Call for Comments: Streaming and the Death of Cinema?

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.

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6 Replies to “Call for Comments: Streaming and the Death of Cinema?”

  1. I like the theater experience, but I can’t really put into words why. Part of it is experiencing the same reactions as an entire crowd of people (most of which are strangers). That adds something. I’m not entirely sure what, but it is emotional and visceral, especially when an entire audience gasps or laughs at basically the same time.

  2. I have no special love for theatres and prefer streaming watching it at home with my dogs. If a worthwhile film went straight to video or streaming, it should certainly be able to be considered as Spielberg said.

  3. There’s a lot to be said about a movie at home, you can wear (or not wear) whatever you want, start it whenever you want, pause it if you need to refill your drinks or snacks or to take a bathroom break, you can pause it for an emotional break or fast forward through rough scenes. You can rewind to rewatch something you missed or simply want to see again. Closed captioning if you enjoy or need that and no worries about talkative people in the theater (unless you’re watching with talkative people in your home, in which case you can kick them out).

    But for all those positives and the ones I didn’t mention, there’s still some things that are missing. Screen size for one, few of us are lucky enough to have a theater size screen at home, and I personally do enjoy the big screen. More importantly, the sound. As great as your surround sound may be, it’s unlikely to be as good as modern theater sound. And finally, there’s the fun of just getting out of the house. Sure, going by yourself like I did just hours ago for Captain Marvel isn’t necessarily exciting, but going out to the theater on a date or with a group of friends is so much better than just sitting around the house with a movie, in my opinion at least.

    There was a time when theaters were artistically designed and beautiful, when we (well those old enough to have enjoyed that era) would dress up to go out to a night at the movies. I don’t know that we necessarily need to be watching movies in suits again, but I do think we take movies too much for granted these days and should really enjoy the event of going to the theater more.

  4. We go to the movies a lot more since the theater with the giant screen and cushy seats moved in 5min from our house. If the movie will benefit from giant visuals or giant sound it’s generally a good deal. I can’t be bothered to set up my TV in this way by myself. It’s just too much trouble.

    That said I probably watch as many movies on my laptop as on bigger screens. It’s also too much trouble, in general, to work out an effective way to get the movie bits from the streaming tubes to the TV. On the laptop it’s a no brainer. So when I’m being lazy at home I go for maximum lazy.

    Movies in recent memory that I’m glad I bothered to see large: Roma, Apollo 11, Gravity, John Wick, Arrival, Last Jedi, maybe Blade Runner… and reaching back to films where this would not yet have been an issue: The Matrix, Being John Malkovich, Ocean’s 11 (new one), Crouching Tiger, Fellowship of the Ring.

    While we’ve seen many of the recent comic book movies large, I’m not convinced they really need it. The MCU seems to be a machine that creates a giant spectacle for the senses that is almost completely empty of any real emotional content. YMMV.

    I’m not sure how this all plays out. Recent trends seem to be saturating the theaters with big loud mindless movies and putting any material with dialog into TV shows or Netflix. I’d be a little sad if that evolved to its logical conclusion. There is so much more to the world than the MCU and Star Wars. But oh well.

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