From Mav: Back on our Oscars show, we talked a little bit about the movie Roma and what it would mean for the film industry if they allowed it to win best picture (they didn’t). Last week rumors surfaced that Steven Spielberg is petitioning the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences to change the rules regarding how long a film must stay in theaters to be Oscarworthy. At least that’s the story that broke; Spielberg is sort of maybe denying he is doing this. Nothing is quite clear and I have complicated feelings on the entire issue anyway. BUT it does raise kind of another question. Why do we still care about “movies in theaters” anyway?
Or do we?
I’m not talking about the Academy here. And I’m not talking about for winning an Oscar. What I’m really wondering is what do you look for in a movie experience? There’s a lot of talk that the “cinema experience is dying.” With stuff like Roma coming out on Netflix and being available in the home the day of its release there’s the obvious question of “why go to the theater at all?” Research shows that the average American adult goes to the theater to see about 4-5 movies per year. Nearly 60% of Americans claim that they actually PREFER to watch films in the privacy of their own homes.But on the other hand, despite claims that movie attendance is down, big Hollywood blockbusters are making more money than ever. Partly from inflation, but also, the theaters are just packed. At least for the big movies.
So my question is, why is that? Why do people still go to movies? I can think of several possible reasons. Film enthusiasts (including people like Spielberg) will tell you that the reason that the cinema must continue is that the director, as an artist, envisioned the film to be displayed on a big screen and that in order to get the full enjoyment of the piece you must experience it that way. And part of me believes that. There’s definitely an excitement factor to seeing big budget movies like the MCU stuff that way because it looks more impressive than it does even on my big screen TV. And that also goes for more niche films that still have visually spectacular cinematography, like The Favourite. But honestly, for most films that I see, even as a film snob, I can’t say that they’re appreciably improved by the a 40 foot screen anymore than they would be on my 6 inch phone screen. I could pretend that there was a lot of visual nuance to Happy Death Day 2U that required a cinema experience but I’d just be being snobby… and really, if someone WANTS to watch Blade Runner on a smartphone, who am I to rob them of that? The Mona Lisa isn’t displayed how it was “meant to be seen” and I’ve never seen it in the Louvre either. But that doesn’t mean I can’t enjoy it. Isn’t forcing someone to enjoy a film the way YOU want them to (even if you are the director) essentially negating their agency to enjoy it?
At some level, it’s about the SPOILER culture. We talked about this on our Spoilers and Mystery Boxes episode. A lot of movies, especially blockbuster franchises like MCU and Star Wars are now relying on this. So much so that with films like this weekend’s Captain Marvel, promotional material has gone out of its way to protect the names of the characters that certain actors known to be int he cast are portraying. And I get it. the reason that I make sure I see all big films like this opening weekend is that I don’t want some asshole on the internet telling me what the secret is in a meme. But once you get to that level, aren’t we just talking marketing tricks and not film artistry. I maintain that Usual Suspects and Citizen Kane are great films in that, all these years later, I enjoy watching the mystery unfold even though I know the answer… something I can’t say about The Sixth Sense. And I’m perfectly happy to watch those films that I enjoy on my TV screen at home (though I also would enjoy the chance to see them on the big screen again… but that’s special to me). So if a couple doesn’t want to pay a babysitter $50 and the theater another $30 for tickets and $10 for popcorn just for the hassle of leaving their house and driving somewhere else to discover exactly what the contrived storyline reason why Brie Larson’s character hasn’t been in all of the other MCU movies over the last decade even though she apparently predates them when they could just as easily wait 3 months and watch it in their underwear from the privacy of their own could for $2.99… well, I get it.
On the other hand, I’ve heard some people argue that the best solution is just to lean into this. Maybe all movies should be released day and date to both streaming and theaters. Or at least all non-blockbusters. Obviously, your billion dollar franchises would probably make less money this way (and if you don’t think so… you’re wrong…) but what about your smaller movies. The Favourite only had a US box office gross of $33M in its whole run. Happy Death Day 2U is currently sitting on about $26M and running out of steam. Would their financial grosses really have been terribly adversely affected by being offered day and date for streaming when they first came out? Is it possible that they could have made even more money? That’s what Netflix is claiming with Roma. Of course, it’s hard to tell because they won’t tell anyone how much money it did make.
So how often do you go to the movies? Is there something about the experience you particularly enjoy? Is there something I’m missing, like the camaraderie that comes with seeing the film in a crowd? Does the kind of movie you’re seeing matter? Or is this just an aspect of a culture born of necessity a century ago and it’s time that the whole thing goes by the wayside and embraces the future of handheld technology? Are we seeing the death of the cinema the way we have seen the death of the radio play or will it just have to distinguish itself as a unique niche art form the way the stage play did when cinema rose to challenge it in the first place. Let us know your thoughts.