Studios are being pitched new revenue schemes that would bring first-run films into the homes of oil barons and Wall Street bandits
Stock traders from Westchester and oil barons in Dubai may soon be able to buy their way into that secret ultra-elite club: the Bel-Air Circuit.
Buy-in cost: $100,000.
A movement is afoot to expand the informal home-theater club, a courtesy service for moguls and movie stars, into an actual revenue stream for studios. Several proposals from different companies, each outlining basically the same business model, have been made to the major studios recently.
The Bel-Air Circuit is one of Hollywood's most beloved and little-known perks.
"There's no rhyme or reason to it," noted one expert who installs home theater systems in West Side mansions. "It's almost like joining a country club. I've known executive vice presidents at studios who can't get in, but I also know the publisher of a radio-industry magazine who can."
That's about to change if a handful of entrepreneurial companies succeed in convincing the studios to sign on.
Costing about $4,000 in monthly subscription bills, this super-premium service would bring first-run movies, day and date with their theatrical release, into the homes of anyone with enough bucks.
And it's not just passing around discs or film reels. The system would rely on couriered hard drives, which would store enough data to deliver images that are about 10 times sharper than Blu-ray.
As one entertainment system installer said: "High-def 1080P doesn't look good on a 22-foot screen."
Security would be tight, too. One proposed system would require the user to supply a thumbprint in order to watch the movie.
Several technology companies are essentially pitching the same gambit — among them, Fountain Valley, California-based Moving Image Technologies, which distributes pricey Barco Projectors to Southern California's high-end home theater market.
The company's client list includes numerous members of the Bel-Air Circuit — the elite group of Hollywood home-theater owners founded by old-time movie moguls including Louis B. Mayer and Daryl Zanuck decades ago; it now serves up first-run movies to the likes of Viacom chairman Sumner Redstone, CBS chief Les Moonves and actor George Clooney.
That model would be transformed into a pay business in which the well-heeled beyond Hollywood could also get movies day-and-date with their theatrical release — provided they have the right stuff.
Over and above the $4,000 subscription fee, home moviegoers would have to shell out about $80,000 for a D-Cinema-capable projector and $20,000 for a high-end D-cinema-grade server.
That's not to mention other expensive home-theater-building costs, such as acoustic enhancements and cozy leather chairs, just to name a few pricey items. Not to mention a decent popcorn machine.
"You're talking about billionaires," noted one high-end home theater electronic systems integrator. "Even a guy making $800,000 a year ain't going to be shelling out $4,000 a month to get 10 movies."
A Moving Image executive described the company's studio pitch to TheWrap this way: Theater owners won't worry about it, because these are people who don't go to movies, anyway.
But it's not that simple.
The studios already have their hands full with theater owners, trying to get them to accept another new distribution scheme, one that's far more baked and for a lot more people — regular, for-the-masses premium VOD.
Next year, Time Warner will test delivery of first-run features to homes in a new window somewhere between theatrical and DVD release, for a premium price of around $30-$40. Trying to cram an even more extreme distribution model down the throats of the studios might not be a task they're willing to take on, at least for the moment.
"I think the studios have bigger concerns right now," said National Association of Theater Owners spokesman Patrick Corcoran, noting that none of the majors have even mentioned the high-end home-theater gambit to the exhibitor trade organization.
But that's not to say that the studio's aren't thinking about it. After all, $4,000 a head in incremental revenue isn't a bad thing at a time when DVD sales are down 16.5 percent so far this year.
Noted a top studio distribution executive: "A lot still has to be done to make this happen, but you would think there's a business there."
While Moving Image and several other companies try to entice the major studios into further exploring the idea, they face challenges beyond the studio executives' fears of how exhibitors will react to a new day-and-date model.
Notably, how will the Hollywood elite react to the secretive Bel-Air Circuit going global.
Started decades ago, as small club in which moguls courteously swapped film reels to friends, talent and rivals, the Circuit has remained elite. The home-theater installer estimates it has no more than 700 members, with only a "handful" of those upgraded to D-cinema standard rooms.
Each of the majors has an individual staffer manage the company's Bel-Air Circuit list, and you can be allowed on one studio's distribution list, but not others.