After a long day of rushing to and from press conferences, bumping elbows with other CEDIA attendees and having my fillings rattled by more than one overly-aggressive subwoofer demonstration, I decided to take a break from my CEDIA ramblings to sit down in a comfortable home theater recliner and watch a $500 movie.
Well, I didn’t get to see all of it the movie, but I did get a good first-hand look at a Prima Cinema system. Prima, in case you hadn’t read about it earlier, is a company that offers a premium home theater video service to people who just can’t wait for Amazon to ship them the latest Blu-ray. The company’s model is pretty simple: current in-theater movies, available to view in your home for $500 a pop. It’s VOD for the one percent.
Obviously, Prima isn’t for everyone. The Prima player, a network-attached hard drive server, costs $35,000 and needs to be professionally installed. Prima insists that the display must be at least 100 inches, which leaves out all (or most) flat panel TVs. Your viewing room can’t have more than 25 seats (so you can’t invite the whole neighborhood), and of course the system is for non-commercial uses only—you can’t charge anyone to see a movie or have a charity fund-raiser with the movie being the central attraction.
Of course you also can’t copy it, else Prima releases the Kraken on you.
Aside from the Prima player, users also get a fingerprint scanner (prints from all your fingers are included, in case you have a lawnmower accident or get bitten by your pet piranha). This can prevent your house cleaner from racking up a huge movie bill while you’re away.
Movies that are currently in theaters are automatically downloaded to the Prima player and stay there for as long as the movie is in wide theatrical circulation. For instance, among the movies available during my visit (the last week of September) were Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs 2, The World’s End, Kick ### 2 and Riddick. If you can’t tell from that list, it’s basically all Universal Pictures. Universal is Prima’s only major studio partner, but there are several smaller studios as well, such as Magnolia and Millennium. You won’t find any Sony, Disney, Paramount or Dreamworks movies on the system, yet.
Because the system only holds a limited number of movies at a time (it can hold around 50, but there were closer to 15 when I saw it), navigation is very simple. Unlike a mass-movie server, such as the Kaleidescape Cinema One, the user can scan through the options in a minute or two with the navigation arrows on a iPad app. When you pick your movie, just put your finger down on the biometric reader and confirm the purchase. Users need to put $5,000 into an account up front. Prima draws your purchases from that.
Video and audio quality is unquestionably excellent. The short previews I saw looked at least as good, if not better, than what I’d see in my local theater complexes and without the stink of old popcorn and spilled Pepsi. Movies are shown in 10-bit (Blu-ray is 8-bit), 1080p, 4:2:2 color space with 7.1 uncompressed surround sound. Your $500 gets you 24 hours to view the movie only once. Movies can be paused, or rewound for five minutes. Prima’s Todd Lokken noted that despite the high price of the single-showing rentals, many customers will rent the same movie multiple times.
If you’re a Prima customer, you’ll receive email notifications when new movies have been added to the system as well as notifications that a movie is about to disappear from it.
Currently there are more than 70 dealers selling and installing Prima systems. While the company wouldn’t tell me how many had been sold, Lokken noted that they’re currently sold out of players, so business seems to be going well.
So why would someone pay $500 to watch a movie when they could wait six months and buy the Blu-ray (or rent/buy it online)? Because Prima appeals to people who don’t want to wait a few months, don’t want to go through the horror of sitting next to strangers in a commercial theater and don’t care about the cost. The home theaters of the well-heeled are awesome spaces with better food, better seats and an all-around better experience. A number of Prima customers are celebrities who probably don’t like to battle surging paparazzi just to see a new movie.
While at Prima’s demonstration room, I saw a little of… something with shooting and explosions. With the Digital Projection Titan projector and Meridian speakers, the experience was awesome, and too brief.
What’s in the future for Prima? The company said that a system designed for private yachts is likely, though the internet connection is a sticky point as well as the problem of international boundaries which impact copyright and licensing. Hopefully more studios will partner up. I believe a more variable pricing scheme would be a good idea too? Does every movie have to be $500? What about smaller, independent films that only make the festival circuit? Could those be priced at $300?
Live sporting or concert events, though an attractive idea, won’t currently work, Prima explained, because you can’t guarantee the internet connection of every customer. If a customer is paying top dollar for an exclusive experience, they’ll be pretty upset if it doesn’t work because Xfinity is having a bad day.
Prima isn’t meant to be a competitor to Netflix, Kaleidescape or other movie server and VOD services. Most Prima users probably also have some sort of large media storage device. Prima is for the people who will pay whatever they have to to get what they want, which is fine by me. I’d just like to be invited over now and then.
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Grant Clauser has been covering home electronics for more than 10 years with editorial roles in several consumer and trade magazines. He's done ISF-level damage to hundreds of reviewed products and has had training from THX, the Home Acoustics Alliance, Control4 and Sencore. He's also the author of the book The Trouble with Rivers
. Follow him on Twitter @geclauser.