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Christopher Nolan Talks “Bleak Future” Of Cinema & How Studios Will “Relearn” The Value Of The Theatrical Experience

Christopher Nolan Talks "Bleak Future" Of Cinema & How Studios Will "Relearn" The Value Of The Theatrical Experience

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.

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I can tell you this, as a guy who has worked at Cinemark for the better part of four years, and whose GM has worked as the GM at Cinemark's from Texas to California, this summer is probably the slowest summer for cinema since at least the early 2000s. It's not like everyone is rushing to go to other movie theaters, ours is the most used theater in a few combined cities and holy hell has it been SLOW.

Not only do I believe this is because of the lack of entertaining summer pictures this year (IE: everyone somehow thought a 3 hour long Transformers movie would be the biggest of the summer 'audiences barely even have the patience to sit through a 1 hr and 30 minute long movie, much less a 3 hr movie of pure mindlessness' ) but I also wonder if it's because the Cinema is nothing special anymore.

With recent innovations like Netflix, and Youtube, which can be accessed at home or at your friends house, on your phones and tablets; wasting gas to drive to a cinema and then paying $8 for a ticket and $10 for a snack and popcorn really is not at all enticing. Americans are lazy people. Convenience is what they want.

1. The theater was always supposed to be an event where you could experience a movie with friends– well you can do that at home now extremely conveniently. In the past it was not nearly as easy to watch the newest (and oldest) films at home with your friends and family, so the theater was extremely good for that.

2. The second advantage that cinema had was that it was an experience that you could only experience at the movie theater. This is because watching a movie shot in film on a film projector is incredibly amazing, especially in comparison to watching the same movie at home. Some people like to scoff at that and repeat the tired old line: "normal people don't notice a difference", but everyday Joe will notice the difference.

Well, since movie studios no longer project movies on actual film projectors, nor produce actual FILMS (movies shot on film, not digital), the cinema no longer has that advantage anymore either. It's really sad how fast it has devolved. I mean, even as a moviegoer I continuously see the play button triggered before my movie starts at a cinema. This is because the movie is being projected from a digital projector, but that digital projector is projecting DIRECTLY from a computer screen. So all that you are getting is a mediocre projector projecting the exact same picture you can get on your computer at home. 'Bu it's a big screen!!' Sit close enough to your monitor and you can get the same effect.

So in the end there's really no reason to go to the movie theater anymore if not merely for nostalgia, and as someone who works at a movie theater that is really scary.

The irony is that these movie theaters, and movie producers who have devolved into such methods as a way to save money, they will wind up making less money in the long term as their methods destroy the fundamental reasons for even spending money at a movie theater on movies — but the people who suffer most are the viewers. We're being cheated out of a quality artistic medium for B movies with cheesy narratives and acting, and mediocre camerawork.


"no one goes to a concert to be played an MP3 on a bare stage."

lol is Chris aware he just described like 75% of music festivals in 2014?

Vincent Marshall

Being an actual Joe Schmo living in Southwest Kansas I will say this: I have 5 kids and a wife so taking 7 of us to a movie together would mean we'd have to take out another mortgage on the house, so, with that said, going to a theater to watch a movie comes down to quality. We have not watched Transformers 3 nor do we plan on seeing Transformers 4 either in theater or VOD cuz they're terrible films. Instead we'll be seeing "Lucy." And cannot wait for "Interstellar!"

p.s. The only "Summer" movie we went to last year in a theater was a Retro-Night showcase of "Jaws." Again, quality not crappy.

Michael Morris

There should be at least 1 70mm projector (not IMAX) in every theater, and one or two 35mm projectors, as well as 1 xenon 16mm projector. Film is it's own experience when projected well, aside from the resolution wars. Theaters should be a part of their communities, encourage local filmmaking, host workshops, and have repatory programming. A city with a healthy cinephile culture will have much more longevity and sustainability for its theaters.


Seats with headphone jacks. That is what AMC needs to spend money on. For the millions of viewers like me who don't want to go to an opening weekend movie for fear of getting stuck next to ruffly-popcorn-bag guy. I would like to be plug-in-noise-cancelling-headphone guy and fear him no more. You'd still be able to feel the subs, it would be amazing. I'm being dead serious.


Cerebral communism, in that the platform of audience appreciation is equalizing to a shared level.
The intellects will argue over the rights of sharing or sacrificng the higher quality goods -films- for the poor and stupid.


"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"

This line is very telling. It's more than just the content, because people will pay for what they like. So, if the content is geared towards people who want to talk/text/hoot/holler ad nauseum in the theater that's who will go to the theater. Theater owners don't care because they rake in the cash and won't confront the "I paid for my ticket I can do what I want" mindset of many theater-goers. I guess what I am saying is that valuing the theatrical experience is a very subjective idea.

F Anne

No: he's right and quite very so. New producers are about content, and digital facilitates that. It's not 'the future', it's been decided and capitalised on to push 'all type of content' to 'all types of technology'. That's why digital has been chosen.

That and the meddling power of Sony, who wanted to make the big push from the doc and TV worlds into dominating cinema cameras. They led the push before others followed (with the exception of Canon, but that was never the intention but indie filmmakers found the 'loophole' and exploited that to make shorts, etc).

This all HAS AN EFFECT on cinema, which is about COMMON experience, shared in a dark room with others, watching a large screen surrounded by sound. That is cinema. Full stop. We filmmakers need to be making cinema, not content, and the mindset determines the outcome and the shape of what's made.

Ditching film in favour of digital because 'it's the future and we're all watching on our iPads now' type of nonsense talk is the mindset he's berating. And just because people are making good cinema on digital isn't the point either. It's the generational impact of such an 'ahh, ditch 35mm, ditch watching the film in the cinema, ditch this, ditch that' attitude has over time.

The 'we make cinema with digital' brigade are doing well, but they either started out with a cinema mindset (see Fincher, who now shoots digital because he does 37 takes of a comic book being dropped on a seat, and generally does many takes on purpose to 'empty' the actors' virtuosity and ego in performance – unless you're using digital for those reasons, you must question why to just copy him), or have been exclusively influenced by such (watching classics, which were constructed and work because they were created AS CINEMA).

A similar thing happened with Christian church. Community, looking to God for wisdom, reaching out to others beyond your own personal comfort zone: thats all replaced with narcissism and self determination. Me culture. Consumer pick-and-mix culture. We rejected Christianity because we don't get to pick and mix. We don't get to have it our way. We have to follow and pick up our crosses. Nah, sack that, I'll construct my Facebook wall.

The impact of both the 'we see it as content for all meduims' clan, mixed with the 'yeah, the future is digital, pass me my Netflix login sucker' could be that classic cinema (and it's enduring and timeless for a reason) as opposed to the reams of throw away blockbusters (compare the complete rave over Jaws to the onslaught of 'blockbuster' after 'blockbuster' today, they don't compare in impact and timelessness) gets lost.

It needs resurrecting. Go to the cinema. Put your bloody iPad or Netflix down and go SEE a film.

James M.

This is a familiar death knell that's been rung for years. I see Nolan's point, but also have to disagree that the picture is so bleak, especially in light of the fact that already this year I've had the great pleasure of seeing "The Grand Budapest Hotel," "Blue Ruin" and "The Rover," all in a movie theater.


There is one thing no one seems to want to touch on. The only reason movies are headed into this direction is because that is what a majority of the people want. Or seem to want. Hard working Americans who want to see a movie, don't want to think too hard on their free time. They want their entertainment easy. Unfortunately, I see that mindset with a lot of family and friends.


It's almost like people have convenient amnesia or something. Whining about how movies suck, that they're just product fodder, etc. So, I guess they must be forgetting all the great movies that come out EVERY YEAR that people then neglect (and no whining about living in a podunk town where they never show art movies, etc… I call BS on that in the 21st century). In 2013 alone there was: “Captain Phillips," “American Hustle," “12 Years a Slave," “Dallas Buyers Club," “Nebraska," “The Wolf of Wall Street," “Blue Jasmine," “Gravity," and that's just a handful of Oscar nominated movies that featured solid stories and characters, terrific acting, top-notch cinematography (yes, much of it (*gasp!*) digital), and excellent direction from some of the best living, breathing directors around. And that's not even counting little seen films like "The Act of Killing," "Her," "Before Midnight," "Inside Llewyn Davis," "Stories We Tell," and so MANY MANY others. And that's just a portion of what came out in the US in 2013. So, please, enough with the drama and grief over digital cinema and the quality of movies… most of it is pure bunk and histrionics over nothing.


I miss the old-school theatrical experience. Three screens tops, a single ticket vendor inside the sound proof box. Maybe two concession stand employees. These places still exist, barely. But for me the solution to the problem is to simplify. That will never happen, I'm sure as it is not the way of innovation.

The grandeur of the lobby withstanding, the less distractions the better. This was the reverence for cinema that made the price of admission worthwhile. All that was left was to settle in your seats and be plugged directly into the world of the film.


Meh… I love his work, but think all the moaning and groaning about digital cinema is overwrought… the future is digital, and shitting all over it just means he'll soon be eating his words. I still love his movies though. And they look GREAT projected digitally :)


The over-comfortable carbon-copy experiences at multiplexes I hope will will pop like a overinflated balloon, when audiences realize they're being dumbed down… It's really up to us to notice and stop creating a demand for better chairs and cheaper popcorn, when we're supposed to be part of the content conversation (at least!).


Right on the money. Unfortunately, I think the cinema going experience will be like going to Disneyland: Returning franchise sequels will be like going to a roller coaster ride you've taken hundred times before. Of course there will still be room for original, independently produced films, but the "window" is going to be very small. A bleak future indeed, Nolan.

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