The moviegoing experience—and even how we discover films to watch—has been undergoing a steady change. Studios have turned their attention to blockbusters, and so too have multiplexes, with smaller independent films or arthouse efforts often arriving on VOD first before getting a cursory, limited run. But even the presentation of movies has changed, with digital now the favored format, even at film festivals, while seeing a print on the big screen is becoming a rarer experience, usually one relegated to specialty houses. It’s hard to find the right analogy for this evolution, and change in values on how we experience cinema, but Christopher Nolan puts it thusly: “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.”
The director has taken time out of finishing his forthcoming “Interstellar” to write a column for The Wall Street Journal about the “bleak future” of film. In short, Nolan puts studios on blast for their short term endgame of attempting to position films as “content” or products that can fill a variety of outlets, like toothpaste or toilet paper.
“…[content] 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,” Nolan writes. And in a bit of irony, it should be noted that AMC announced yesterday they were spending $600 million dollars to install bigger, reclining chairs in their theaters.
And taking the thread of “content” and digital presentations a bit further, Nolan sees a future where movies are essentially channels on a dial, where the ones with the biggest “ratings” will earn more screenings, and ones that don’t sell out as quickly will be scuttled from the theater sooner. “The distributor or theater owner (depending on the vital question of who controls the remote) would be able to change the content being played, instantly. A movie’s Friday matinees would determine whether it even gets an evening screening, or whether the projector switches back to last week’s blockbuster. This process could even be automated based on ticket sales in the interests of ‘fairness,’ ” Nolan imagines. “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.”
And while Nolan is ringing the “cinema is dead” bell, he does see hope on the horizon, at least when “studios relearn the tremendous economic value of the staggered release of their products.”
“Once movies can no longer be defined by technology, you unmask powerful fundamentals—the timelessness, the otherworldliness, the shared experience of these narratives,” he writes, adding: “The audience experience is distinct from home entertainment, but not so much that people seek it out for its own sake. The experience must distinguish itself in other ways. And it will. The public will lay down their money to those studios, theaters and filmmakers who value the theatrical experience and create a new distinction from home entertainment that will enthrall—just as movies fought back with widescreen and multitrack sound when television first nipped at its heels.”
“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,” Nolan continues. “The projects that most obviously lend themselves to such distinctions are spectacles. But if history is any guide, all genres, all budgets will follow.”
It’s an eloquent observation on the state of cinema from one of the most successful filmmakers at the moment. But do you agree with Nolan’s assessment? Where do you see the future of movies going? Let us know below.