Sunday, April 09, 2006

Delayed Gratification and The Decentralized Film Festival

Movies, democracy, free markets, communism, competitive sports. These are the ingredients that I turn to most when cooking the thoughts on this blog. I just read "The Tipping Point" so I think I might be trying out a new spice in contagion. Movie theaters in the news tends to stimulate me into creating new recipes. And the most recent news I've been reading has a to do with the continuing fight against "Shriking windows".

Also, I'm really intrigued by an idea that came out in my last post, about the maturation of movie going preferences.

So with all this in mind, let's think about what it would be like to be able to watch any movie you wanted (i.e. even new releases) in any venue (home or at the movies). And for the sake of argument let's marginalize the effect of the cost of these movies. Let's say that it will somehow cost you the same to watch a new movie at home, as it does to watch it in a movie theater. Similarly, watching a classic in a theater will cost you as much as watching it in your personal home theater. Furthermore let's say that technology related to availability is perfect as well. You can get whatever you want as soon as you want it because the broadband pipes are big enough and because the movies are easily replicated and efficiently distributed.

Total free choice when it comes to watching movies.

As I understand it, this is the scenario that most theater owners are thinking about when they fight the "shrinking window". To me, it seems utopian. Hence, there must be some problems with it. And certainly there are.

The contention from the opposition, is that a structured system of windows allows all the "separate" markets (theatrical release, 2nd run, rental, home video, premium channel, and finally network release) to maximize their earnings. They argue that this model churns out more money than collapsed windows and simultaneous availability would.

I have always had a couple of objections to this argument. 1.) I'm not even sure if it's true. There's the possibility that there is no overlap between the people who go through the various conduits. i.e. the people who buy the dvds may not be the same ones who watch it in the theater. Thus neither market suffers at the expense of the other. And isn't there potential for people who would buy the dvd immediately, but don't after the movie has been out and discussed widely for a while? 2.) If this model does churn out more money than simultaneous availability, it seems to do so at the expense of people's choice, and doesn't offer them anything in return. Is the only reason I can't buy a dvd when a movie is first released so that I can be hit up twice for it? Why would I, as a moviegoer, ever vote for a system like that? Is it really good that people are making purchase decisions because of lack of options? I think it has a tendency to make a lot of people unhappy as they start to realize that it's not necessary.

Ok, nothing new. Back to the problems with Utopia. So what is wrong with unlimited choice? Basically, I think, it turns out that there is more to enjoyment than having full control. I'd even go so far to argue that a lot of the true pleasures in life are hidden in the actions that we don't explicitly choose. If you like a song, for example, and you end up buying the whole album because that's the only way you can listen to the music when you want to, you may end up discovering that you love the artist's other songs. Unfortunately, the opposite tends to happen as often (if not more often) which is why people put such a premium on fine grained control; like buying an individual song on itunes.

What kind of pleasures are we forced into with the movies? The most obvious is the crowd. Getting in rythm with a crowd can amplify the comedy of a funny movie. Sharing disgust with the other people in the theater can make you feel more whole after sinking 2 hours into a terrible movie. Finding a pleasant crowd can make the most tired themes seem fresh when you see people genuinely reacting to them. Crowds, of course, have a well documented downside. In fact they're the principal focus of most people's hatred of going to the movies.

But here's one that you may not have thought of. Limiting the choices you have actually helps making choosing a movie to go to a solvable problem. Right now, when you want to watch something you haven't seen before, you know you can show up at the movies and probably find something. Once you get there, you know you only have the choice of a few movies, and not every movie ever created. How would you ever choose a movie if you could watch anything? That's the oft-cited problem with cable: hundreds of channels, but nothing's on.

Furthermore, it's a convenient way to consolidate the resources that will always be limited. Even in this fantasy world, there will only be a few public venues that are capable of putting on a show as only a multiplex can. Limiting those screens to new releases, sets an acceptible public expectation of how those public resources will be allocated (film wise).

There may be lots of other things that end up being very positive byproducts of the current limits on moviewatching. Just think about how much more valuable a thing feels when you can't have it all the time. I think limitations, whether they're necessary or not, is an important component of our ability to enjoy things. As they say, everything in moderation.

But does that mean that we're better off without collapsed windows and simultaneous availability of movies? Probably not. As much as the protectionist theater owners and studios would like to protect their livelihood, most people would be better off with more choice (I'm thinking of a lot of examples of developmental economics, that I think are applicable, but I'm a fairly amateur economist, so I'm not sure).

So what if we could preserve some of the benefits of forced limitations? We're probably going to have to, because I think a lot of these things are more important to the way people watch movies than they realize.

So what are some ways to "limit" how people will watch movies when they don't have to. Well, how do we limit our moviewatching now? I can think of a couple of ways. One: we wait until all our friends are available until we watch a movie. Two: we wait until we hear lots of good things about the movie.

These things might not even be that hard to simulate in the world of unlimited movie choice. If you're interested in movies that show off the beaten path, let's call you a film festival kind of guy. Chances are that you know other film festival types and you share recommendations with one another. In Malcolm Gladwell terms, you might even be considered a maven if people sought your advice on movies. One way to fill up a movie theater would be to send a message out to all the people who take your recommendations and suggest that they all check out a new movie. This is a lot like waiting till all your friends want to see a movie and probably share some of the same benefits (if everyone wants to see it, then it has a high likelihood of being good). Then if there's not that much interest, you can always purchase the movie and watch it on your own at home.

This simple idea is the basic building block of this exciting thought that incorporates all the possibilities of public theaters, home theaters, and information technology. If you're the movie recommender, let's say you suggest a movie. Several things can happen.
  • 150 people commit to watching the movie. A theater (realizing the profit that can be made from concessions) "buys" the copyrights for each moviegoer. Everyone gets to watch the movie for free and the theater makes a killing on overpriced concessions
  • People cannot decide on a time or not enough people come together to command a multiplex auditorium. People can come together in smaller groups and watch it in a good home theater, or as individuals. The distributors are still able to collect money for showing the movie. People are still able to watch the movie, although at a price higher than that if they had "waited" for a bigger crowd.
  • The commitments of the movie watchers can be communicated directly to the film makers. If the people like the film, the film makers can rally support for their upcoming projects, and potentially even funding! The deal can go something like, "Would you like to pay $10 to contribute to funding a movie about x? You'll get to watch the movie for free for the rest of your life and get a dvd. If we don't raise the amount needed to fit the budget, by a certain date, your money will be refunded"
That last part is the real gem. Is there a more appropriate way of getting funding? You're funded by the people who are most interested in seeing the movie, at a level of risk that is dynamic and acceptible to each individual. And you cut out the overhead of the standardized practices of the studio. Furthermore, the film is paid for before you even start filming. And there is still incentive to sell the film even after it's made (you can make more money selling it to people who didn't "invest" in it). As a filmmaker, who would you rather be bargaining with, the audience, or the studio? And as a moviewatcher, who would you rather be bargaining with, the filmmakers or the studio? There will still be a place for studio films (people who don't want the hassle of going to a million flakey investors trying to give their input) but for anyone who has an original and untested vision, this makes a much more appropriate start.

The people making the movie recommendations are doing exactly what I wanted to do when I said I wanted to have a movie theater. I wanted to share the movies that were good and in some oblique way contribute to making more. I'm sure there are more people who would like to do the same.


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