A decade ago, within the special features for “Inland Empire,” David Lynch took aim at the then-newly launched iPhone: “It’s such a sadness that you think you’ve seen a film on your fucking telephone,” he said. “Get real.”
Ten years later, the simmering tensions between filmmakers of a certain age and the changing facets of the distribution landscape have come to a head, raising concerns about whether moviegoing audiences have any future at all.
The consternation and division has become pervasive in the film community. In “The Mule,” Clint Eastwood growls more than once about how often the younger generation vanishes into its phones; while Eastwood’s 90-year-old horticulturalist-turned-smuggler struggles to comprehend text messages, more than one distracted character gazes into miniature screens as if the real world held no consequence. After a year of debate about its theatrical prospects, “Roma” landed on Netflix, where users can conjure the immersive big-screen accomplishment in their palms, which content chief Ted Sarandos defended as a viable approach. Steven Spielberg suggested that Netflix movies essentially amounted to television.
The convenience of a handheld device with access to every facet of daily communication and cultural experience has become a living paradox, drawing filmmakers into its potential and generating repulsion at the diminutive end result. However, all the whining about screen sizes obscures a far more consequential shift. At the root of this cultural debate is an ongoing conflation of how movies are experienced and the way audiences relate to the art form.
Movies are traditionally understood as grand communal experiences, discovered by viewers in theaters around the world through our collective definition of how they’re best experienced. Today, all viewers have homegrown filters for experiencing the world, and that impacts the way cinema is understood. The ubiquity of moving images on personal devices doesn’t just mean movies compete with other media; they’re processed as one option in a sea of possible distractions. In that climate, cinema has to prove its worth over and over again.
Paul Schrader sounded the alarm: “When people take movies seriously, it’s very easy to make a serious movie,” he said earlier this year. “When they don’t take it seriously, it’s very, very hard. We now have audiences that don’t take movies seriously, so it’s hard to make a serious movie for them. It’s not that us filmmakers are letting you down, it’s you audiences are letting us down.” However, Schrader ignores the possibility that serious audiences haven’t gone away; they’ve merely splintered off into an endless spiral of new possibilities.
In fact, serious movie buffs are more visible and engaged with the medium than ever before. From Twitter to Letterboxd, discourse on movies percolates in broader, deeper ways unthinkable 15 years ago. While the death of FilmStruck devastated some engaged subscribers, committed viewers know how to seek out unique viewing experiences online, in their hometowns, or on the road. The metrics for audience engagement have become too fragmented to assess as a singular entity; cinephilia exists in multitudes.
The phone-or-theater debate amounts to a giant red herring: Theaters will probably survive the next decade, even as they become a more rarified option. Whether or not they remain the ideal outlet runs secondary to what moviegoers choose to watch at all.
Of course, every generation assumes superiority over the one that follows it, so it was only a matter of time before the act of cultural consumption faced an existential reckoning. Movies may not be the preeminent artform of the 21st century, but they remain an appealing option as long as audiences know where to look. A few years ago, this may have sounded like a dystopian assessment, but it’s now the standard coming-of-age process: Younger viewers are creatures of algorithms, but as they age they become more aware of options beyond what machines tell them to do.
Computer code didn’t lead audiences to celebrate “Black Panther” in droves; that came from genuine enthusiasm. A similar impulse led to the cult phenomenon of “Mandy,” which was dumped onto VOD, but still found audiences who wanted a singular viewing experience and made the effort to track it down. And that’s why Schrader’s “First Reformed,” which was also initially set for a day-and-date release, thrived across the country as viewers made a conscious decision to seek it out. Audiences aren’t getting dumber; they’re just overwhelmed with options, and keen on any opportunity to sort through the mess — whether it comes from the upcoming subscriber-based Criterion Channel or the programming at Metrograph.
As the second decade of the 21st century enters its final stage, the currency of curation remains an open question in an age of rampant mechanized recommendations. It sounds creepy, but there’s reason for hope because curation can make a difference. There’s no question that the intellectual process of choosing the best options from a bottomless sea of possibilities is the superior route — whether that means encouraging audiences to go theaters, or watch movies on their fucking telephones.