What does the word “cinema” evoke in you?
I’m going to take an educated guess: your mind wanders to a fantastical Hollywood setting where ladies and gentlemen of grandeur line the rows of a gold-trimmed theatre. They sit in silent admiration of the film they’re watching, only breaking into applause as the credits roll. Perhaps there’s an orchestra providing swelling accompaniment. In any regard, it’s a classically classy occasion.
This paints a picture of a time when going to the movies was a big to-do. It wouldn’t have been too unlike going to a Broadway play.
The heyday of the theater-going experience I just described is nothing like that which we experience today. Theaters are, on average, nondescript boxes with worn-out seats packed tightly into rows for maximum capacity. You have to sit through insufferable advertisement-driven “pre-shows” to then be further advertised to for twenty minutes through trailers before finally getting to watch what you paid for. By that point you just feel fed up and taken advantage of.
I’m not saying the pomp and circumstance of yesteryear is necessary. For many years after movie theaters became a commodity they remained a crucial and quality part of the film-viewing experience. For one, the big screen dwarfed what you’d have at home (where you’d likely be watching movies letterboxed on a CRT display). You also wouldn’t have minded the trailers as much because without the internet you’d likely be seeing them for the first time. And it’s just that, the internet, that’s the catalyst for what’s changed in the past decade.
We’re buried in content these days which means we have endless options. The inconvenience of going to a theater compared to streaming a movie instantly from your couch has kept audiences home more and more, as seen by steadily declining box office sales. You may also notice from this statistics that you’re paying more than ever to compensate for it. Meanwhile, theaters are doubling down on pre-show advertisements more than ever to create a diluted experience that’s somehow more expensive than ever anyway. It’s not uncommon for me to pay upwards of $16 for a ticket in New York City, which is crazy to me.
The experience you’re paying these high prices for is often far inferior to what you’d get at home. For example, you could end up with a botched projection. The Canipa Effect recently tweeted an image of the subtitles being cut off in his screening of Sword Art Online: Ordinal Scale, which seemed to prompt a friend of his to leave the theater to get assistance. While the problem was likely fixed, the fact is that this mishap wouldn’t happen in your own home, and if it did you could just rewind the film. I won’t speak for Canipa but if this was my own experience it would’ve impacted my ability to enjoy the film (chalk that up to my OCD, I suppose).
But perhaps even more unfortunate is that people simply don’t value the moviegoing experience as much anymore. I’ve recently been to multiple screenings with talkative crowds but by far the most egregious was that for the recent “horror-light” flick Get Out. It baffled me how little regard people had for the film they paid to see. First you had a guy who insisted on talking on the phone through the first thirty minutes of the film which resulted in a near-fight between him and another audience member. Soon after this began a beat-by-beat commentary of the film by the person next to me. Add to that the natural noise made by those around you plus inopportune reactions (people laughing at the graphic violence kinda ruins the thing) and you’ve got a recipe for constant immersion-breaking. Film is a passive medium that you give yourself over to for a few hours but these distractions prevent that.
And you know what? While I think it was pretty inconsiderate of those people to act the way they did, I also know it’s a symptom of people not appreciating film in the same way they once did. Streaming has commoditized film to the point of being disposable. New media such as YouTube and Twitch are often more appealing prospects to younger generations. This isn’t to say that people don’t go to movies at the theater with the intention of not appreciating them but the mentality of media being disposable carries over whether intentional or not.
It does sadden me as somebody who went to school to write screenplays and still hopes to one day “make it” in the film industry (my ambitions are many to a fault). It’s an art form I hold in the highest regard and as such end up in denial of people losing interest in it. However, it’s increasingly difficult to remain willfully ignorant. As nearly every other visual medium is growing, film is becoming seen as antiquated. New blockbusters are increasingly cynical and, again, a commodity. There will always be those like myself who appreciate quality filmmaking but the general audience are content showing up for the latest superhero romp and calling it a day, even if they’re watching the same stories play out again and again.
I want to make it clear that I don’t begrudge people for this despite what my film school stereotype might lead you to believe. It’s just that the prospect of going to the theater for anything that I’m not dying to see is becoming increasingly diminished. It’s just not worth the price for what could end up being an inferior experience to watching at home. In fact, it’s almost antithetical that I’d be more willing to go see the films I cared about at the theater. Sure, seeing them on the big screen is a thrill but the potential tradeoff isn’t worth having my enjoyment hindered.
So, where do we go from here? The answer is obvious to me and I wish was obvious to the industry: studios should be offering a streaming alternative to new movie releases. I’d happily pay the ticket price to watch a film the way I want to (at home), when I want to (whenever). No more having to schedule around a specific time. No more having to leave the house at all (okay, maybe this is an upside of the theater, getting me out of my hidey hole).
And wouldn’t that be financially better? It removes the barrier for people who don’t want to go to the theater or can’t find the time, and the studio’s cut of the profit would likely be higher by cutting out the middle man. In all fairness this approach has been toyed with over the past few years for niche releases but mostly abandoned by studios. As such, I’m sure there are business ramifications I’m not considering or aware of but ultimately this needs to be figured out to secure a place for film in the future. And that future is now. This is the type of move that the industry needs to embrace in order to remain relevant.
Alright, a few more jabs at the theater experience before I go: you can end up with a bad sightline. If you need to go to the bathroom in the middle of the film you’re screwed whereas at home you could pause it. Sometimes the theater smells like popcorn butter. There are other people there. (But it’s also okay sometimes I guess.)
Box office numbers will only continue to decline as people decide watching at home is a better experience and you can’t really blame them because honestly: going to the movie theater these days just sucks like 80% of the time. At least for anything that isn’t a special screening where audiences are generally better.
I can only hope that the industry can find new avenues for film to prosper.
The real takeaway? I’m a grumpy film purist who wants nothing but the perfect experience. I’m sure you’re rolling your eyes at this point. I probably deserve it. This whole thing was an exercise in pure pretentiousness on a scale this blog has never seen before. I’ll own it.
On a more important note, please let me know what you think of this stream-of-consciousness format. This is barely edited for content or coherence. I just kind of let it out without a filter. I can more easily produce these alongside more stringently edited content.
UPDATE: I wrote some follow-up points to this piece on my Twitter. You can find the thread here.