Marketing data confirm what every stay-at-home viewer already suspected: The majority of Americans will invest time and money going out to a movie only for a truly buzz-worthy, genuine and certified, bona fide blockbuster-a movie that is absolutely and non-negotiably “must-see…right now!” In a year distinguished by some go movies alternative truly fine “indie” and art house films, and in a season marked by movie producers’ marketing machines running in overdrive, 2010 has generated remarkably few big hits. In fact, market trends show that the Grand Canyon between the big films and the flops yawns ever wider. “Toy Story 3” is the season’s runaway winner, but several other heavily marketed Disney offerings have gone straight to video, complete box-office disasters.

The trend is accelerating. Most of the time, American movie audiences will wait even for Academy Award-winning films to become available on DVD or via their on-demand services from cable and satellite providers. Now, with the advent of online movies, trips to the multi-plex may become even rarer.

An embarrassment of riches on the online menu

Although it hardly matters now that the field is crowded with competitors, analysts say that Netflix launched this trend and has emerged as its biggest beneficiary. Making movies and hit television programs available online and accessible through Wii, Playstation, and X-Box, Netflix has driven its earnings up 34% in the last year. More importantly, it has revolutionized users’ viewing habits, making all of their favorites instantly accessible through a variety of devices including their hand-held phones and iPads.

In addition to making movies and television series more accessible, online movie sites provide viewers with a staggering array of choices, and the menu seems to grow exponentially with each passing day. In addition to recent hit movies and individual episodes of popular television shows available almost immediately after they air, some online movie sites offer impressive libraries of drama classics dating back almost to the invention of movies with sound. Just as importantly, with the advent of 3D television, many viewers enjoy better, more vivid, more engrossing experiences with considerably better sound and far greater comfort in their home theaters than they did in high-priced amphitheater presentations.

“This is not an anomaly, a blip on the line, or a flash on the radar screen,” insists Danielle Brooks, media analyst at Patterson-Forbes Partners. “Consumers are voting with their thumbs, choosing online movies over theaters by a huge margin, and preferring internet viewing even over their cable and satellite options.” Brooks explains that online viewing sites offer more choices among more brand-new movie and television hits, often at little or no charge. “Netflix, primarily on the strength of its reputation, numbers among the few services that makes money from user fees,” says Brooks. “Just about all the others depend on advertising revenue from distributors and from producers of high-end video games-another option readily available from most online movie sites.

Brooks and other visionary online movie prognosticators foresee the viewing experience gradually becoming more interactive. “Producers and directors will make big-budget movies available with alternate endings or extra action sequences, letting consumers contribute to the movies’ development,” Brooks suggests. “DVD sales tell producers and studios that viewers like having control over the content of their movies, and parents especially appreciate having some measure of control or influence over their teen-agers’ viewing.”

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