The Best Way to Watch Movies: Can Home Viewing Really Ruin a Blockbuster?

If there's a right way to watch movies, is there also a wrong one? The IndieWire film team reflects on a viral tweet, and what it says about how we consume our content.
Dune Theater vs HBO Max
Warner Bros.

It started, as so many things do these days, with a tweet. Over the weekend, IndieWire’s own Anne Thompson took to social media to share a recent interaction regarding the consumption of Denis Villeneuve’s sci-fi epic, “Dune,” which finally arrived in both domestic theaters and streaming on HBO Max after a year of pandemic-pushed delays. Thompson tweeted, “A friend of mine admitted he stopped watching Dune on @hbomax after 90 minutes and I lost it. That’s only one part of what’s wrong with watching a $165-million space epic shot in IMAX with Dolby sound at home. You have to be immersed in something from start to finish.”

Inevitably, the tweet set off a firestorm of reactions, from those who agreed with the sentiment to those who very much did not. (One recurring theme: If a film is good enough, the manner in which it’s first seen doesn’t really matter.) Villeneuve has been one of the most vocal proponents of seeing the film in theaters, and the film’s big-time box office take over the weekend assures us that he’s not alone in his thinking. People wanted to see “Dune,” and they absolutely wanted to see it on the big screen.

But is that the “best way” to see a film? Is there any “best way” to see a film? And, perhaps most importantly, can a good film be ruined by the manner in which it’s shown? We took the question to some of IndieWire’s film staff to see if, beyond the wild milieu of Twitter, any sort of real consensus could possibly be reached.

Anne Thompson, Editor-at-Large: I watched the reaction to my tweet with fascination, because the range of responses revealed what is actually going on right now with movielovers. As I long ago predicted, they want the freedom to watch what they want, when they want. This is not news. After chewing out my friend at dinner on Saturday night, I apologized to him. He’s an indie writer-producer who often does not share my taste in movies. We fight about films all the time. A busy man, he chose not to pay to see “Dune” in a theater — or even to schlep to a Warner Bros. free screening on the Burbank Warner lot — but to see “Dune” at home instead, because he’s not a sci-fi fan and assumed he wouldn’t like it.

So why was I so angry? Because with a costly cinematic spectacular like “Dune,” created by artists at the top of their game, he shouldn’t have had that choice. It was too easy to just shut it off. By making “Dune” available day-and-date to monthly subscribers for no additional cost to watch at any time, WarnerMedia made the film less special. First, there’s a difference when you pay to see any show: You invest time and energy in an “event” you want to see, whether it’s baseball or theater or music or pay per view. That’s my argument. If there’s a limited time frame to watch something, you are going to sit up and take notice in a different way.

As Neon CEO Tom Quinn told me, “A one-size-fits-all approach to streaming and PVOD lacks nuance. The same price point doesn’t work for every movie. That commitment to buying one film for one price within a certain limited time is the same impulse to go see movies theatrically. Eliminating that type of transactional commitment where you can ask more from the audience ultimately changes what films can become, culturally and financially.”

“Dune”Legendary/Warner Bros.

Second, when you watch something at home, you can pause the film to go to the bathroom or the kitchen, take a call while watching, scroll through your phone when you get bored, or shut the thing off altogether. Right? Many people extol these freedoms as virtues, but for a movie like “Dune,” my friend should have been forced to pay to see it on premium video on demand. That way, he’d make a different choice of whether it was worth it to stay to the end.

The person who earns my ire is Jason Kilar at WarnerMedia, who insisted on making a unilateral decision without proper input from all parties that all Warner movies released in 2021, no matter how big or how small, should be released day-and-date in theaters and to HBO Max subscribers. As the angry Denis Villeneuve told me, “It’s a model that was designed to please Wall Street, because they like stability.”

I’m just as angry at Disney for putting Pixar movies like “Luca” directly onto the Disney+ streaming platform at no extra cost (for the same economic reasons), thus depriving struggling exhibitors of a lucrative family movie that could have generated hundreds of millions in revenue.

Watch a movie any way you want. But an epic like “Dune,” shot in IMAX in Dolby with Oscar-worthy visual effects, deserves to be seen, at first, by paying customers — who are far more likely to stay to the end and spread good word of mouth. The studios, in their rush to build subscribers, are throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

Dana Harris-Bridson, Editor-in-Chief: Watching any movie in IMAX is more visually impressive than watching it in a theater, which is more impressive than watching it at home where it’s on your TV or computer and you can stop at any point to take a phone call or have dinner or because you’re sleepy or bored.

The movie remains the same. If you like it, you’ll like it on any platform. You might wish you saw it on a bigger screen to capture its full scope, which only a giant screen can do, but there’s nothing wrong with seeing it anywhere you like. I will say that if a movie can only be appreciated for the two weeks it’s available in an IMAX theater, that’s a fair definition of planned obsolescence.

How to Watch ‘Luca’ on Disney Plus

This reminds me of the conversations in the early days of the internet, when people railed against reading news online and what we missed by not holding a newspaper or magazine. The focused attention, stumbling on smaller stories, even the smell of newsprint. All of that is true, but the internet happened anyway and news adapted. People did, too. Just as cars replaced horse-drawn buggies and as we’re more likely to Venmo than write a check, the more effective delivery system wins.

Streaming is the new normal. We lose things along the way, and we are dismayed when we find that things we took for granted are being replaced by nostalgia. The first time I saw “The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie,” it was on the late show with commercials. I watched it on a six-inch black-and-white TV screen and I had to keep the volume low because I was 12 and wasn’t supposed to be up, and I had to adjust the antenna for reception. I’ve seen it many times since on much nicer TVs, but I’ve never seen it in a theater. It’s still one of my Top 5 films.

Eric Kohn, Vice President, Editorial Strategy and Executive Editor: It’s not rocket science: Some movies demand the theatrical experience, but they should still be decent without it. With one caveat: You have to pay attention.

I keep going back to that moment during the 2008 Oscars when Jon Stewart claimed to be watching “Lawrence of Arabia” on his iPhone. The audience laughed because, of course, that’s a ridiculous proposition for a cinematic experience designed to make the most of a large frame. Even so, I think there is room to be both total purist and pragmatist on this issue. If you’ve seen a picture of The Sistine Chapel, you haven’t experienced its aesthetic splendor in all its detail, but you can still grasp many of the ingredients that contribute to its greatness. So it goes with movies designed for a theatrical framework.

Whether we’re talking about “Dune” or “Memoria,” the immersive audiovisual experience was designed for a presentation that most of us can’t have at home. Ultimately, you may be able to comprehend some of the ways in which these movies succeed on the small screen, but you aren’t fully aware of the work as it has been designed. If it’s your only option, though, make peace with it. “Dune” is still “Dune” on HBO Max, it’s just not as viscerally involving; “Memoria” is an immersive, meditational proposition no matter what, it’s just less likely to make a case for the slow-burn approach on a TV set.

Tilda Swinton in “Memoria”

And that points to a bigger issue at hand here: In the theater, filmmakers can utilize time as a central device; in the living room context, they lose that power due to the gazillion other distractions that creep into the environment. This is where The Sistine Chapel analogy reaches its limits: Every moment you look away from a movie to check your texts or look up an actor’s IMDb credits, you aren’t really watching the movie. The lack of theatrical components in a home viewing setup are unfortunate but not a dealbreaker; however, the potential to look elsewhere is a different story. Know your limits — if you can’t give a movie the attention you’d give it in a dark room, don’t even bother hitting play.

Bill Desowitz, Crafts Editor: For me, viewing a movie in a theater is total stimulation, whereas at home it tends to be more analytical. A large part of that has to do with the shared communal experience, of course, which adds a further emotional dimension. But it’s also scientifically proven that the brain becomes actively stimulated by the way the light bounces off the screen in a theater. At least that’s the case when projecting film. I’m not sure, though, if this active vs. passive comparison holds true of digital projection.

Yet, in my vast moviegoing experience, I’ve never enjoyed the same movie at home as much as in a theater. This became very apparent when attending UCLA and seeing original prints from the archive of some of my favorite movies on the big screen. It truly was like experiencing them for the first time, bigger than life. Similarly, when seeing “Casablanca” for the first time at a revival, I finally understood what all the fuss was about. The excitement from the audience was transcendent. So, for me, the return to theaters has been a godsend. In particular, “Dune” and “No Time to Die” in IMAX have been revelatory in terms of visual spectacle and emotional intimacy.

Tom Brueggemann, Box Office Editor: If IMAX is so essential to seeing the film, why will it only be available in that format for two weeks and then disappear perhaps forever? For nearly 70 years, directors have made films for multiple platforms, with, yes, theaters generally being the ideal one. But the vast majority of movies are now not seen in theaters by the public, across the board.

In the Twitter discussion, someone mentioned that recording artists — The Cars were specifically cited — insisted on testing their final product on car speakers so as to make sure the essence of what they wanted to convey came through even in lessened conditions. I have seen nearly all films I regard as great both on screen and at home. In some cases, at home first. I have detected no discernable difference in my reactions and comprehension between the two ways.

I am cynical (after all, I was a long-time exhibitor), but this cry about needing to see in premium formats feels like in part an attempt to push the public to buy more expensive tickets, thus raising the gross. If your film depends of some special extra elements (apart from 3D, which remains mostly an inartistic gimmick with few exceptions) that can be reasonably replicated at home under proper conditions, then my sense is, in more cases, it is lacking in other core elements far more important to making it decent.

Filmmakers like Villeneuve and Nolan who insist that their films need to be seen in theaters is, for me, is a red flag that what they offer is less than satisfying creativity, but rather the kinds of ramped-up technological stunts that pass for the real deal today, but actually come close to being anti-cinema in the ways past great directors understood it.

“Drive My Car”NEON

Christian Blauvelt, Managing Editor: The best movie I’ve seen this year was a three-hour emotional epic I watched on my laptop: Ryusuke Hamaguchi’s “Drive My Car,” which I just watched Saturday evening courtesy of a screener link. If a movie is truly great, it will hold your attention, and the world around you will fall away regardless of the circumstances in which you watch it. That is a high bar, though, and I can’t think of any other movie in the past couple years that’s been that purely transporting for me — where I didn’t feel like taking a break to check my email or Twitter. A movie has to be that good.

Watching a movie in a theater gives it the best possible chance to succeed. Whatever journey you have to take to get to the cinema — driving in my case, subway for others perhaps — adds a little cushion to the experience, much like how many people like commuting to work to add little bookends to the day. That alone separates the experience of watching a movie in a theater from the rest of your everyday experience. You get to your seat, you (hopefully) turn off your phone, and you open yourself up to being transported, to that glorious experience of losing your very being in a movie for a couple hours. That’s what a theater can provide, especially for a movie like “Dune” that depends so heavily on the idea of being transported to another world.

Can you get that experience watching it on HBO Max? Sure. But the potential for distraction rises a lot, while the potential for complete immersion goes down. If the movie is good enough, that shouldn’t matter. But “Dune” isn’t “Drive My Car.” “Dune” is closer to Scorsese’s idea of a theme park movie, something that relies a little more on its kinesthetic aspect.

Yeah, seeing it in a theater (for the first time) is the better way to see it, because the movie needs it for that initial overwhelming impact. It’s the difference between riding a roller coaster at an amusement park and watching a POV video of the experience of that roller coaster on YouTube. But for subsequent viewings? It should hold up on HBO Max.

A Warner Bros. release, “Dune” is now in theaters and, yes, streaming on HBO Max.

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