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The Story Behind theatr, The Insane New App That's Transforming How We Watch Movies

By Deadline Brian Byrd | Industry | April 1, 2014 |

By Deadline Brian Byrd | Industry | April 1, 2014 |

“Going to the movies should feel like a party. Who wants to quietly watch a two-hour flick in a dark room by themselves? Instantly sharing your thoughts, opinions and reactions online and with the people around you enhances the theater experience tenfold.”
Plankton Vice President Gyp Merriweather

“I would rather someone pirate a movie than use that god forsaken app in our theaters.
Anonymous Regal Cinemas executive

For nearly a decade, consumer electronics companies have poured billions of dollars into developing products that allow families to replicate the movie theater experience in the comfort of their homes. 4K resolution projectors, OLED flatscreens, custom-designed furniture, and surround-sound systems that can dissolve eardrums in under 10 seconds make even affluent Americans think twice before dropping $14 to watch Kevin Hart make height jokes.

While these increasingly commonplace technologies generate serious revenue for Sony and Samsung, theaters are suffering as a result. The number of tickets sold hasn’t eclipsed 1.5 billion annually since 2003. Despite an increase in action-heavy tentpoles tailor-made for big-screen viewing, most people still prefer to watch The Avengers in their bedrooms.

One startup believes they hold the key to getting patrons out of their living rooms and back into multiplexes. To them, the solution isn’t more 3D, larger screens or alternative food options. It’s transporting everything people love about home viewing to the theater.

“Think about how today’s 18- to 35-year-olds consume entertainment,” Plankton Vice President Gyp Merriweather asks me while taking a massive bite from a greasy pastrami on rye. “They pay attention to maybe half the movie. The rest of the time they’re on Instagram and Snapchat and Twitter and Meerkat interacting with friends. Yet draconian theater policies prohibit paying customers from replicating this behavior at the cinema. We’re going to change that.”

Plankton’s solution is theatr, an iOS and Android app that allows users to connect with fellow theater-goers before, after and even during a film. The app includes robust social media integration — type a message during a movie, and theatr can broadcast it to all your social networks simultaneously — but the true differentiator is more personal. theatr is designed to get you out of your seat and talking to fellow theatr users face-to-face. It connects you with like-minded film buffs so you can share opinions, voice complaints and react in real time, all without having to step into the hallway.

I couldn’t decide if theatr is a senseless disaster destined to eradicate theater etiquette, or a bold new approach to movie watching. So I went to find out.
I visited Plankton at their headquarters in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania’s burgeoning Silicon Landfill corridor last month to observe a series of focus groups the company planned to conduct around theatr. Plankton is a somewhat unconventional name for a technology company. Its founder, the reclusive avocado baron turned tech mogul P. MacGillicutty Stein, chose the name because — according to Merriweather — he thought it would subliminally make the business more desirable to “whales” (Wall Street lingo for uberrich investors). It turned out to be a prescient moniker. Three months after presenting a theatr proof-of-concept in late 2014, Plankton secured nearly $40 million in venture capital funding and turned down a $350 million offer to purchase the business outright.

So far Plankton hasn’t been shy about dipping into the piggy bank. After I obtaining my security credentials, signing a limited non-disclosure agreement, and explaining why the site is named Pajiba to a pair of C-level staff, Merriweather escorts me to an on-site theater that puts even luxury cinemas to shame. Nicknamed The Evacuator by employees after a guest soiled himself during a screening of Inglorious Basterds, this state-of-the-art, 138-seat monument to cinematic greatness combines unparalleled comfort with truly bleeding edge technology. Two massive digital IMAX projectors beam bright, razor-sharp images onto a gargantuan eight-story screen. A 36-speaker Dolby Atmos system delivers such precise, pristine sound that twice during the tests I wonder whether someone was actually firing a weapon in the theater. Each recliner-style seat is large enough to fit an American family of four and contains a cooler stocked with craft beers and fresh appetizers. It is, in a word, absurd. Yet for all its opulence, the theater is almost never used by anyone outside the Plankton family. Unless you’re on the payroll or lucky enough to secure an invite to a rare private screening, the only way to catch a flick at The Evacuator is to land a spot in one of these focus groups.
Merriweather nudges me. “Check out their faces when they walk in,” he says. “I love when we get someone in here who isn’t well off. They’re always flabbergasted. Does ‘em good to see how the other half lives, ya know? Gives them something to aspire to.”

The focus group participants file in quickly, choosing seats at random until all 138 are filled. Most are young — late teens to early 30s. Interns hand each person their choice of an iPhone 6 or Samsung Galaxy S6 pre-loaded with theatr; the smartphone is theirs to keep when the session concludes. When everyone is finally settled in, Merriweather buttons his suit, clears his throat with a sharp cough, and leaps onstage wearing a smile that could charm Winnebago Man.

“Welcome, everyone, to Plankton,” he begins. “Today, you become part of tech history. Y’all are some of the first people on Earth to try a new app that will undoubtedly transform the way we experience movies. And we need your help to ensure it reaches its full potential. Don’t be shy about speaking up. Be honest, even if you think we won’t want to hear what you have to say. You’re not gonna hurt our feelings. My wife tells me I’m fat and disgusting every day, but it sure makes me want to drop a few pounds…or at least spend more time with my less judgmental mistress! Anyway, have fun, and thanks so much for spending a few hours with us today.”

And with that, Merriweather hops off stage. No instructions were issued. The audience has no idea when the screening (Unbroken) will start or what they’re supposed to do. This is by design. theatr’s developers pushed for a picture-based interface because, as Merriweather explains, “Millennials aren’t interested in words.” One thing Plankton hopes to learn during the test is whether users can operate the app without prompts.

The first thing one sees when they open the app is a series of colors and icons. It takes some trial and error and the press of a semi-hidden Help icon, but eventually I discover that this iconography is how theatr collects demographic information, a key step to connecting like-minded people. I ask Merriweather for more context.

“Look how simple this is,” he says. “Tap the black box if you’re African-American, the yellow square for Asian, the cayenne pepper emoji for Latino, or flick the screen to the right — a gesture we’ve trademarked as “Swipe White™” — if you’re Caucasian.”

I mention that this seems like a stunningly racist way to collect user data.

“Young people want to self-identify these days,” Merriweather argues. “They want to connect with other people from similar backgrounds. We’re just making it easier than ever to do. We even included progressive identifiers. The icon of the football player with long hair wearing a skirt? That the transgender option.”

Once you complete the registration process, theatr uses the phone’s GPS technology to deliver a list of everyone in the theater using the app. Tap a username to view that person’s seat location and demographics. You can send a message through the app —
“Hey, that last scene was crazy, right?” — or use their location information to wander over a start a conversation.

A few problems are immediately apparent.

“Gyp, what happens if you want to connect with someone but for whatever reason they aren’t constantly checking their phone during a movie?”

Merriweather smiles. “Glad you asked.” He takes the phone from my hand and long-presses my user icon. Three seconds later the phone screen begins flashing my demographics icon as the following message blares from the iPhone’s speakers: “WHITE MALE, SEAT 118! WHITE MALE, SEAT 118!”

“What the hell is this?” I ask.

“If a fellow theatr user in your ethnic group is inaccessible for any reason, the app provides alternate methods of getting their attention,” Merriweather says. All around us, fellow focus groupers follow suit. An “ASIAN FEMALE, SEAT 12” stumbles down an aisle to begin a conversation with “LATINO TRANSGENDER, SEAT 59” A few African-Americans congregate near the back of the room and begin arguing about the plausibility of Louis Zamperini surviving the plane crash, prompting the white people to check if the Plankton-supplied cell phones can make emergency calls. Chaos surrounds me. We’re 20 minutes into the movie and not one person is paying attention. Those who aren’t carrying on conversations are updating their social networks or e-chatting with other theatr users

Two hours later The Evacuator is empty, the participants’ opinions recorded and sent to marketing for review. In my estimation, the test was an abject failure. The audience, so attentive early on, devolved into a distracted, rambunctious group too preoccupied with the app to digest a fraction of what they were there to watch. Even if theatr cultivates a huge user base, there’s no chance multiplex chains will allow customers to take advantage of the app’s features. “We will violently remove anyone caught using this app in our establishment,” says Alamo Drafthouse Marketing Director Esmeralda Nunez.

“Why wouldn’t multiplexes embrace this?” counters Merriweather. “People want shared experiences. Check out the ratings for awards shows if you don’t believe me. Movies are no different. If theatr gets people to the ticket counter, the chains will accept this new world in a cocaine heartbeat.”

But what about the huge percentage of film fans who go to the theater to escape distractions? What are they to do when their sanctuary is overrun by phone-wielding extroverts who treat the multiplex like a high school lunchroom?

The megawatt grin again creeps onto Merriweather’s face.

“Just gives them more incentive to download theatr, now doesn’t it?”

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