AMC and Universal Deliver Another Hammer Blow To Cinemas

Thirty years ago, if you wanted to see a blockbuster movie, you had to join a long queue, buy a ticket, and go and see it inside a movie theater. If you didn’t do that, you’d never get the chance to see it the way it was intended to be seen. It would eventually make its way to television several years later, but the average humble box-shaped television set of the 1990s wouldn’t do justice to the film’s lighting or visuals. You might be able to see it a few years earlier if you went to your local Blockbuster and rented the movie on VHS, but the quality of a VHS tape was even worse. Movies were special, and so was the experience of going to a movie theater.

Those days are now long gone. Technology has marched on unabated for the past few decades, and the quality of televisions has improved in leaps and bounds. At the same time as the quality improving, the price has come down. The TVs people have in their front rooms today are far larger than the televisions their parents had when they were growing up. At minimum, most people now have an HD display. Those with the budget to afford something better might have 4K or even 8K displays. To put that in relatable terms, it means that the quality of the image you see on your screen is as good as the quality of the image you’d see inside a movie theater. Given the size of some modern televisions, front rooms can easily be turned into home theaters.

The improvements in the quality of televisions wouldn’t be such a big issue for movie theaters if it weren’t for the fact that the internet had arrived at the same time. Unfortunately for them, it did. You’d have no chance of downloading a movie on a 1990s 56K dial-up connection, but modern ultra-fast fiber-optic broadband connections make streaming videos as easy as clicking a few buttons and then grabbing the popcorn. Companies like Netflix and Amazon Prime have emerged (accompanied by many others), and the old way of renting movies has disappeared. Blockbuster collapsed and went bankrupt in 2013. Nobody needs video stores anymore. They rent everything via streaming through their smart televisions or video game consoles.

As the popularity of streaming movies and television shows has increased, the business model of the TV and movie industry has changed. Netflix now has almost two hundred million subscribers. That’s a far larger audience than most movies could ever hope to reach, and that fact hasn’t gone unnoticed by movie executives. Some films now go directly to streaming, skipping movie theaters entirely. Rival streaming companies compete for the latest releases. That latter fact is unsurprising; the video streaming model is almost replicated from online slots websites and online casinos. In the same way that the creation of online slots sites cut the cord between gambling and casinos, streaming companies cut the cord between movies and theaters. Now there are so many companies involved in the industry, online slots websites try to stand out from the crowd through outstanding welcome offers or player incentives. Streaming companies try to do the same thing through exclusivity. We’re all familiar with the concept of a ‘Netflix exclusive’ or an ‘Amazon exclusive’ show. It’s the reason why many of us have more than one subscription. Now it appears that this battle is about to take a step up – and movie theaters might soon be counting the cost of the streaming wars.

If for any reason, you miss a movie that you wanted to see at the movie theater, you still have to wait a little while before you have a chance to see it legally as things currently stand. Movie studios keep the film at the box office for as long as possible to maximize profits, and then they tend to wait a while before releasing their films as DVDs or streaming options in order to allow demand to see the movie to build up again. That waiting period has long been a bone of contention for movie lovers – and now it appears that it’s about to be slashed in half, or perhaps even less. That’s because both Universal and AMC have agreed to cut waiting times for streaming releases to appease the streaming companies – and, of course, to make more money.

According to the text of the agreement that’s been struck between the companies, the time between a movie going to theaters and becoming available for (price-per-film) rental through Amazon and other platforms is going to be reduced to a mere seventeen days. That’s less than three weeks after the film’s premiere and drastically lower than the current wait, which tends to be between seventy and ninety days, depending on the company behind the film. There is a catch, though. Renting a film that’s been newly released for streaming – the most recent ‘Star Wars’ movie, for example – generally costs around five dollars as things stand. For these new releases, a new ‘premium rental’ charge of around twenty dollars will be applied. AMC hopes that this high price point will make people more likely to spend their money going to see the film inside movie theaters. Universal doesn’t care either way, so long as people are watching the film, and they get paid for them doing so.

Now Universal and AMC have opened the door to shortening the window, it’s impossible to believe that other major movie producers won’t follow suit – especially if Universal profit from being the first company to the table with the idea. In agreeing to this change, AMC appears to have taken a significant gamble. We may not always love the high prices that we associate with going to the movie theater – especially when the purchase of drinks and food can push the cost of a night for two at the movies north of fifty dollars – but we wouldn’t want to be the last generation who had the freedom to do so. If this plan goes badly for AMC, it might be recorded by history as the move that condemned movie theaters to go the same way as Blockbuster Video did seven years ago – and ‘going to the movies’ is something that we tell our grandchildren about one day while they look at us in disbelief.