[Chris Anderson, editor of Wired Magazine, has a book coming out in the beginning of 2009 entitled "Free." My article you are about to read is basically a summary (with some of my own insights) of this article, a preview piece for the upcoming book, and this one from SlashFilm, who delved a little deeper into the concept of free movies.]
In his book, Anderson theorizes that because of the online success of companies like Google and Yahoo!, products and services are inevitably heading toward lower prices - so low, in fact, that they will eventually become free. The concept of "free" still seems to be a strange one to us, even though there are things right now that are offered that we have come to accept as normal. You no longer have to pay to read The New York Times, G-mail and Yahoo! mail are offering nearly limitless storage, and bands like Radiohead are offering entire albums online for free, increasing their overall sales because of it. Because of the ever-lowering costs of digital technology, it's becoming cheaper and more convenient (for both businesses and consumers) to offer their products and services through the Web.
So how does this relate to movies? Anderson predicts that this revolutionary idea could spill over into theaters. The idea is that if theaters offer movie tickets to everyone for free, they will still end up making a profit from concessions. With more people coming into the theater than ever before, those people will presumably purchase more concessions. We all know what a joke movie theater food is - they charge outrageous prices after we have to pay 10 dollars for a ticket. Who's going to go the extra mile and splurge on food and drinks when they have to pay that much just to get in? With today's prices, a family of four or five might as well head off to an amusement park instead of the multiplex if they want to get their money's worth. If tickets were free, though - that same family would be much more apt to see movies twice a week, which we all know means more money for the concession stand.
There's also the idea that if theaters charge a certain amount (let's say $20) for a "premium moviegoing experience," then the people who choose to voluntarily pay for that would nearly offset those who coast in for free. The premium experience could include something like leather recliners set up in the middle rows, with unlimited drinks and popcorn. [On a side note, I think it would be a lot more interesting if they didn't allow you to pick which ticket you got - if they instituted an on-the-spot lottery to see who has to pay the $20 and get the good seats. Then going to the movies would be something you could gamble on.]
In addition, payments theaters make to the film studios would drastically decrease, because they would be no longer be running films at all - it would be a digital projection onto the movie screen. This cuts costs of converting film stocks and operating the reels and the entire process could be automated, allowing for the person who used to operate the film up in that back window to move to the concession stand to help with the increased traffic. We may or may not lose quality due to the digital projection, but by the time this new practice would be instituted, there may have been large enough advancements in technology to lessen or remove this loss of quality altogether. If this happened, individual theaters wouldn't have to pay as much to the studios, so they would retain those costs and be able to use them to make a more efficient concession station, or possibly to drop the overall cost of concessions (in turn fooling people into purchasing more than they normally would). Fear not, film traditionalists - there will always be film because they have to use the actual filmstrips to convert things to high definition. And since there's always going to be some new form of technology that improves on the last wave, they have to keep the film around in order to reconvert it when the next big thing rolls in. That's how old John Wayne movies are available in Blu-ray right now.
This whole concept doesn't seem that far-fetched, guys. There are already movies that are coming out simultaneously online, in theaters, and on demand. And in a market where high definition is becoming the norm, ultra-high definition is quickly approaching, and some on-demand movies are offering "choose your own adventure" themed entertainment, theaters are going to have to do more and more to make people leave their homes to see a movie. I'm sure this whole thing is still years away from implementation (if it ever even happens), but it's cool to speculate about how this could effect us in the future. What do you guys think about this whole thing? What aspects of it do you like? What would you change? Sound off in the comment section, and let's get a good old-fashioned discussion a-brewin'. Until next time...