Hardly a day goes by that I don’t hear someone say that they hate going to the movies anymore and can’t wait until the day when we can all just watch new movies at home on our TVs. I have mixed feelings about this sentiment, because while I hate sticky floors and shushing idiots, film has always been at its very essence a social experience. In fact, some early film companies actually scrapped plans for personal, view-master style projection devices when they discovered people actually liked experiencing the projections on a large scale in groups. Filmmakers are understandably attached to film as that kind of social medium, which is leading to some difficult conversations about the right way to evolve and/or let go.
Director Christopher Nolan recently discussed the whole business in an op-ed piece for the Wall Street Journal, and as always, he has some interesting things to say, or maybe it just seemed that way because he’s so handsome and British. The piece is both a sobering look at the current state of affairs, and a plea for what cinema has to do to survive into the future, anchored by a central analogy: “The theatrical window is to the movie business what live concerts are to the music business—and no one goes to a concert to be played an MP3 on a bare stage.”
As streams of data, movies would be thrown in with other endeavors under the reductive term “content,” jargon that pretends to elevate the creative, but actually trivializes differences of form that have been important to creators and audiences alike. “Content” can be ported across phones, watches, gas-station pumps or any other screen, and the idea would be that movie theaters should acknowledge their place as just another of these “platforms,” albeit with bigger screens and cupholders.
Part of the new technological paradigm brought about by digital projection, as Nolan sees it, would be the ability for distributors to “flip the channel” to the most lucrative station any time they want. The consequences of which seem particularly bleak.
Instant reactivity always favors the familiar. New approaches need time to gather support from audiences. Smaller, more unusual films would be shut out. Innovation would shift entirely to home-based entertainment, with the remaining theaters serving exclusively as gathering places for fan-based or branded-event titles.
It’s scary because that’s what seems to be happening now.
This bleak future is the direction the industry is pointed in, but even if it arrives it will not last. Once movies can no longer be defined by technology, you unmask powerful fundamentals—the timelessness, the otherworldliness, the shared experience of these narratives. We moan about intrusive moviegoers, but most of us feel a pang of disappointment when we find ourselves in an empty theater. [...]
The theaters of the future will be bigger and more beautiful than ever before. They will employ expensive presentation formats that cannot be accessed or reproduced in the home (such as, ironically, film prints). And they will still enjoy exclusivity, as studios relearn the tremendous economic value of the staggered release of their products. [WallStreetJournal]
The crux of his argument is a perhaps irrationally optimistic, Ian Malcolm-esque “things suck now, but art finds a way.” And in the same irrationally optimistic way, I want to believe him, and I do. As much as there are a million things I hate about going to the theater (and I could go on for hours, truly), there’s still an undeniable social component to it that you can’t recreate at home. I have to think movie theaters will remain for the same reason I have a 55-inch TV and a mini fridge full of beer at home but still feel like finding a bar to watch World Cup games. (And no, that reason is not “to meet drunk chicks,” smartass).