Futurist interview: Thomas Frey on cinemas, concerts of tomorrow

By Steve Outing

As new technology comes along, much of it amazing and disruptive, there’s a tendency for many people to assume that the new Next Great Thing will kill off that which it appears poised to replace. TV was going to kill radio and probably newspapers; didn’t happen. … Mobile phones will kill off land-line phones; well, maybe that will still happen at some point in the future, though perhaps not in businesses.

But in general, says futurist Thomas Frey, the older technology adapts, perhaps losing a chunk of its market share, but surviving long term in a new or revised form. If innovative enough, proprietors of the old way might even keep growing.

Thomas Frey, futurist, the DaVinci InstituteThe way we are entertained is a great example. For instance, will new technologies lessen the numbers of people willing to pay to watch a first-run film in a movie theater, or pay a high price to see a favorite musician in a live venue? Will home theater systems and big-screen HD-TVs mean that when given a choice, most people will stay home to watch the movie or live concert (paying for it, of course) on increasingly sophisticated electronic systems which can offer a “just like you are there” experience, including in the case of concerts remote choice of which camera angles you see, such as live views through music performers’ eyes or scanning the audience of screaming fans?

Frey, who runs the DaVinci Institute, a futurism thinktank based in Louisville, Colorado, is confident in his prediction that live events and movie theaters where large numbers of people watch a film together won’t go away. But theater owners and concert promoters will improve the in-person experience in order to keep up with at-home entertainment advances. (It’s either that or deal with a declining business.)

Movie-theater owners like AMC already are responding to the challenge that they know they soon will face. Many AMC theaters, for example, are tossing out their old seating in favor of much larger, comfortable lounge chairs, like the one shown at the top of this story (from, which have plenty of cup-holders and recline via electric motor. In a break from long-held tradition, movie-goers at these revamped theaters buy tickets in advance and select specific seats. Each theater has fewer seats than before, but offers a premium experience — yes, tickets are more expensive than at a traditional movie theater — as well as the intangible benefit of sharing a film with a roomful of other people rather than watching home alone or with the kids.

Frey says of AMC and other operators of physical theaters, they are in the “togetherness business,” which he doesn’t expect to go away. Pro football games represent the same dynamic; many fans are willing to pay exorbitant ticket prices, endure parking and traffic hassles, and sit in freezing-cold conditions to have “togetherness” with a stadium full of other rabid fans. For some sports fans, no level of high-def virtual reality and personal control over camera angles will convince them to watch the game from the comfort of home. [continues below audio clips…]



Some remodeled movie theaters, like the AMC Flatirons Crossing 14 cinemas in Broomfield, Colorado (not far from my home or Frey’s), also have a new sit-down bar and improved food. Someday the theaters will add restaurants, and some cinemas are experimenting with servers bringing food to a customer’s chair, which has a fold-out table. (Don’t be surprised if someday the “waiter” delivering pizza and sodas to your seats is a small indoor flying drone or motorized robot launched from the food bar.)

In-person concerts also have potential for improvement. Frey suggests such innovations as drones that fly over the crowd: They might add temporary lighting effects to the crowd or walls of the venue, or blast part of a band’s sound overhead for an enhanced live audio experience. Concert drones might zoom in on audience members, projecting their images briefly on a giant screen behind the musicians. Perhaps during a break, a video drone flies over the crowd and picks out some fans to interview on how they like the concert.

The commerce angle of live entertainment

A fascinating and hopeful future revenue possibility for concert promoters (and this would apply to sports events and theater performances, too) is during-event e-commerce. This can be forecast by the buzz that Google Glass, the augmented reality eyewear that also can take photos and video, has caused, says Frey. In a few years, less-geeky, more capable alternatives to Google Glass from many competitors could mean that many concert-goers would have the opportunity to see augmented-reality offers while at the event. AR glasses could point a fan to the snack bar, where they can get two-for-one beers if they purchase before 9 p.m.; they could direct the fan to the nearest bathroom, and offer information about how long the wait line is currently.

More exciting (especially for the marketers), AR glasses could be used for a fan to learn more about a physical object that’s part of the show. Say, the backup vocalist is wearing an amazing blouse; use the AR glasses to find out about the blouse and order it in your size right then and there, or add it (perhaps with a simple gesture, like “blink eyes twice”) to your wish list. Perhaps you want to know about the guitar that the lead singer is playing, and your AR glasses not only show you the details but also give you the opportunity to purchase the same guitar, or a replica edition, from your seat. Frey notes the experiments of the likes of and others to speed up delivery to same-day or even within-an-hour. The fan with guitar-lust could purchase at the concert and find the product on his or her doorstep when arriving home after the concert.

Movie-goers with AR eyewear could do something similar. … That’s a great pair of boots the lead actress is wearing in this scene; what brand are they?; and now add them to my buying wishlist. (It’s probably unrealistic to expect movie-goers to turn their attention away from the plot to place an immediate order, but a couple blinks to add a product to a wishlist is reasonable — and the potential buyer could be reminded about the boots when the film is over.)

These are the kind of new business models that proprietors of theaters and live events must consider should their in-person audiences shrink.

Why won’t live-event audiences continue to grow?

The flip side to the future of entertainment is advances in home viewing, where the experience is enhanced by new digital technologies.

Frey points out that a deadline or specific time that, say, a music concert is available is a strong driver to attending live events. The exclusivity of listening to Pretty Lights give a live concert at Red Rocks Amphitheatre near Denver at 8 p.m. on Saturday has more of a psychological draw on a fan than if Amazon Video allows staying at home and paying to watch any of the last 10 Pretty Lights concerts from various cities at any time desired.

But what if you could pay to watch that Pretty Lights concert, live, from your living room, and invite a group of friends over? If the presentation is just a few cameras capturing the concert for a big-screen TV at home, that may not attract a large audience willing to pay. Companies like Fathom Events bring remote live performances to movie theaters, where people pay to come at a specific time to watch a remote broadcast of a live event on a big screen with great sound. That still stops far short of the potential provided by new and emerging technologies.

If you read my previous Media Disruptus blog post on “POV live video,” you’ll understand how live performances viewed at home can be appealing. Watching a live concert at home, either on an interactive TV or with a pair of virtual reality goggles (like those being developed by Occulus), could include the viewer determining which camera to see through, and high-end sound. If the band members and stage crew all are wearing tiny video cameras that broadcast what they see live, such a home-controlled experience could well sell lots of tickets to people not at the stadium.

Think about it: How amazing would it be to peer through the head-cam of the drummer for Train, then switch to the lead singer, then to a camera position in the first few rows of the audience? The in-concert e-commerce possibilities mentioned above: also possible in this enhanced interactive home-viewing scenario.

Frey remains somewhat skeptical of at-home entertainment being interactive and drawing large audiences, since experience and research has shown that for television and movies, for example, most people prefer to be entertained, not be interactive with the content. Still, the years ahead will include much experimentation with new technologies applied to improving the entertainment experience

Alas, there is a problem, at least for the short term. Movie companies and concert promoters could, by using new technologies to make at-home viewing of live events much better, open up a huge new revenue stream from paying customers who aren’t present physically. There’s a paying audience across the U.S. (and the world, for that matter) willing to watch, say, a Macklemore live concert remotely and pay for it — as long as the remote experience is as incredible as being there in person, or better. But those movie and music companies first have to allow for simultaneous home broadcast of live events.

There are signs that this will happen and that Hollywood and other entertainment-rights holders eventually will ease up restrictions, as they recognize the huge revenue streams staring them in the face. I’ll leave you with a recent, widely shared video of actor Kevin Spacey making the case to the entertainment industry to offer their content in any way the consumer wants it, without the past’s time restrictions based on the platform being used for viewing.

The years ahead promise great improvements in the quality of entertainment (including sports) as a result of new and emerging digital communications technologies. I can’t wait.

Author: Steve Outing Steve Outing is a Boulder, Colorado-based media futurist, digital-news innovator, consultant, journalist, and educator. ... Need assistance with media-company future strategy? Get in touch with Steve!