Variety’s David S. Cohen returns from CES with a warning that studios need to invest in research and development:

Exhibitors, and by extension the entire movie biz, have seen TV as their nemesis since the smallscreen ripped away a huge chunk of the moviegoing audience 60 years ago. Today that threat is more dire than ever, and business-as-usual from the majors and their parent companies isn’t going to cut it this time.

Cohen points to upcoming 4K TV screens — which trump the resolution of many movie projectors — as an example of how studios are risking the theatrical experience.

Many years ago, the studios spent liberally on tech R&D; Fox spent a more than a million to try to get stereoscopic movies off the ground in Hollywood’s early decades, without success (which may be why the studio didn’t embrace 3D in the 1950s). In recent decades, aside from Sony, which was a technology company before it bought a studio, the Hollywood majors have seemed mostly content to let other companies take the lead in improving the movie experience. That worked well enough when the technology leaders (Kodak, Technicolor, Deluxe, Panavision, Christie and Barco) were basically in the movie business and movies had the advantage of a better capture and delivery medium — film.

But here’s the thing: while many movie studios are part of giant corporations, movie studios themselves aren’t manufacturers. They never made things the way Kodak and Panavision do.

Nor are movie studios in the exhibition industry, like IMAX or AMC. In fact, they’re legally barred from owning movie theater chains.

Movie studios make movies. Movies are intellectual property.

Cohen ultimately acknowledges this:

The majors invest lots of money on R&D these days, but it’s mostly on developing intellectual property: script development.

They spend their R&D money on the thing they actually make. That’s pretty reasonable, really.

Studios love to make money from distributing movies theatrically. They also love to make money from home video — including on those fancy new TVs Cohen saw at CES.

When Cohen argues that the majors “need to invest in improvements to the movie platform, and soon,” it’s not at all clear what he wants. IMAX at every theater? Studios don’t own theaters. They can release more movies in IMAX, but by my tally, they’re already pushing it for every movie that makes sense.

Is there room for innovation theatrically? Sure. Love it or hate it, 48fps is a change, as was the resurgence of 3D. As with IMAX, the most the studios can be expected to do is produce and release movies in a new format and hope that moviegoers will embrace it.

Behind the scenes, the switch to digital delivery instead of film prints saved studios a lot of money. That’s not sexy, but research is often about spending money to save money.

Companies spend R&D money in the hope that the investment pays off down the road, and for studios, that mostly means paying screenwriters. I happen to think this is an awesome business plan.