Photo By: Myke Simon from Unsplash
Amongst the many resulting effects of the COVID-19 pandemic was an acceleration of the slow death of the movie theatre industry, an industry that has realistically been in danger since the advent of home video.
Subscription-based models have taken off as of late, and consumers appear to appreciate the convenience of having all their viewing needs met with the click of a few buttons. While the act of going to a movie theatre is often criticized for being too expensive, the same is not said of the cumulative cost of streaming services.
While it can be argued that the combined cost is worth it due to the number of accessible titles, this ignores the fact that some people subscribe to services for access to just one or a few releases.
Another crippling factor in the decline of the movie theatre model has been increasingly shortened attention spans, especially from younger audiences. Social media platforms have trended towards bite-sized content more and more in recent years, which is effectively the opposite of what movie theatres boast.
Asking someone to give their undivided attention to a film upwards of 90 minutes in length (sometimes double that length for bigger releases) seems to have become a tall order given the omnipresence of the mobile phone. For this reason, there has been a heavier emphasis on the creation of easily consumable “content” as opposed to long-form entertainment.
In a 2021 essay, legendary director Martin Scorsese expressed his worries about the decline of the film industry by saying that, “the art of cinema is being systematically devalued, sidelined, demeaned, and reduced to its lowest common denominator, ‘content’.”
“Content became a business term for all moving images: a David Lean movie, a cat video, a Super Bowl commercial, a superhero sequel, a series episode. It was linked of course, not to the theatrical experience but to home viewing, on the streaming platforms that have come to overtake the moviegoing experience, just as Amazon overtook physical stores,” said Scorsese.
This notion that the film industry, at times over its history considered to be the pinnacle of entertainment, has been reduced to nothing more than another piece of content for audiences to consume, is an idea that younger audiences are now growing up with. Where someone might once have been faced with alternatives to movies, such as TV shows or a novel, alternatives now include anything that can be visually or auditorily consumed.
Granted, not everyone with a passion for film feels that the new age of film consumption is a bad thing for the industry. When asked if he cares if people stream his films, Paul Thomas Anderson, the acclaimed director whose new film Licorice Pizza debuts this month, said, “Not at all. I don’t mind if people discover my work that way. I’m counting on it long after I’m gone.”
Anderson’s quote raises an important aspect of streaming to keep in mind, the discovery of new films and new directors. Services such as The Criterion Channel are featuring works that span over a hundred years of cinema. Not only can viewers discover the films of directors that may not be able to be seen anywhere else, they can also cobble together a complete education on the history of film simply by browsing on the service.
Even outside of the “high art” status that The Criterion Channel provides, there is plenty of outstanding work to be found on all streaming platforms. Acclaimed filmmakers such as Alfonso Cuaron, Noah Baumbach, and even Scorsese himself have released their newest films exclusively on Netflix in recent years. This shows a level of willingness to engage with the new way of film distribution.
More recently, Rebecca Hall made her directorial debut with 2021’s Passing. The film premiered at the Sundance Film Festival before being released widely on Netflix in November. Hall illustrates how this wasn’t necessarily a top choice of hers, but was instead a move that was one of her only options.
“It’s tinged with a little bit of sadness. When you’ve been dreaming of directing your whole life, and you finally make your film — and you also make it for nothing — you don’t dream of it being on streaming,” said Hall in a recent interview.
When it comes to the big tentpole studio releases, this is where the shape of film distribution is starting to change. Earlier this year, the bombastic Godzilla vs. Kong made its debut in theatres, while it was available to stream on HBO Max concurrently. Data indicates that 3.6 million American households streamed at least five minutes of the film during its first five days on the site. This was a larger streaming audience than films such as Wonder Woman 1984 and Zack Snyder’s Justice League, both of which similarly released on HBO Max this past year, over the same five day timespan.
These types of films were designed to be shown on as big a screen as possible. For some of these films, viewing them on a small screen could be seen as not experiencing the full effect, or not appreciating the craft that went into it.
Christopher Nolan, acclaimed for his blockbuster studio films, has been one of the most vociferous advocates for screening films in theatres. Nolan’s 2020 film Tenet, was released in August of last year, in a world where vaccines were still in development and COVID-19 cases were still surging. The director advocated for a theatrical release to his film, despite the circumstances, due to his opinion on the importance of theatres and their ability to unite individuals.
“In uncertain times, there is no more comforting thought than that we’re all in this together, something the moviegoing experience has been reinforcing for generations,” said Nolan.
Even further, if embracing the towering technical achievements that are available on screen isn’t appealing, the shared emotions experienced by a theatrical audience is another casualty of this new form. For example, a comedic movie is likely to be better appreciated when met with a packed house full of laughter, rather than the alternative. A horror movie can draw out the collective dread in a room full of filmgoers, something which is easily lost at home.
Anthony Kinik, a professor in the film studies department at Brock University, cited the idea of focus as the biggest thing that home viewing lacks in relation to moviegoing.
“I think the biggest thing you miss is the sense of focus. Even when I’m watching things at home, I’m often more aware of the things that are going on around me and more distracted and it’s easier for something to come up, like if you suddenly get hungry it’s much easier to go to the fridge and pick up a snack”, said Kinik. “For me, the biggest part is just that sense of focus. I can totally immerse myself when watching a film in the movie theatre, in a way that I never can at home.”
For some, this may be one of the most attractive features of watching a movie at home. The ability to watch a movie on your own terms, to stop and start it without consequence, to go on your phone as much as you’d like, to talk through the whole thing, to multi-task and only “half-watch” the movie while doing something else. The personal tailoring of a viewing experience, while attractive given its level of freedom, also naturally removes some of the connection to the film.
Highlighting the fact that the movie theatre experience transcends national borders, Kinik also recalled an experience at a small theatre in Hungary, as well as an unexpected story that came out of it.
“I had the habit of going to the movie theatre wherever I travelled, just to have the experience of going to the theatre in another country. One time I went to a movie theatre in Budapest, and halfway through the film there was just a sound of gushing water and it sounded like a toilet was overflowing or something. It turned out there was a hole in the ceiling of this old theatre, with water just gushing down into the lobby. Strange things can happen in movie theatres, you never know what you’re going to get,” said Kinik.
This story highlights the ultimate issue that people are faced with when choosing how to watch movies in this day and age. While watching at home allows you to dictate the terms, the act of going out to a theatre provides you with much more of an experience. In other words, the movie theatre serves to eventize the act of movie watching in a variety of ways.
The choice will depend on the person, as well as the movie that is being watched, but at the end of the day, even as we move into 2022, movie theatres can still provide the same magic that they always have.