Thursday, April 21, 2011

The Long Goodbye to Movie Theatres?

The interior of Manhattan's Zeigfeld Theatre
There's an article over at Entertainment Weekly talking about how a group of A-List Hollywood directors have recently released a letter decrying the recent deal struck between some studios and DirecTV.

The deal basically allows DirecTV to release films for viewing to its VOD customers as soon as eight weeks after the films' release in theatres. Currently, most films are available to VOD services four months after their theatrical release. Yesterday, the National Association of Theatre Owners sent out an open letter blasting the studios involved in the deal, and the letter was signed by a group of film makers that included James Cameron, Peter Jackson, Michael Bay, Guillermo del Toro, Kathryn Bigelow, Robert Rodriguez, and others.

The letter says, in part: Major studios are struggling to replace the revenue lost by the declining value of DVD transactions. Low cost rentals and subscriptions are undermining higher priced DVD sales and rentals. But the problem of declining revenue in home video will not be solved by importing into the theatrical window a distribution model that cannibalizes theatrical ticket sales.

It goes on to warn that this action may force the closure of movie theatres: The competition for those screens that remain will become that much more intense, foreclosing all but the most commercial movies from theatrical release. Specialty films whose success depends on platform releases that slowly build in awareness would be severely threatened under this new model. Careers that are built on the risks that can be taken with lower budget films may never have the chance to blossom under this cutthroat new model.

I think this a fairly stunning act of solidarity. The film makers, form what I can see, are trying to not only prevent a move away from theatres that could see a great many of them go under, but they also are taking a stand regarding the ideal way they want people to experience their films. They are talking about the value of exhibiting films in theatres, not just in dollars, but in terms of the experience of being an audience member.

I thought most people would applaud the sentiment, but the posts I’m reading on message boards seem to trend towards contempt for the directors. They think it's ploy by them to get money, or that because they're wealthy they have no valid opinion. Case in point:

Dear Hollywood-

You work for us! We don’t work for you! If you want more people to watch your movies Work harder at making the movies GOOD.
Stop being lazy and letting your egos convince you that you are important and that people should be watching your crap.
Why don’t you come to my house, pay me $13, and watch my home movies. They are better than a lot of your films. Any filmmaker could take $200 million and create a film that is better than Avatar.

Portland's Bagdad Theatre
Here's my thing. This has nothing to do with how much money the directors will get paid. They'll get big bucks whether their movies are shown in a theatre, on demand, or projected on a sheet in an outdoor theatre in Mexico. This has to do with two things; ensuring there's still a market that allows small, risky, personal films to get made, and ensuring that films are still shown in the way they were designed to be shown, that is, in a movie theatre.

I complain about going to see movies in the theatre a lot. I hate it when people talk during the movie. I hate it when people text or take phone calls. But seeing the Millennium Falcon make the jump to hyperspace on the best flat screen with surround sound system in the world doesn't hold a candle to seeing it happen in a crowded movie theatre. Seeing a great comedy in a packed theatre is infinitely more rewarding than seeing it at home, alone. Even seeing a small indie drama packs a greater punch when you sit in a darkened theatre and give yourself over to the film.

To me, this whole issue is a symptom of the larger problem. We are, through our amazing technologies, isolating ourselves more and more. The act of seeing a film in a theatre used to be a communal experience. We would go as group and share a collective emotional catharsis. And the fact that we were in a large group could enrich the effect of the film, or play, or ballet, or opera. And the behaviour of people in theatres that I now find so objectionable, this stems largely from the fact that we are creating a civilization of people that have no idea how to behave around other people. We are losing our ability to be considerate, to have empathy, to simply put ourselves in the other guy's shoes. And when that goes, then how long will it be before we lose our ability to have the kind of emotional catharsis that all art depends on?

If movie theatres finally go the way of the dodo, then we are that much closer to becoming a completely insular, self-interested society. To me, the whole idea of film is to allow us to feel something, be it wonder, fear, joy, thrills or sadness. Cutting ourselves off from each other more and more may mean that we will feel less and less.

Me? I'll still stand in line at the box office.

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