/4 mile away from the mall entrance after you've blown 20 minutes circling around and cursing at idiots who you've nearly gotten into an accident with, you schlepp yourself across the asphalt in the blazing heat.
After inhaling what your lungs interpret to be jet engine exhaust due to the dangerously diminished air quality, you now end up in the movie theater lobby.
This is where you find a box office that is almost always woefully understaffed and has only a few token automated movie ticket machines. To add insult to injury, if you want to buy tickets in advance on the Internet, these chains actually charge you a fee to save them labor and streamline their process. Un-freakin-believable, right?
Then there's the entire issue of getting a seat. You think you're getting there early enough, but these days unless you get there at least a half hour early during prime weekend movie-going hours, most of the good seats are taken.
And now that people are all personal-space conscious, they'll take up adjoining seats with their personal items such as pocketbooks and jackets and tell you that the seat is "saved", so the seating efficiency of most of these modern theaters are completely shot to hell. Never mind the fact that the seats at most of these places are extremely uncomfortable to begin with.
Then of course we have to add the actual behavior of many people that go to movies. The jackasses that turn on their LED-backlit smartphones and start texting/emailing/FaceBooking during the film. The parents who don't have the common sense not to bring young children to movies that aren't suitable for children, so now your experience is ruined by crying, screaming kids.
The idiots that can't shut the hell up. I could go on, and on, and on.
I'm not even going to get into the price/value of concessions compared to what they used to be. It amazes me that people are even willing to spend that kind of money on crap, but I flat-out refuse. Ok, I will get into it, but not right now.
And then pity the poor bastard who actually has to use a movie theater restroom to do... well anything before, during or after the film.
All of this is enough to make me not want to go to the movies anymore. This despite the fact that some movie chains, such as AMC, have tried to address these issues with more "high-end" experiences for the moviegoer, such as with the Dine-In concept that I wrote about in late 2010.
In early July, AMC had to adjust their business model for Dine-In, at least at the Essex Green location in New Jersey where I previewed the service. Instead of their food/drink "voucher" included with tickets prices for the special Fork & Screen and Cinemasuites, they are now only adding a surcharge to watch the film, with food and drinks being extra.
But the bottom line is that this kind of "if you want the experience at the theater to be better, we're just going to charge you more and more money" isn't going to resonate with people, especially myself, as prices are going through the roof and nothing is really improving.
Frankly, I already have an ideal place for a moviegoing experience. My home. Where I have air-conditioning, clean bathrooms, and a HDTV in my comfy living room and bedroom. Where I can prepare any kind of meals that I want at any budget that I like, buy whatever snacks I want that don't cost an arm and a leg, and pause the film when I want to take a nature break, without any rude people to ruin my movie.
The only downside to this is I'm limited to what I can see on DirecTV On-Demand, Netflix, Amazon Video or iTunes. If it's Pay Per-View, the release window is something on the order of six months or so. On Netflix or Amazon Prime video, a year or more, depending on the title.
Prices on my Apple TV and on my Roku for premium rentals average out at around $5 per title. DirecTV is about the same.
I'm pretty sure there are millions and millions of families, so that they could avoid all of the hassles of going out to the movies would be willing to pay premium prices in order to view first-run films from the safety and comfort of their own homes.
But what exactly is the magic number?
Well I think that depends on how large a family you have, and how you factor in the costs of a night at the movies. There's the time and aggravation, there's the fuel costs, there's the cost of pre or post-movie meals, and then there's the concession stuff, which is ludicrously expensive compared to what you can buy at the supermarket.
I mean, a decent air popper costs $25 and popcorn itself is like $5 for two 46 ounce jars at Walgreens which makes a massive amount of popcorn. And what does butter and a case of Coke cost at the supermarket or Wal-Mart compared to the theater? After the first movie night for a family of four you've pretty much paid back your investment.
With that taken into account, I think a family of two, such as my wife and I or even a single person would probably justify a first-run at $20 per view. My Editor-in-Chief Larry Dignan and I were discussing it this evening and he said that he could easily do it with his wife and two kids at $30 per view.
If you consider that I saw two grandparents with three grandkids plonk down $47 at the AMC's automated ticket machine this evening before buying any concession stuff at all, $30 doesn't sound too bad all.
Now, I realize there are a number of issues that need to be overcome here. Not everyone has broadband nor can they necessarily guarantee a good stream even if they have some type of high-speed Internet due to varying quality of service issues, so these films would probably have to be downloaded to a local cache such as on a big flash drive on the player device.
I envision a seven day from initial download and 24-hour window for viewing the film once you start to play it.
You'd order your HD first-run movie for the evening, and then it would be downloaded/cached, give or take an hour's notice. CDNs such as Akamai and Limelight could handle the load when films are released on Friday nights.
I'd expect that if everyone wanted Friday night to be movie night at home, these downloads could be pre-ordered a few days before, and the device would download during a scheduled "slot" of time using a distributed queuing algorithm at the back-end so the network wouldn't get saturated.
There's also the DRM problem that needs to be solved, and anyone who is really determined to defeat HDMI's HDCP easily can, although the practicality of re-mastering this stuff into Blu-Ray, doing the transcode work and distributing massive MPEG4 files on Bittorrent is of questionable benefit and has become increasingly risky.
I'm not going to deny there are some technical issues not to mention any number of licensing and legal issues that would need to be overcome. But Hollywood, the studios and the content owners simply need to have the will to get this done.
Would you be willing to pay a premium to watch first-run movies in the privacy of your own home? Talk Back and Let Me Know.