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Screening Room First-Run Movie Service: Fact, Fantasy, or Fluff?

Screening Room is looking to offer new, first-run movies for viewing in the home day-and-date with theaters for $50 a showing. Once you’ve purchased a viewing, you get 48 hours to watch the movie.

Have you heard of Screening Room? It’s been getting a lot of press lately. In fact, I’ve seen some news about it in my email nearly every day for the past week. CNET, Deadline, Variety, The Verge, USA Today…they’ve all covered Screening Room.

If you haven’t heard, Screening Room is a new start-up backed by Sean Parker and Prem Akkaraju. You might recognize Parker’s name from some of his previous work with Napster, Facebook, and Spotify. (He was the guy played by Justin Timberlake in The Social Network movie.) The group has also managed to grab several Hollywood heavy-hitters as backers, supporters, and shareholders—people like Steven Spielberg, Peter Jackson, J.J. Abrams, Brian Grazer, Ron Howard, Martin Scorsese, Taylor Hackford, Frank Marshall, and former Sony Pictures vice chairman, Jeff Blake.

So, what is it?

ThinkStock Image 

Screening Room is looking to offer new, first-run movies for viewing in the home day-and-date with theaters for $50 a showing. Once you’ve purchased a viewing, you get 48 hours to watch the movie. To entice theater owners that this is actually a good idea for them, Screening Room is going to “kick back” as much as $20 of the $50 fee to theater owners, plus the customer will get two free tickets to go and see the movie again at a local theater, where they will (presumably) spend tons of money on popcorn, Cokes and Red Vines, and maybe—just maybe—also re-discover their love for going out and enjoying a movie in public.

To make all this happen, users will have to purchase a proprietary $150 box that will receive the movies. The box is said to be filled with a bunch of anti-piracy provisions to make sure that no one uploads Star Wars VIII to a torrent site minutes after it comes out.

Peter Jackson released a statement to Variety explaining his support of Screening Room. “Screening Room…is very carefully designed to capture an audience that does not currently go to the cinema. Screening Room will expand the audience for a movie—not shift it from cinema to living room. It does not play off studio against theater owner.”

Ron Howard and Brian Grazer also released a joint statement to Variety. “When we met Sean (Parker) and Prem (Akkaraju) last year, it was clear Screening Room was the only solution that supports all stakeholders in the industry: exhibitors, studios, and filmmakers. We make movies for the big screen and for as many people to see it. Screening Room uniquely provides that solution.”

Sounds pretty incredible, right? I mean, sure, I’d love to get first run movies in my home theater for $50. I have invested a significant amount of money in my AV system, and $50 really isn’t that much of an upcharge versus the price of a night out at the movies. And I would totally buy a $150 box that let me host my own Bel Air Circuit movie night. (And spec one into every install project we did!) Have over another couple, pop a bottle of wine, sit back, and watch a movie without any of the hassle and distraction of the commercial cinema. Plus, according to Jackson and Howard, I’m like actually helping the movie industry by doing this?! #Winning

But for me, Screening Room sounds more “incredible,” as in “not credible.”

Because I’ve experienced something pretty similar to exactly what this is offering. Something that is real and available right now. It was called PRIMA Cinema, and it was frickin’ awesome. (I’ve reviewed it twice. You can read my PRIMA review here and here.)

What makes Screening Room so difficult for me to believe—besides it being auspiciously close in timing to April Fool’s Day—is that I’ve seen what PRIMA had to do to appease Hollywood to hand over movies. PRIMA’s box is a frickin’ tank. It has so many security and anti-piracy features built into it that it is likely more unhackable than a terrorist’s iPhone. From fingerprint scanners, to anti-motion accelerometers, to watermarking content, to limitations on how big an owner’s theater can be, to site visits by PRIMA reps prior to install, PRIMA has done literally everything imaginable to make it impossible to copy a film. And this isn’t cheap. A PRIMA player costs $35,000, and movies go for $500 a viewing. As in per one, single viewing, not a 48-hour, all-you-can-watch video smorgasbord. And even with all of that, signing on studios to license content for viewing has been an uphill march.

But, Screening Room is going to do all this at a fraction of the price? Really?

Also, I’ve searched all over the web and can’t seem to find any details on what Screening Room is planning to offer in the way of quality. Nearly every story has some “declined to comment for our story” disclaimer attached. Will content be streamed? If so, then at what bitrate? Or will it be downloaded? Last time I checked, you could barely buy a 2 TB hard drive for $150. And what resolution and audio formats? I’d be OK purchasing a 1080p/Dolby Atmos version of a movie for $50, but way less inclined to get some streamed Netflix version. And what would prevent someone from setting up an iPhone 6S and making a 4K copy of the film the minute it comes out?

If nothing else, I have to hand it to the Screening Room PR team for doing a terrific job of getting its message out there. Slow clap for sure. But for now, Screening Room seems long on hype and short on hard information. And what is it they say about if something sounds too good to be true…?