One of the most well received presentations at this year’s CinemaCon in Las Vegas was not a studio slate (sorry, I mean “portfolio”) but a university professor talking – without video or even PowerPoint slides – about market economy dynamics and introducing himself by saying that he was “interested in disruption.” His message to cinemas was simple but effective, “You survived; you won. That almost never happens.” Cinema is an industry that refuses to be disrupted, whether by technology or the pandemic, or even the two put together.
The speaker was Jeffrey Cole, Director of the Center for the Digital Future, USC (University of Southern California) and his session had the title “Movie Theatres Aren’t Going Anywhere,” capping an International Day opening that included strong keynote presentations from PVR INOX’s Managing Director Ajay Bijli and Mark Viane, President, International Theatrical Distribution, Paramount Pictures. The National Association of Theatre Owners was so sure of Cole’s star power, having featured him as a speaker at the NATO Fall Summit, that he was slotted for a repeat performance at 3pm that same day in the Palace Ballroom at Ceasar’s Palace. Given the love he got from exhibitors present, he could no doubt replace Celine and Adele in the Colosseum for other cinema operators to come and hear him.
The summary preview of his talk in the CinemaCon guide gave a taste of his presentation: “If ever there was reason for the motion picture theater industry to meet its demise, the pandemic would have been the perfect culprit. Theaters would have served their last heaping of buttered popcorn, no more flickering light from the projection booth and dare we say, no more first kisses in the back row of the balcony. In this special keynote, Jeffrey Cole will focus on how theaters faced disruption and lived to tell the story, demonstrating to all their clear and essential part in the opening of motion pictures. An expert in the field of technology and emerging media, Cole serves as an adviser to governments and leading companies around the world as they craft digital strategies.”
This summary, however, did not do justice to Cole’s oratory skills, which allowed him to speak without a script or visual aides and still hold the audience’s undivided attention. We will try to bring you a more detailed summary of his talk at a future date, but really – ya’ kinda’ had to be there.
The point he was making is that industries ranging from music to automobiles have been severely disrupted. In the case of Tesla, without spending one cent on advertising. But there can be no USD $1 billion dollar movie without cinemas. In 2019 there were nine of them. Then, four months before the pandemic Disney+ and Apple TV+ launched, but they were “not programmed for the pandemic.” Meanwhile Warner Bros. “botched” HBO Max. “All of these experiments failed. Nothing worked.” It just took the studios 18 months to figure that out. “We will never see day-and-date again,” except in an extraordinary situation.
Although he did not go into such historical detail, cinema survived the most cataclysmic disruption when television was introduced in the 1950s. Overnight people stopped going on an almost weekly basis to their local single-screen theatre to get their fill of newsreels, cartoons, weekly serials, A- and B-feature films, watched in no particular order. All other technology disruptions since have been variations of TV: cable, VHS, Tivo, DVD, YouTube, Netflix and soon maybe VR-TV and ChatGPTV. Streaming has made film consumption more convenient than rewinding and returning video tapes, or popping DVDs back into an envelope to post, but they are variations of the same “glass teat” technology, as Harlan Ellison memorably christened TV over half a century ago.
The only other example of someone surviving disruption that Cole could think of was Best Buy, the US electronics retailer that has withstood the threat of Amazon and even people browsing in the store just to order the same item from a less expensive online retailer, before even having the courtesy to leave the physical store. “You were disrupted and you survived.” Streaming meanwhile hasn’t fared so well, with budget cuts, staff cuts and the introduction of advertising tiers, Cole noted.
“Theatres give films majesty,” he concluded, “while Netflix wanted to borrow and leverage your credibility.” Movie theatres are at the apex of a film’s release. His words were validated by pretty much everything that took place in Vegas for the rest of CinemaCon, from Apple Original Films showing off it’s biggest movies (“Killer of Flower Moon” and “Napoleon”) with a promised wide and windowed theatrical release, to everyone from Warner Bros. Discovery head David Zaslav to the stars of “Trolls: Band Together” promising that day-and-date was a horrible thing of the past. “Joy is a choice, Justin,” Anna Kendrick told her “Trolls” co-star Justin Timberlake on stage. Cinema owners had plenty of reasons to choose to be happy at this year’s CinemaCon. Jeffrey Cole just gave them a good reminder why.
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