Movies. Media. Content. It’s all changing. Not so long ago, the movie MEET JOE BLACK made a ridiculous amount of money at the box office opening weekend – having nothing to do with the movie or even Brad Pitt. No, movie theaters were packed because the movie featured the first trailer for STAR WARS: EPISODE ONE – THE PHANTOM MENACE. Seats were filled with howling fanboys, and mere moments after the trailer ended, they left. Suspecting this would happen, many theaters promised to show the trailer again after the credits just to get people to stay.
This would never happen now. Five years ago somebody would have made a crude video of the trailer on their phone and posted it to the internet. These days, studios don’t even bother with theaters – they send you text messages about when the trailer will be uploaded to the website or sent directly to your phone in full HD. It’s not too laughable to imagine that in a few more years, you can pay a few bucks to the studio directly after watching the trailer on your iPad, and the moment the film locks, it will download automatically. (Which gives me a huge money-making idea for iPopcorn and iCandy….. but I digress.)
With the advent of huge, surprisingly affordable, high definition televisions and surround sound THX systems, we are closer than ever to getting a movie theater experience at home (and, word to the wise, some of the theatres at the Beverly Center in Los Angeles have screens smaller than HD TVs, so sometimes you’re better off at home). And I will take watching movies at home any day over the rowdy, crowded, sticky movie theater experience. When I sit down during several of the utterly free hours of my day to watch a really great film, it doesn’t become any less exciting and dynamic being viewed on my TV or computer.
Okay, that’s a total lie.
Telling stories in the form of stage productions or major motion pictures demand, by definition, a different kind of experience. Sure, we’re ABLE to watch HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON and AVATAR and BEN HUR on a TV, but don’t tell me it’s a preferable experience to seeing it in a theatre. It’s not. Sure, theatres mean there might be a jerk texting near you, somebody brought their three-year-old to a showing of CHUCKY PART 9, or an obnoxious girlfriend keeps asking her boo “what just happened?” (I’m petitioning for any actions against these people to be deemed “justifiable homicide”), but sitting in a large dark room with a picture clearer and larger than your peripheral vision while being surrounded by incredible sound and no chance that your significant other will disturb and ask you to take the trash out is bliss. It’s exciting. It’s an experience. It’s how some stories were meant to be seen.
Think about this: you’re an HBO subscriber and for next season, they offer their usual TV and internet options for GAME OF THRONES…… but they also give you free tickets to see each episode shown at a movie theater on the night it premieres. Now, who thinks it would be just as cool to watch it at home on their laptop? Exactly: nobody. Why? Because GAME OF THRONES is an epic cinematic story that almost demands to be seen on the big screen. The emotions you feel when watching a great TV show or movie are multiplied when seen in a theatre, because there is nothing around you other than the story. You can’t go grab a drink during the credits, you won’t have neighbors stopping by – all you have is the story in it’s grandest form. And just as important, there is a sense of community in a theatre.
I know, I know, I just spent a paragraph opining the idiots who go see movies and talk through them. Well, yes. That happens. But it’s very different when you’re in a theatre with people who are all there because they LOVE the project. George Lucas re-released all three STAR WARS films in theatres before doing his Special Editions and I went to the midnight opening night showings of each one when I lived in New York City.
Let me repeat: Original Star Wars movies, midnight showings, New York City. Yes, it was kind of the best thing ever.
The place was packed to capacity, people were dressed as their favorite characters, and even though I only knew three of the probably two-to-three hundred people in that place, as soon as “A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away” and the first note of John Williams’ score blared out, every single person in that room screamed and cheered. You don’t even get that kind of energy at sporting events – everyone was happy, everyone was on the same page. And the moment one idiot started to talk back to the screen a la Mystery Science Theatre, the whole auditorium booed at him. (You don’t mess with people’s STAR WARS.) And even at special screenings or opening nights of brand new films with a built-in fanbase, it’s the opposite: nobody talks – everybody wants total focus. THAT is the kind of community I’m talking about.
Steven Spielberg and George Lucas spoke at USC recently and opined that this kind of moviegoing experience is going to become so costly that it will soon be financially on par with seeing a Broadway show. And since studios are spending 300-plus million dollars on a special effects bonanza, they won’t have the money or time to promote smaller stories to the big screen. So, TRANSFORMERS ELEVEN: JIFFY LUBE TIME will cost you sixty bucks at the multiplex, but an all-star feature about Teddy Roosevelt with the best cinematography all year will be relegated to TV. Most filmmakers have a specific way they would like their art to be seen – certain sound, certain lighting, hell in some cases, even film projection calibration – but all control over their art goes bye-bye once it’s in homes on TVs that most busy humans have no idea how to properly calibrate.
But does any of this matter? Well, of course it does.
From an artistic perspective, the opportunity to create any kind of content for any platform to be enjoyed in many different ways is thrilling. As Kevin Spacey recently pointed out at Edinburgh International Television Festival, there are no more guardians – and if you DO find yourself blocked by one, just leave and go to another entry point. True, the ability to make money on different platforms is widely variable, but from the standpoint of getting your art seen, things have never been better. The new problem is not getting your pilot on CBS, it’s getting people to discover and watch the pilot you financed and shot and put up online.
But it’s a different experience than sitting in a small, dark, air conditioned room watching a story play out in front of you. And that experience shouldn’t be reserved for $60 tickets to see a movie about giant robots destroying galaxies. Some of my favorite movie-going experiences were watching indie films alone at the Angelika theatre in Greenwich Village in the middle of the day. And Quentin Tarantino’s New Beverly Cinema in Los Angeles shows 35mm Double Features all year long – a great way to experience old and new films in the classic tradition of cinematic entertainment.
So which is more important, content or experience?
At the risk of sounding idealistic, they have equal value. They’re symbiotic – one cannot survive without the other. If you’re showing Tommy Wiseau’s THE ROOM, it could be in Technicolor 3D in a surround-sound theater with free alcohol and half-naked women giving massages and that movie would still be an abomination. But watching LAWRENCE OF ARABIA on an iPod touch at Port Authority is equally offensive. (Also, don’t accept the aforementioned massages if you’re at Port Authority…. trust me.)
Vincent van Gogh, Jackson Pollock, those differential-vowel twins Monet and Manet: their artwork is up all over people’s homes and offices and they bring joy and color to the places they hang. But no matter how close you stand to a poster of AUTUMN RHYTHM (NUMBER SEVEN), you will never get the experience of seeing the intricacies of the brushwork and specialized lighting that seeing it hanging in the Met will afford you.
Art is created with a specific mode of perception in mind. And we should all do our best to see it under those circumstances – we owe it to the artist and to ourselves.