Monday, October 31, 2005
The Rumored Death Of Cinema

I'm supposed to be writing today, not blogging. But then, if I were writing, I'd only be writing about the changing nature of filmgoing and film exhibition -- and miraculously, this post is about -- yes!-- the changing nature of filmgoing and film exhibition. How synchronous is that? Bird, meet other bird. Two birds, meet stone.

M. Night Shyamalan's not happy:

ORLANDO -- Director M. Night Shyamalan threw down the gauntlet Thursday night at ShowEast, appearing at the exhibitors convention to speak out against shrinking theatrical windows and rejecting the notion of simultaneous day-and-date releases of new films in theaters and on home video, cable and video-on-demand.


Speaking from his Philadelphia-area office shortly before leaving for Orlando, the director said: "I'm going to stop making movies if they end the cinema experience. If there's a last film that's released only theatrically, it'll have my name on it. This is life or death to me.


My initial response to the idea of no more M. Night Shayamalan movies, ever:

(Oh, the humanity.)

But seriously, this very issue is what I've spent nearly the last year of my life thinking about. The entire filmgoing experience is changing -- or, more accurately, the cinema experience is still the same (only better, mostly thanks to vastly improved sound), but people can't seem to be bothered to go much anymore. That's putting enormous pressure on the industry -- their dirty little secret is that Hollywood is barely profitable these days (at least in any of the ways we normally assume it would be), and so relatively small decreases at the box office hurt. So they look for various ways to staunch the bleeding -- aggressive anti-piracy measures, and unbelieveably fucked-up marketing strategies like releasing a given film in theaters and on DVD on the same day.

To be blunt: the industryy doesn't give a rat's ass about the cinematic experience; they just want to move product. My problem is, I do care about the cinematic experience. I regard the cinema as a kind of secular church -- I take it quite seriously -- no, I revere it -- and as glad as I am to be able to watch movies at home, I really, really like watching them in theaters. And I think other people like that, too. But as we all know, going to the movies is no longer strictly necessary, no longer always an option, and often too expensive to do often. It has its problems.

But it's also at the epicenter of film art. You can't really experience any worthwhile film without seeing it in that setting -- you can get close, but it's almost impossible to replicate the full experience at home. The screen's not big enough (no, not even the biggest ones)and the room is rarely dark enough, the isolation from the non-film world isn't complete enough, and you lack the subconscious social influence of sitting in a dark room, sharing a sensory experience with dozens of strangers. These things are important; these things are what give film much of its power. Watching a film at home is always at best a half-neutered, compromised version of the intended experience.

Am I a film snob? Fuck yes, I am. I rue the day we create a world in which theatrical filmgoing becomes regarded as superfluous.

At the same time, though, I recognize that everything's changing -- these changes aren't just limited to film, either; all art of every description is being thrown into flux. I had a heated argument with a younger film student a couple of weeks ago in which I argued (in so many words) that film festivals were bullshit, the film industry as we know it is doomed to wither, and that this is the worst possible time to invest yourself in the old way of doing things. We're setting out across terra incognita, and that's a scary thing, but I can only have hope that we use the opportunity to create something that's better for everyone. My current efforts are rooted in my wish to navigate that terrain a little more smoothly (and in the best interests of myself and my associates.) I disagree with Shyamalan when he says that:

"If you tell audiences there's no difference between a theatrical experience and a DVD, then that's it, game's over, and that whole art form is going to go away slowly... Movies will end up being this esoteric art form, where only singular people will put films out in a small group of theaters."

Well, actually, I don't completely disagree, and frankly, that sounds like an improvement to me; you're not likely to find me weeping over the demise of the Hollywood blockbuster (although clearly Shyamalan feels he has something at stake... I wouldn't be so sure if I were him.) But I do suspect that theatrical filmgoing will persist for the time being; I can't really foresee a world in which The Village can't find an audience (sadly.) What concerns me more is the potential failure of film culture -- that thing that only arises when people communicate with each other about what they're seeing. Filmmaking and filmgoing are both team sports -- the whole thing becomes shallow and meaningless without thought and discussion and interaction. If cinemas continue to wither, where will film culture be built?

I love the fact that I can go online and rent obscure foreign art films for tiny sums and have them appear at my door the next day; I look forward to the day when people can make and distribute high-quality films with small budgets, interacting directly with an engaged audience; I'd love to have a big, impressive home theater with a digital projector and THX-quality sound. But it's not really the same, is it? You can buy high-end audio equipment and have a near-perfect musical experience in your living room, but nobody would ever claim that it's the same as going to see a live band. If the art-loving, film-going public doesn't understand that the cinema is at the heart of every movie, it's only because we who devote ourselves to its existence haven't done a good enough job of convincing them. Hollywood hasn't lifted a finger; people like Shyamalan talk a big game (when they think their Malibu homes might be on the line), but what has he done for the cinema lately? (Besides abuse it, I mean.)

It's a confusing mess; I can't claim to have drawn any coherent conclusions except to say that what we have now will be unrecognizeable within a matter of decades (at most), and that whatever follows, while almost unimaginable now, will seem obvious when it finally comes to fruition. I'm as anxious as anyone about what that all means for me and for my adopted medium, but I know it's pointless to rail against the demise of a foundering status quo when the alternatives can hardly be worse for people like me.

Maybe my failure to sell out in Hollywood will prove to be a blessing in disguise -- at least I don't have a Malibu beach house to lose.
2:41 PM ::
Amy :: permalink