Excluding the time-honored tradition of physically making the schlep to your lawyers’ office to get legal help, few consumer experiences have been as unchanged by the digital revolution as going to the movies. But even this, the last bastion of 20th-century consumer behavior, could be disrupted by technology. The Screening Room, started by Napster founder Sean Parker, is challenging the traditional movie theater business model by enabling viewers to stream first-run movies in their own homes.

Theater owners oppose technologies like The Screening Room because, though they’d probably not admit this quite so directly, The Screening Room and its technological equivalents compete with their business.

Lawyers probably don’t know or don’t care about this pitched battle between theater owners and tech insurgents. As you stream movies or binge-watch the latest Netflix releases, you might not realize how big an influence theater owners have on what you watch and when you watch it.

On a recent radio program, President and CEO of the National Association of Theater Owners, John Fithian, shared his skepticism about The Screening Room.1

Fithian: We think [the current movie] business model works really well. There have been suggestions of late of disrupting that business model. We’re not against evolution, but the people who ought to determine this evolution are distributors and the theater owners negotiating together about how we should do this and not third parties with ideas from the outside. […]

Interviewer: What would you say to filmmakers . . . who have embraced shortening the theater “windows” in which movies are shown exclusively in theaters?

Fithian: I have . . . had this conversation with [filmmakers]. What I said was, do you really want somebody plopping down fifty bucks and inviting their forty fraternity brothers over to their house to watch Star Wars on opening night or do you want them coming out to the big house to watch your movie on the big screen with the big sound systems?

Interviewer: What did [the filmmakers] say [in response]?

Fithian: “[They say] you have to adapt. You have to change.” And my response was: Change for what purpose? What is the end goal? . . . In the end . . .  if you believe in the cinema experience, if you believe in going out of your house and experiencing movies on the big screen, do you want to trust Sean Parker about what’s good for that business or do you want to trust the movie studios and the theater owners about what’s good for that business.

Reading this as a consumer is a bit troubling. Comments like “the people who ought to determine this evolution are distributors and the theater owners” seem like a backroom deal in which the hapless consumer are getting screwed. And what about excluding those “third parties with ideas from the outside?” Netflix wasn’t started by one of the major television networks. Why are we trusting market incumbents to figure out what consumers want instead of listening to what consumers want?

Of course, Fithian and his theater owner constituents would push back on the evolution of their business model. Their business model is working just fine for them, thank you. And sure, the notion of frat boys free-riding on first run film streams evokes images of general misbehavior as well as the specific havoc that Napster and Sean Parker wreaked on music nearly twenty years ago but what about those families who live hundreds of miles from theaters but have broadband access? Or those who are homebound due to illness or other personal complications? What about those with home theater systems that make the viewing experience better than what the theater owners can provide, not to mention more convenient? What about those who want to eat their own food instead of the overpriced snack bar junk offered at most theaters? Or what about those who only want to watch the movie from the convenience of their own home? Should they be limited by the theater owners’ unwillingness to evolve because theater owners don’t see the benefit in it for them?

Do these refrains sound familiar? Do they sound like the kinds of reactions that lawyers frequently raise in response to outside threats to their monopoly on legal services? As someone who talks to lawyers all the time about how technology and the internet are changing the legal services ecosystem, they sound incredibly familiar to me.

There is a consumer groundswell animated by the ubiquity of information and access provided by the internet. That has revolutionized or is revolutionizing nearly every industry – hospitality, healthcare, transportation, finance, retail. The same forces will revolutionize the movie theater industry and, ultimately, legal services. And, as is evident from Fithian’s quotes, industry participants that resist this revolution end up not only sounding incredibly protectionist and anti-consumer but quickly become irrelevant as more consumer-oriented solutions emerge to meet consumer need more effectively.

Fithian wants consumers to trust the movie industry to evolve. Similarly, lawyers frequently talk about trust, aspiring to be trusted advisors to their clients. But as it relates to the public’s entrusting them to ensure broader access to legal services, they’ve failed. Even middle-income consumers avoid lawyers due to cost, and many lower income consumers don’t even know that a given problem is a legal one. Legal consumers would happily trust lawyers over others in the market just as movie-goers would happily trust theater owners if either group was being responsive to consumer needs. But, at least in the case of lawyers, they’re not. Dismissing Sean Parker for having a good idea about how to do movies differently is just as short-sighted as lawyers dismissing outsiders to the legal system for having a good idea about how to do legal better.

The comparison between movies and law is not perfect. The societal risk in changing the theater experience is less than that of disrupting the way that legal services are delivered. More hangs in the balance in a divorce than in the experience of watching a movie. But, just as is the case with theater owners, lawyers have struggled to effectively listen to legal consumers. And consumers have started voting with their feet, whether through DIY, forms, pro se, or some other means.

What should we make of these changes? The long term answer is that we need to design and deliver legal services in a more consumer-centric fashion. Everything from courts to social justice to divorce needs to be rethought. But that’s big picture stuff. On a smaller scale, we can think about changing the way we work with consumers. For example, what about offering virtual office visits using a webcam instead of requiring prospective clients to come to your office? Or offering visits in the evening or on weekends to work around clients’ schedules? Or, even giving away simple forms or drafting blog posts that describe how clients can complete simple legal services themselves while explaining that you’re available to help with the complicated stuff if they need it.

Whatever we do, we shouldn’t tighten the screws. We shouldn’t, as Fithian suggests, do backroom deals to prop up the status quo, snuff out innovation, and continue to stuff down the throats of consumers what we think is best for them. Instead, we must—just as we hope theater owners will with movies—overcome our protectionist and self-preservation impulses, thoughtfully listen to consumers, then work to deliver legal services that they want in the way they want them delivered.

  1. These same sentiments appear in an official statement from the Association on The Screening Room. 

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