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Sean Parker's stealthy startup abandons plans to make its own hardware

SR Labs is now building apps for Hollywood awards voters.

photo of Napster co-founder Sean Parker

Sean Parker's Hollywood startup SR Labs has been operating in stealth for the past five years.

Photo: Paul Archuleta/FilmMagic/Getty Images

Sean Parker's stealthy startup SR Labs wanted to revolutionize the way consumers watch movies at home. Now, the company is embracing a slightly less ambitious idea: SR Labs, which was known as Screening Room until a 2020 rebrand, has built a service called Circuit that aims to help studios securely deliver so-called screener copies of their movies to Hollywood awards voters.

The startup's pivot is emblematic of the rapid change the entire film industry has undergone over the past 24 months: While many in the industry long resisted any changes to the theatrical release model, COVID-19 has pushed studios like Disney and Warner Bros. to release their movies on their own streaming services.

Circuit hasn't been officially announced yet, but SR Labs has already published a Roku app for the service, and also built a CMS system for studios to upload video files. Trademark office records show that SR Labs first filed for a trademark for Circuit in June 2020. The company has been able to strike partnerships with "a majority of the Hollywood guilds," according to the LinkedIn profile of SR Labs biz dev director Jonathan Smith.

SR Labs did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

A web page for the Circuit FYC Roku app describes the service as "a secure streaming platform for guilds and associations to watch films and television shows under consideration for awards." An Apple TV app has also been tested by the company, but is not currently available on the App Store. These apps are notable in part because they seem to signal that SR Labs has given up on plans to release its own streaming hardware.

Circuit is SL Labs' first known product to speak of; the company made headlines in 2016 when news leaked about its plans to securely deliver movies to viewers at home the same day the films were debuting in theaters. The Screening Room service was supposed to use a $150 set-top box to thwart piracy, and charge consumers $50 for each movie.

To appease Hollywood, the company reportedly planned to pay theater chains as much as $20 of that fee. However, those plans were met with a massive backlash from the industry, with vocal critics including famed director James Cameron and former Warner Bros. CEO Kevin Tsujihara.

Still called Screening Room at the time, the company didn't respond to any of that criticism, or even publicly acknowledge it at all. SR Labs only came out of stealth in June 2020, when it announced its rebrand, as well as $27.5 million in funding. The company did not disclose its list of funders, but reportedly secured a $2.5 million investment from Oracle in late 2017.

Parker, who rose to fame co-founding Napster and as the first president of Facebook, used that occasion to paint SR Labs as a savior of theaters threatened by COVID-19 shutdowns: "We must do everything in our power to preserve the time-honored tradition of theatrical exhibition at this pivotal moment, when its very existence is under threat."

One year later, that threat still exists, with the delta variant once again deterring people from going to theaters. However, the industry seems to have leapfrogged the original Screening Room model, with studios embracing shorter theater release models and day-and-date releases of films on their own streaming services — changes that will likely persist even after the pandemic subsides.

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