Will We Someday Watch Blockbuster Movies the Way We Watch Blockbuster Fights?

Steven Zeitchik
Los Angeles Times (TNS)

Much of the US was consuming not one but two phenomena simultaneously, a parallel display of mega-entertainment.

There were plenty of factors to chew over in analyzing why “Avengers: Age of Ultron” took in $188 million at the weekend box office — the second-biggest opening of all time but nonetheless lower than both pre-weekend estimates and the opening total for the first movie.

Perhaps the most popular, and intriguing, is that sales fell due to the Floyd Meathweather-Manny Pacquiao-fight. The HBO-Showtime pay-per-view event, at $100 a pop, managed to attract several million paying customers (and plenty more watching in bars and on Periscope) on Saturday night. It’s reasonable to assume that a whole bunch of them might have headed out to “Avengers” had they not been so focused on the bobbing and weaving at the MGM Grand.

The convergence of these two events, while of course a coincidence, offered a kind of neat symmetry. In one instance, you had some much-hyped superheroes and villains creating on-screen pyrotechnics for a mass audience. In the other you had . . . a Marvel movie.

That may sound like a punchline but in truth it was a rare occasion, especially in these fragmented days: Much of the country was consuming not one but two phenomena simultaneously, a parallel display of mega-entertainment.

But it may be more than a parallel. The fight might have offered a glimpse into how the release of a future movie like “Avengers” could play out.

The talk has long been that new tent-pole movies could be retailed in the same way as pay-per-view fights: as major home-viewing events, at a steep price tag, for people who’d rather stay in their living rooms than go to the theater. At a cable convention in 2008 a Comcast executive laid out, with some specificity, how such a plan might unfold.

Of course such talk had been going on for years before that speech—and it’s gone on for years since. Yet there still is not a major studio release that has tried to bust up these windows, the system by which big movies spend a few months in theaters near you before coming to a cable or digital platform in your home. Not even Universal, which is now owned by Comcast, has tried defying this timing. The notion of a video-on-demand tent pole has become a little like Mark Twain’s weather — everyone talks about the possibility, but nobody does anything about it.

Mayweather-Pacquiao offers some concrete proof that this may not be just idle talk, or at least shouldn’t be.

Sure, studios have held back to a great extent because theaters remain an important partner, and the politics (and arguably the ethics) of going around them is thorny. Just look at what happened when Netflix began getting into the feature business.

But a separate question has played into that decision — namely, could expensive tent-pole on-demand programming make enough dough? Not by charging the few bucks it costs to watch an indie film on-demand while or before it’s in theaters, but the serious money required to pay for a massive production. Would there be enough revenue to justify the experiment and risk upsetting theater owners? Would millions of households pay a premium price — studios would need to charge much more than a single-admission movie ticket, $50 and up — to make it worthwhile for studios?

Judging by the early estimates for Mayweather-Pacquiao, the answer is yes. We’re willing to dip into our nest egg to experience a one-off major event at home. Couch business is real business.

Granted, there are plenty of distinctions. A movie isn’t quite the live event a boxing match is, though judging by the speed and decibel level at which opening-weekend movies are consumed these days, it’s not that far. There are plenty of people who will want to see a film like “Avengers” on a giant tableaux, especially if they’re also going to see it in 3-D (in this case, about a quarter of people who bought tickets did so, according to Disney sales figures) or IMAX.

But a lot of people spent $100 (or chipped in to spend $100) rather than find a local watering hole where they could watch the fight Saturday for a lot less. It stands to reason they might do the same for a highly anticipated cinematic event.

Part of the reason for this increased openness perhaps is a shift in how we watch everything. The belief has long been that one of the reasons people go to the movie theater (or a sports bar) is for the communal experience. That remains true. When it comes to entertainment, people like a sense of community.

But the nature of a communal experience has changed. The idea that it only happens when hundreds of people gather in one place isn’t so true anymore. As those tuning in to the fight from home could tell you, between tweeting and texting and otherwise connecting with other fans, there was still plenty of community, but they just didn’t have to get off their chair to access it.

Technology keeps pushing things further: bigger TV screens allow for ever-more people to gather in the same room, as fight fans learned, while new VR apps not far down the pike offer the possibility of multi-user viewing in a networked and theater-like environment, so much so that you can feel like you’re sitting in a movie theater next to your friend even if the two of you are hundreds of miles apart.

There are still plenty of speed bumps on the path to tent poles on demand. How much flexibility do you give a customer in watching the movie — are repeat viewings or time shifting allowed? How do you stop bars or just enterprising people in the neighborhood from showing your film and cutting into profits? How would revenue splits be worked out with cable operators?

The biggest hurdle of all, the one HBO and Showtime never had to deal with: the theaters. What should be their role in all this? After all, they are still the studios’ most important partner and would remain so on all the other movies that aren’t being made available this way. And theaters are, understandably, not dropping their resistance to any kind of simultaneous blockbuster release any time soon.

But none of these contradict the fundamental point. There is incentive for studios to make available big-event programming in homes, and an appetite from consumers to shell out for it. On Saturday night, many people did that instead of going to “Avengers.” It may not be that long before they can do both.

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.

60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

Keep reading... Show less

The year in song reflected the state of the world around us. Here are the 70 songs that spoke to us this year.

70. The Horrors - "Machine"

On their fifth album V, the Horrors expand on the bright, psychedelic territory they explored with Luminous, anchoring the ten new tracks with retro synths and guitar fuzz freakouts. "Machine" is the delicious outlier and the most vitriolic cut on the record, with Faris Badwan belting out accusations to the song's subject, who may even be us. The concept of alienation is nothing new, but here the Brits incorporate a beautiful metaphor of an insect trapped in amber as an illustration of the human caught within modernity. Whether our trappings are technological, psychological, or something else entirely makes the statement all the more chilling. - Tristan Kneschke

Keep reading... Show less

Net Neutrality and the Music Ecosystem: Defending the Last Mile

Still from Whiplash (2014) (Photo by Daniel McFadden - © Courtesy of Sundance Institute) (IMDB)

"...when the history books get written about this era, they'll show that the music community recognized the potential impacts and were strong leaders." An interview with Kevin Erickson of Future of Music Coalition.

Last week, the musician Phil Elverum, a.k.a. Mount Eerie, celebrated the fact that his album A Crow Looked at Me had been ranked #3 on the New York Times' Best of 2017 list. You might expect that high praise from the prestigious newspaper would result in a significant spike in album sales. In a tweet, Elverum divulged that since making the list, he'd sold…six. Six copies.

Keep reading... Show less

Under the lens of cultural and historical context, as well as understanding the reflective nature of popular culture, it's hard not to read this film as a cautionary tale about the limitations of isolationism.

I recently spoke to a class full of students about Plato's "Allegory of the Cave". Actually, I mentioned Plato's "Allegory of the Cave" by prefacing that I understood the likelihood that no one had read it. Fortunately, two students had, which brought mild temporary relief. In an effort to close the gap of understanding (perhaps more a canyon or uncanny valley) I made the popular quick comparison between Plato's often cited work and the Wachowski siblings' cinema spectacle, The Matrix. What I didn't anticipate in that moment was complete and utter dissociation observable in collective wide-eyed stares. Example by comparison lost. Not a single student in a class of undergraduates had partaken of The Matrix in all its Dystopic future shock and CGI kung fu technobabble philosophy. My muted response in that moment: Whoa!

Keep reading... Show less

'The Art of Confession' Ties Together Threads of Performance

Allen Ginsberg and Robert Lowell at St. Mark's Church in New York City, 23 February 1977

Scholar Christopher Grobe crafts a series of individually satisfying case studies, then shows the strong threads between confessional poetry, performance art, and reality television, with stops along the way.

Tracing a thread from Robert Lowell to reality TV seems like an ominous task, and it is one that Christopher Grobe tackles by laying out several intertwining threads. The history of an idea, like confession, is only linear when we want to create a sensible structure, the "one damn thing after the next" that is the standing critique of creating historical accounts. The organization Grobe employs helps sensemaking.

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.