What happens when you are very rich and famous and want to see the latest movies, but don’t want the hassle of going to the multiplex? You call Prima Cinema.
As the debate over Sean Parker’s plan that would allow you to stream first-run theatrical movies for $50 a pop rages on, studio moguls in the Hollywood Hills, top CEOs, and sports legends already enjoy watching many of the current blockbusters in the comfort of their living rooms and private screening rooms.
That’s all thanks to Prima.
The six-year-old company has avoided the controversy attached to Parker’s ambitious startup, Screening Room, because it has already sold Hollywood studios on its one-of-a-kind anti-piracy security. And then there’s the prohibitively expensive price.
To be a Prima Cinema customer, you must be willing to pay $35,000 to install its system and cough up $500 every time you want to watch a movie.
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The concept for Prima Cinema actually dates back to the old guard in Hollywood during the 1930s.
The “Bel Air Circuit” is an exclusive exhibition service used by movie executives and A-list stars in Hollywood who are provided first-run movies at their homes at their convenience. It was created by studio heads like Louis B. Mayer and Daryl Zanuck in the ’30s, when a projectionist with a screen and a projector would travel around the swanky Bel Air area in LA with 35mm or 70mm prints of movies still in theatres and set up private screenings at the houses of the rich and famous by appointment.
The circuit still goes on today for the likes of Tom Cruise, Ben Affleck, Steven Spielberg, Quentin Tarantino, and Harvey Weinstein, except now the movies are digitally streamed.
In the early 2000s, Prima cofounder and CEO Shawn Yeager, along with his partners, realised that thanks to technology the Bel Air Circuit could be expanded to a much wider net of rich people who would love the luxury of watching first-run movies at home.
The San Diego-based company took two years not just to create a set-top box that would prevent piracy, but also sell the studios on handing over their most prized movie titles. Tough as it might seem, Yeager and his partners had an unlikely ally: the 2008 financial collapse.
“In some ways it was perfect timing,” Yeager told Business Insider. “It was probably the only time in the last 100 years that due to the pain that bubbled from that you could convince a studio that theatrical distribution in the home was viable. Before then they would have just shut you down.”
By 2010, Prima had raised its first capital. Universal even invested and provided the first titles for the service (other studios have equity stakes). Now the company offers movies from Universal Pictures, Paramount Pictures, Lionsgate, The Weinstein Company, Focus Features, Samuel Goldwyn Films, Magnolia Pictures, STX Entertainment, and Gravitas Ventures (it’s still in talks to show titles from companies like Disney, Warner Bros., and Sony).
Ultra-tight fingerprint ID security for ‘$1 billion worth of assets’
The reason why Prima got the backing of so many major studios is simple: It created a secure path for studios to stream movies directly to the Prima devices with, the company claims, zero worry of piracy.
As Yeager puts it, Prima security has to be even more intense than what movie theatres have.
“We have literally created the most secure distribution platform for filmed entertainment in the world,” he said.
Let’s break that down: Prima doesn’t just inspect its own technology to prevent piracy; it also looks into the people using it. A background check is done on all potential customers before they can get their hands on a device, to make sure they have good intentions. A “lengthy” contract, according to Yeager, spells out the responsibilities of streaming the content from the studios.
If a customer owns a screening room, it can have no more than 25 seats. You must have a screen that’s at least 100 inches on the diagonal. You also need a static IP address and a fast internet connection, because when you’re paying this kind of money, the last thing you want is a movie freezing in the middle of playing.
Because of that, all of the movies available on Prima for the upcoming weekend are downloaded into the device three days in advance.
“That means at any given point there can be between $300 million and $1 billion worth of assets sitting in your home,” Yeager said.
Then there’s one last step to enjoy the service: Prima uses biometric authentication to activate its device, meaning that the company enrolls your fingerprint on the device so you will have to swipe your finger every time you want to see a movie.
“We basically create a forensic trail from the time the film leaves a studio all the way through the time a client purchases a movie,” Yeager said. “So your cousin that’s in town can’t just sit down and watch a movie.”
And if you ever wanted to bring the Prima to your cousin’s, forget it. The hard drive has been built to stay in one place forever. Weighing 65 pounds and made of mild steel, the device has sensors on it so if it was ever moved, it would know.
It’s all about the experience
Though Yeager would not reveal how many customers Prima has, he did say that CEOs of major corporations, celebrities, and sports stars are all among Prima owners. And often they’re using it multiple times a weekend.
“This one client tells us he’ll watch the same movie four times over a weekend,” Yeager said. “He’ll watch it on a Friday, his kids will come by and watch it Saturday, then they will have friends over Saturday night, and then Sunday people from out of town will watch.”
(Just a reminder: You have to pay $500 every time you watch a movie on Prima, so that’s a cool $2,000 spent over a weekend.)
And the Prima experience is only going to improve this summer when its 4k version comes out. To give you a sense of how that will look, Blu-ray is currently an 8-bit format, and 4k Prima will be 12-bit (it’s currently 10-bit).
“The new Blu-ray standard is just now getting to where Prima has been for five years,” Yeager said. “With the 4k, if you have the equipment and build the room correctly, you will have the best theatrical experience.”
And it will come with a cost. You’re probably looking at $50,000 to purchase the 4k version (at the moment, Yeager isn’t planning to change the $500 per-viewing price).
So why isn’t Prima getting any flak in Hollywood? Simply put, it’s too high-end to hurt the theatre business in any significant way. Plus, the money to purchase titles goes straight to the studios, which count it toward the films’ box office.
“We have literally created an entirely new market segment that didn’t exist for this industry,” Yeager said.
In other words, if you’re, say, Brad Pitt, and you want to watch “Jason Bourne” when it comes out this summer, you’re almost definitely not going to deal with the headache of showing up to a public venue to do it. Especially if, like Brad Pitt, you can fairly easily afford to download it with Prima.
From Yeager’s point of view, Sean Parker’s Screening Room is a direct disruption to the current exhibition model. He doesn’t think the movie business will go for it simply because they don’t stand to make money off of it.
“The movie business is smart enough to realise that you never want to trade analogue dollars for digital pennies, which is what would happen under that scenario,” he said.
Asked if Prima would ever consider a scaled-down version of its service that would be more affordable for the average moviegoer, Yeager replied that “he’d never say never,” but for now the company is focused on bringing the full theatrical experience to the home — with all the security and high-resolution quality that entails.
“It’s the experience that matters,” he said. “That’s what keeps people coming back for films. And we think we have the best experience in the world.”
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