There were plenty of factors to chew over in analyzing why “Avengers: Age of Ultron” took in $188 million at the weekend box office -- the second-biggest opening of all time but nonetheless lower than both pre-weekend estimates and the opening total for the first movie.
Perhaps the most popular, and intriguing, is that sales fell due to the Manny Pacquiao-Floyd Mayweather fight. The HBO-Showtime pay-per-view event, at $100 a pop, managed to attract an estimated several million paying customers (and plenty more watching in bars and on Periscope) on Saturday night. It's reasonable to assume that a whole bunch of them might have headed out to “Avengers” had they not been so focused on the bobbing and weaving at the MGM Grand.
The competition between/convergence of these two events, while of course a coincidence, offered a kind of neat symmetry. In one instance, you had some much-hyped superheroes and villains creating on-screen pyrotechnics for a mass audience. In the other. you had a Marvel movie. It was a rare occasion, especially in these fragmented days: Much of the country was consuming not one but two phenomena simultaneously, a parallel display of mega-entertainment.
But it may be more than a parallel. The Pacquiao-Mayweather fight might have offered a glimpse into how the release of a future movie like “Avengers” could play out.
The talk has long been that new tent-pole movies can be retailed in the same way as pay-per-view fights: as major home-viewing events, at a steep price tag, for people who’d rather stay in their living rooms than go to the theater. I remember covering a cable convention in 2008 when a Comcast executive took the podium and laid out, with some specificity, how such a plan might unfold. (As I recall the example was “Spider-Man” and the price was $50 or $60, but the idea is portable.)
Of course such talk had been going on for years before. And it’s gone on for years since. Yet there still is not a major studio release that has tried to bust up these windows, the system by which big movies spend a few months in theaters near you before coming to a cable or digital platform in your home. (“The Interview” doesn’t count.) Not even Universal, which is now owned by Comcast, has tried it. The notion of a video-on-demand tent pole has become a little like Mark Twain’s weather -- everyone talks about the possibility, but nobody does anything about it.
Mayweather-Pacquiao offers some concrete proof that this may not be just idle talk, or at least shouldn’t be.
Sure, studios have held back to a great extent because theaters remain an important partner, and the politics (and arguably the ethics) of going around them is thorny. (Just look at what happened when Netflix began getting into the feature business.) This shouldn’t be underestimated.
But a separate question has played into that decision -- namely, could expensive tent-pole on-demand programming make enough dough? Not by charging the few bucks it costs to watch an indie film on-demand while or before it's in theaters, but the Benjamins for a massive production. Would there be enough revenue to justify the experiment and risk upsetting theater owners? Would millions of households pay a premium price -- studios would need t charge much more than a single-admission movie ticket -- to make it worthwhile for studios?
Judging by the early estimates for Mayweather-Pacquiao, the answer is yes. We're willing to dip into our nest egg to experience a one-off major event at home. Couch business is real business.
Granted, there are plenty of distinctions. A movie isn’t quite the live event a boxing match is (though judging by the speed and decibel level at which opening-weekend movies are consumed these days, it's not that far off eithe). And TVs, even with technology making them better by the day, aren’t movie screens. There are plenty of people who will want to see a film like “Avengers” on a giant tableaux, especially if they’re also going to see it in 3-D (in this case, about a quarter of people who bought tickets did so, according to Disney sales figures).
But a lot of people spent $100 (or chipped in to spend $100) rather than find a local watering hole where they could watch the fight Saturday for a lot less. It stands to reason they might do the same for a unique cinematic event.
Part of the reason for this increased openness, I suspect, is a shift in how we watch, well, anything. The belief has long been that one of the reasons people go to the movie theater (or a sports bar) is for the communal experience. That remains true. When it comes to entertainment, people like a sense of community.
But the nature of a communal experience has changed. The idea that it only happens when hundreds of people gather in one place isn’t so true anymore. As those tuning in to the fight from home could tell you, between tweeting and texting and otherwise connecting with other fans, there was still plenty of community outside their living room. They just didn’t have to get off their chair to access it. The world is increasingly edging in the direction of tent poles coming to pay-per-view.
(And technology keeps pushing things further: bigger TV screens allow for ever-more people to gather in the same room, as fight fans learned, while new VR apps not far down the pike offer the possibility of multi-user viewing in a networked and theater-like environment, so much so that you can feel like you’re sitting in a movie theater next to your friend even if the two of you are hundreds of miles apart. At some point all technology revolutions are about limiting your need to leave the house.)
There are still plenty of speed bumps on the path to tent poles on demand. How much flexibility do you give a customer in watching the movie -- are repeat viewings or time shifting allowed? How do you stop bars or just enterprising people in the neighborhood from showing your film and cutting into profits? How would revenue splits be worked out with cable operators?
And of course the biggest hurdle of all, the one HBO and Showtime never had to deal with: the theaters. What should be their role in all this? After all, they are studios’ most important partner and would remain so on all the other movies that aren’t being made available this way. And theaters are, understandably, not dropping their resistance to any kind of simultaneous blockbuster release any time soon.
But none of these contradict the fundamental point. There is incentive for studios to make available big-event programming in homes, and an appetite from consumers to shell out for it. On Saturday night, many people did that instead of going to “Avengers.” It may not be that long before they can do both.