How Your Cell Phone Destroyed the Movie Industry

Remember when we used to go to Blockbuster every Friday night to get the latest movie? That was only two years ago. The technology death race is steamrolling huge portions of the entertainment industry. Streaming video services like Hulu, Netflix and Amazon leveled the multi-billion dollar video rental industry with unprecedented force and speed. Everyone, from Hollywood studios down to the consumer, remains punch drunk—within months of a huge Hollywood film’s release in theaters, we can now watch them on our cell phones. During the thanksgiving season, the summer tentpole release Fast Five was available for cell phone rentals on sale—for ninety-nine cents. In spite of the film’s good reviews, who wants a product when it is sold with so little value?

Watching Fast Five on a cell phone is, without a doubt, a different experience from watching the action blockbuster on the big screen. What gives cell phone video its value? The ability to watch movies of your choice at the airport, or in the doctor’s office, is certainly advantageous. However, it undercuts Hollywood’s desire to bring consumers “big” entertainment. A Samsung Epic is many things, but it is not big relative to a movie screen.

Portions of the blockbuster The Dark Knight were filmed on Imax cameras. The negative on Imax film measures four inches by five inches, and can be blown up to twice the size of a billboard with no loss of detail. The Samsung Nexus—the whole thing—measures 5.33 inches long by 2.67 inches wide. Clearly, The Dark Knight was not meant to be seen on a cell phone.

This past year saw astonishing sales for smart phones. Netflix was a big selling point—for about six months, the cutting edge Android phones had it, while the others did not (now it is pretty much universal). The average smart phone—the joke about whether or not they actually make phone calls has long since become stale—syncs with email, receives SMS messages, plays video games that sometimes rival the original Playstation (indeed, Sony’s Android tablet features a full-on PSP emulator; while full-featured Playstation emulators are out there for Android phones), contains all our music, syncs with Kindle, talks to our bank account, functions as a word processor and spreadsheet reader, and Skypes. Most importantly to Hollywood execs, they’re expected to play movies.

Hollywood has now largely succumbed to the reality that, once released, a film needs to be available across all platforms. Most studios have released competing technology—most notably Ultraviolet—that allow users to start a film on their television, continue it on a cell phones, and finish it on a tablet with one user login. This is a hefty blow to an industry that relies on stratified releases: a film is released in theaters, then on pay-per-view, on to video store rentals, then to pay cable television, standard cable after that, network television, and then the dollar bin at Wal-Mart.

Whatever happens in the future of movie releases, one thing is not likely to change: next Christmas, you’ll be able to watch last summer’s Blockbusters for ninety-nine cents on a phone that’s smaller than the camera it was filmed on.

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