Movie Theaters: The Last Unconnected Screen

We are in the midst of a vast transformation driven by the Internet that is radically changing how we view visual entertainment.  Every screen we use daily, be it a smart phone, a computer, a tablet or a TV is hooked up (or about to be hooked up) to a high speed data network that sends us moving images.  These images will continue to come to us at a faster rate, at a higher quality and at a much lower cost as each day goes by.

This rapid innovation comes from a thousand different sources; from individuals who are known and unknown, from companies big and small and some companies that are old and some that started in a bedroom or garage a few months ago. This change is reshaping many parts of the film world and creating opportunities for filmmakers and film lovers.

Yet there is one screen that is not getting connected, where there is little innovation and where the future is being delayed.  The industry (the major movie studios) that controls this screen restricts innovation and is holding off the future.  I am, of course, referring to the last screen to be connected to the Internet—the screen at your local movie theater.

Ira Deutchman wrote an excellent blog post, Indie Theaters Face Digital Mayhem that documented the many problems faced by small theaters in their conversion to digital and how these problems are created by the major studios.

There was another piece from Business Week entitled For Small Theaters, the Digital Future Is Dark that covered the same topic and contained the following paragraph.

“For the past decade, Hollywood’s biggest studios have been working on a new standard for digital movies that could save them $1 billion annually in printmaking fees and shipping costs. The movies in the new format are shipped on hard drives that hold hundreds of gigabytes of data and are connected to a super-high-definition projector. To unlock a movie, the distributor sends the theater a code that controls where, when, and how long it can be played.”

I urge you to read this carefully again and focus on this phrase “movies in the new format are shipped on hard drives…”

 Hard drives?  Are you kidding me?

At a time when companies in every major industry in the world ship vast amounts of highly sensitive data via the Internet, the major studios ship their precious cargo on hard drives?

What makes this even more insane (and yes insane is the right word) is that these hard drives require a very expensive digital projector and a cumbersome key system to unlock the movie. At a time where digital innovation is driving costs down in data storage, memory and processing speed all over the world, the movie studios have found a way to keep costs up and suppress digital innovation.

If there were a vibrant market for true innovation in the movie theater business the cost of digital projection would immediately drop.  What costs $70,000 today (and is already outmoded, as it relies on hard drives) could be dramatically lowered and rely on the Internet for its mode of transport.

The innovation in movie theaters should mirror the innovation that is taking place with every other screen in our lives.  Simply put, movie theaters need to use the multi directional, fully distributed network called the Internet to facilitate connection inside and around the movie experience.

Movie theaters need to use the Internet to:

1. Show movies

2. Connect to their customers

3. Connect movie creators to moviegoers

4. Connect moviegoers to each other.

For the sake of finding the possibilities inherent in this simple proposition do the following thought experiment: imagine every experience that could occur in a movie theater if the movie screen was as connected as your smart phone, tablet, TV or laptop.

We should then ask the owners of movie theaters to try the same thought experiment and then reshape the movie theater experience based on their new found insight.

It is not too much to ask.

It is called innovation. Businesses do it all the time.

An earlier version of this post appeared on the Future of Film blog on

About Chris Dorr

I consult with companies on digital media strategy and business development. Clients include Samsung, MTV Networks, Tribeca Film Festival, Shaw Media and Canadian Film Center. I created the Future of Film blog for Tribeca. I have worked in the movie business for Disney Studios, Universal Pictures, Scott Free and in the digital media business for Intertainer, Sony and Nokia. Contact me at [email protected] or follow me at @chrisdorr
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  • Mattlocks

    Great read and takes man!

    • chrisdorr

      Mattlocks, Thanks for your kind comment!

  • Scooney1


  • Namarrgon

    The key phrase here is ”
    hundreds of gigabytes of data”. Per movie. What sort of internet connection would it require to receive that? What about to send it, to thousands of cinemas world-wide?

    Sometimes it’s just more effective to ship physical media. As the saying goes, never underestimate the bandwidth of a 747 full of hard drives.

    • chrisdorr

       Hi Namarrgon, Thanks for your comment.  Actually there are systems that deliver movies to movie screens via high speed internet connections today.  Emerging Pictures uses such a delivery system. The movie files sits on an outside server and is delivered to the movie screen for viewing. The days of using physical media to deliver bits are numbered.  The movie business needs to catch up to the 21st century.