The Interview wasn’t available to us on demand by design — it was the result, as we all know, of the fumble-fucked “Do you guys really wanna show The Interview?”/ ”OK, never mind, we’re cancelling it” / “OK, never mind the never mind, we’re releasing it” imbroglio. Because the major chains had refused it, The Interview, a big studio comedy with major stars and a significant budget, was released like an indie film: on a handful of independent screens, simultaneous with video-on-demand. And the results of that experiment were telling, particularly since VOD revenues are so rarely reported (and certainly not with the sports page-ish breathlessness of theatrical box office).
In those first four days of online release, The Interview made $15 million. In the same period, it made $2.8 million in theaters — and even factoring in the limited number of screens showing it (331, about a tenth of initial, wide-release projections), the film’s per-screen average was equally unimpressive (about $5K/screen, or 13th place for the weekend). Even if you factor in the “safety concerns” that prompted its initial ousting from the major chains, the message was clear here: given the choice between seeing a major, well publicized (too well, ultimately!) studio release in a theater or in the comfort of their own home, the vast majority of moviegoers said, “Home, please.” It’s a controllable environment, and a more comfortable one — and it’s cheaper by a mile.
The major theater chains know this, and they’re terrified of it. Editorials have insisted that The Interview’s VOD success wasn’t a game-changer because it’s such a special case, and maybe they’re right. But the exhibitors know which way the wind is blowing. When consumers choose to watch movies at home, the bulk of that rental or purchase fee is going to the studios — without the theaters skimming their noteworthy percentage off the top. And more importantly, when we stay home we’re not buying those overpriced concessions, which is where the theaters make their real money anyway.
Earlier attempts by the studios to collapse the theatrical-to-home viewing window have met with braying resistance, but it’s all stopgaps at this point: threats and boycotts, moviegoers waiting out the increasingly brief turnaround from theatrical release to streaming and disc (it used to average six months; these days it’s often three or less), and studios placing all their chips on spectacle movies, nickel-and-diming their young target audience with surcharge-happy bells and whistles like 3D, IMAX, and whatever the hell “RPX” is. One of two things is going to happen: either exhibitors will have to get competitive by making the theatrical experience more enjoyable and more affordable, or the free-fall will continue and moviegoing as we know it will just plain bleed out. It’s not hard to pinpoint is which is more likely.