Sean Parker plays coy as Screening Room VOD debate heats up

Staff Writer
Columbus CEO

LAS VEGAS (AP) — The spotlight was on Sean Parker and the Screening Room at CinemaCon in Las Vegas this past week, but while the nation's theater owners and studio executives mulled the implications of the proposed at-home viewing service, Parker played coy.

When The Associated Press asked Parker about his latest venture at the Wednesday launch of the Parker Institute for Cancer Immunotherapy in Los Angeles, the Napster co-founder said with a laugh: "I don't even know what that is."

His glibness about the revolutionary service, which would stream first-run films to the home at $50 a pop, thus blowing up Hollywood's traditional model of theatrical exclusivity, came at an interesting time. It was the middle of CinemaCon, where the overriding message was that Hollywood is still very committed to the idea of the theatrical experience.

CinemaCon, a gathering of theater owners, exhibitors and industry types whose livelihoods depend on box office, has always been a brazen celebration of the movie theater. During the week-long conference each year, major studios typically trot out big stars and exclusive footage of upcoming films, and technology providers roll out their latest and greatest innovations in sound, screen and immersive experiences.

The death of the cinema comes up every so often, too, whether it's television, VHS, smart phones or streaming services. This year, Screening Room was the threat du jour.

Most studio heads and filmmakers at CinemaCon spoke about the Screening Room in broad, vaguely hostile strokes. "Avatar" director James Cameron was one of the few to address the initiative by name.

"Regardless of what the folks associated with the Screening Room say, I think it's absolutely essential for movies to be offered exclusively in theaters upon initial release," Cameron said on Thursday. "My producing partner Jon Landau and I are committed to the sanctity of the in-theater experience. And that's creatively and from a business standpoint."

Yet most chose to address the proposal indirectly, like Warner Bros. Chairman and CEO Kevin Tsujihara, who told exhibitors "we are not going to let a third party or middle man come between us."

"When there are new technologies," he added, "we will explore them with each of you. We know the status quo is not an option."

"Hangover" director Todd Phillips spoke more sentimentally about the preservation of theatrical exclusivity.

"Why are we in such a rush to turn movies into television? It doesn't make sense to me. Movies are special," Phillips said. "We need to do everything we can to protect that part of the experience."

Even execs for Amazon Studios, an emerging producer of digital content and a newcomer at the conference this year, stressed that traditional theatrical releases were planned for most of their feature-length films.

But there was hardly a consensus at CinemaCon, even among some of cinema's most influential voices. "Star Wars: The Force Awakens" director J.J. Abrams and veteran producer Frank Marshall ("Jurassic World," ''Indiana Jones") both urged theater owners to be open minded about the technology.

Back in Los Angeles, at Parker's event Wednesday, "Lord of the Rings" director Peter Jackson, a Screening Room backer, stressed that the service is not meant to detract people from going to theaters, but to add audiences.

"The idea of screening room is to try to make movies exist for the people who don't go to the cinema," Jackson said. "If we can try to get that added to the box office of films, that means the films are more successful, which means more films get made and a wider variety of films get made."

"Theater owners should not be concerned and I don't think filmmakers should be," he added. "Honestly, I've kicked the tires of this for so long now, trying to find any fault in it, and I think it's sound. I think it's going to be a very, very positive thing for the industry in a time that we need it."

The big question now is whether or not these two factions will ever see eye-to-eye, and many at CinemaCon were already off-put by the idea of an outsider's business proposal disrupting their industry.

"More sophisticated window modeling may be needed for the growing success of a modern movie industry," said John Fithian, Chairman and CEO of the National Association of Theater Owners. "But those models will be developed by distributors and exhibitors in company-to-company discussions."


AP Entertainment Reporter Nicole Evatt contributed to this story from Los Angeles.


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