Inspired by a lot of discussion I’ve seen online about the decline of movie theaters (and a few Max Landis tweets) I decided to tackle the question – how would we watch movies, if there were no movie theaters? – and in the process wrote a long essay about data-driven filmmaking and how we could completely disrupt the film industry
Now to be clear – I don’t think the shared experience of movies will go away. Sitting together and watching performed drama goes all the way back to ancient Greece. One of our most primal experience is sitting around the campfire and hearing stories. However, the way we fulfill that need may change. This is one way it could work.
The App Based Movie Theater
So humans have a primal need to experience story in groups, but there are no more movie theaters. How would you find people who want to watch the same stuff as you?
With an app of course.
Imagine you open up an app on your phone, and enter your movie tastes. You mark what upcoming releases you want to see and when you’d be free to see them. Then the app pings you when there is a large enough interest in your area and someone can host a screening.
Those with a nice home theater system mark that they can host. Maybe those hosts can even buy the film with a license to screen it through the app. At the designated time, people show up and have a house party and home screening. People bring their own food, have a potluck, and talk about the movie after. You could even match with other theater-goers based on certain preferences – talking or no-talking during the movie, children allowed or no children, or costume theme party screenings.
And like that – you’ve got the Airbnb of movie theaters, connecting those big home entertainment systems people buy and turning them into local film communities.
This app would really shine with independent films and documentaries.
Imagine if you could set up a screening of an issue documentary at someone’s house, invite people who would be likely to support or be interested in the issue the film is about (based on their info and preferences), and then partner with a local non-profit working on the issue to get them involved through an event afterward.
Imagine if you could host a screening of a foreign film too strange or obscure for theatrical distribution in the United States, and see it the day it comes out overseas in a local home theater with other people as fanatical as you are. You could even select for others who speak the language the film is in.
When I lived in a small town it was difficult to find some of the films I was into. They came to New York and Los Angeles, and I had to wait for them on DVD several months later. There may have been other people interested in those films, but how could I find them? This app would solve that problem and allow films that might not get global distribution to be seen by people all over the world.
Payment & Data
You could do a subscription model (like Netflix). You could do paid screenings. You could do a hybrid – allowing people to find certain screenings for free, pay for others, and cover certain screenings with a flat subscription fee.
You could even use phone location data to see which film screening people actually show up to, and count the number of people there when a movie starts. You could see when people pause the movie, when they move or shift during it… There would be a treasure trove of data.
Here is where it really gets interesting:
Right now the film industry is really bad at tracking data. When The Dark Knight came out, Warner Brothers collected thousands of email addresses and phone numbers in their viral marketing campaign. When The Dark Knight Rises came out, did they save any of that data? If you liked The Dark Knight enough to participate in a viral campaign, isn’t it safe to say you’d probably be interested in The Dark Knight Rises?
Part of the dominance of Netflix is their data. Netflix knows when people pause or stop watching a movie. From their data, they realized people who like David Fincher movies also really like Kevin Spacey. From that came House of Cards. They also knew most people binge watch TV shows, and don’t hook until after the sixth episode. From that came the “release all the episodes at once” model they have now.
Once they released the show, they found half the viewers quit watching after the opening scene where Kevin Spacey’s character smothers a dog. (But they still elected to keep it in, because that scene filters out viewers who wouldn’t like the rest of the shows dark tone. Data doesn’t have to take out creativity – it can actually enhance it. But that’s another post.)
What other filmmaking lessons could we get from this kind of data?
The Rise of Local Film
But this kind of data doesn’t just benefit the big guys.
Imagine if you could see what kind of films were popular in your town. You could create a local short film, referencing locations and events only people from your town would get. You could post your trailer directly to the app and distribute through local screenings. You could even connect your film with a local charity or group you want to help, by featuring them in the film.
Imagine if your local SPCA could hire a filmmaker to tell a story featuring the animals they want adopted. Your local candidate could create a documentary short on a problem they want to tackle. You could connect local filmmakers with each other, by helping short film creators hold a shared screening. You could do crazy experiments and events, where local filmmakers each get a page of a script to shoot one scene, and then put those scenes together into a finished film.
That’s as local as it gets. But you could take this data and apply it to making films at any level.
This app would allow for a whole new market of highly targeted niche films.
Right now, filmmakers are shooting in the dark. We know there is an audience for certain genres – horror, action, superhero movies, etc. – but we don’t really much solid data beyond that. Film execs will make broad sweeping generalizations about what kind of films could never sell, until some bold film proves them wrong. But beyond the box office, we don’t really have great data.
Now imagine if you could see all of the films someone had seen – what their profile preferences are and what their revealed preferences are. You could also see connections that you might not see otherwise. Say you discover people who like horror films also really like coming of age films? Would you greenlight a coming of age horror film?
Now imagine you could see EXACTLY how many people had that preference. You could budget based on those preferences – if you know 500,000 people want to see the kind of film you’re making, and and each viewer is worth 4$, and maybe only 10% will actually show up and convert to sales, then you know you can budget $200,000 and expect to break even.
You could see what actors they liked, what styles, what directors. You could even see how long they prefer their movies, or where they pause. Maybe kung fu fans like short movies and romance fans like long ones. And you could see how much money each audience spends each year. Maybe horror fans are a smaller group, but see more films, but dramas are a big audience that only shows up for a few big films. Maybe those niches are backwards. But with this data – we’ll know.
What genres and preferences might you discover?
With this kind of data there would be surprises. Maybe you discover that a large number of the people who like documentaries on Buddhism also really like old monster movies. Could you make an old monster movie with Buddhist themes? That’s the kind of film no one would greenlight now. But you could make it if you had the data to show you had the audience.
This data could actually create new genres. I’d bet money on the fact that there is at least one HUGE crossover genre no one has discovered. Did people know there was an audience for stoner films with tons of action before Pineapple Express? What other genres could we create? (Don’t even get me started on what could happen if you combined movie movie data with peoples porn preferences.)
In fact – filmmakers could see this data and create their films based on their target audience. Picking projects can be a daunting task, but imagine if you could see the exact potential audience for each type of film. You could even see through the app how many other projects are in development or in production that would compete for that space, and what budget they’re working at.
Using this app, you could seek out niches that aren’t being served – and might not even exist yet. Instead of asking “what film can I get made?” you’d ask “could we do a fantasy film starring Kurt Russell that has a darker tone for a potential audience of three million?”
The Data-Driven Studio
This may sound like a cold calculating way to make movies, and that it should “just be about the director’s vision, man” but I hate to tell you – studios are already making movies this way – they’re just doing it really badly.
How many original ideas get green-lit anymore? Instead of asking what the audience is for a sci-fi military film, the studio buys the rights to the board-game Battleship – because you’ve heard of that – and then throws tent-pole money at it in the hopes the name recognition of the board game will mean massive success.
How much more creative could filmmakers be if instead of being limited to adapting pre-existing IP – some of which isn’t really movie-worthy – they were able to see exactly what audiences there were for genres. Would Battleship have been a better movie if they’d had the data to see how many people liked military action films, sci-fi, Michael Bay style filmmaking, each of the actors in the film, and what the crossover between those groups was? Battleship cast Rhianna. Did they have the data on what her fans like, or how many would turn out for a sci-fi action film?
Okay – maybe changing those elements wouldn’t have been enough. Maybe it wouldn’t have even been green-lit at all. Maybe they would have seen those audiences don’t crossover with each other and that the people who love the board game Battleship aren’t hardcore military film fans, sci-fi action fans, or Rhianna fans. Maybe instead they would have found military sci-fi fans also really like Nick Cave, and have had him write and score a sci-fi western based on another IP that audience also likes.
Do you see how this could actually create MORE creative films?
A prompt like that would actually increase filmmakers creativity. Limitations induce creativity.
When I was a film student, I participated in something called the Adrenaline film Project. We got a genre, a prop, and line of dialogue, and had to come back with a finished film in 72-hours. If you’d told us “go make a movie,” we’d have been paralyzed by choice. Knowing it had to happen that weekend, and that we only had certain actors and locations, it had to be a certain genre, and include certain elements actually made us more creative.
This data-driven style of filmmaking would just gives filmmakers a prompt, a springboard for their creativity. I’ll bet you’ve already imagined what at least one of the random ideas I’ve thrown out in this post would look like as a real movie. Your version would undoubtedly look different then mine, with your own unique take. Don’t you think given a billion points of data like that a good filmmaker could do the same?
People like to complain about the studio system, and how they’ll only green-light adaptations and remakes. I think filmmakers would prefer a world where we can create crazy Buddhist monsters movies, or Nick Cave scored sci-fi westerns. I understand why the studios make the decisions do. They want to turn a profit, and they aren’t sure those original ideas will find an audience. App-based data would allow us to make those crazy films AND show the studios there will be an audience.
It would make original ideas the smart business decision.
If the studios don’t use this data, I’m certain independent filmmakers will. Remember – you could distribute through the app. Studios won’t greenlight your hard-R furry romance, but the data says the audience is there? Crowdfund it, make it, and get it to an audience that is being under-served.
Oh yeah – crowdfunding. I forgot. Imagine you could target people with your crowdfunding campaign based on their movie tastes. Now, every filmmaker would have better data then the all biggest studios have now. They could go from data, to idea, to crowdfunding, to distribution – all totally independently. You might not even need a studio.
This could save movies, bring local communities together, and create totally new audiences and genres.
Of course, it’s just an idea.
Back to the Present
Right now, we still have movie theaters. I’m not even sure they’re in as much trouble as everyone says they are. Here in Austin, every screening I try to go to at the Alamo Drafthouse seems to be sold out. Maybe it’s just regular mainstream theaters that are hurting, but if they are, it’s in part because they offer a weaker experience.
When I talk to people about the problems of movie theaters, many seem okay with losing them. The mainstream theater experience has become a hassle. Prices are high, people talk and don’t respect the movie, cell phone screens glow from the audience, the food sucks and isn’t healthy. Staying home where you can pause the movie and bring your own food seems like a better experience.
People feel about movie theaters the way they did about taxis before Uber. Yeah, they suck, but what can you do?
The industry is ripe for disruption.
Admittedly, an idea like this would change drastically through execution. I realize an idea is only the beginning. Maybe my idea would work, or maybe another version of it would. I don’t have the reach to implement and idea like this yet and find out. Maybe someone who does will read this post and run with it, or maybe someday when I’ve got the right connections, a larger audience, or the film industry is in greater trouble, someone will dig this post up and reach out to me to see if we can implement. But I think it – or something like – it is the future of cinema.
One last word of warning – the taxi industry had no innovation for decades before Uber came along. They could have created their own app-based system to hail a cab years before Uber destroyed their business. If film execs are smart, they’d start collecting data and creating app-based film audiences now – rather then waiting till some smart developer scoops their industry. The taxi industry made a “hail-a-cab” app after Uber came out, by then it was too late.
Don’t wait till it’s too late. Innovate now.
Read more: In Memory of Jonathon Conte