In an Era of Streaming, Cinema Is Under Attack
Seen any good movies lately? Seen any movies? Chances are you have — but maybe not in an actual theater. Americans used to adore going out to the movies, but that love has been on the rocks for decades. Once, the rival was television. Maybe it still is given that so much more of what’s produced specifically for the small screen seems so much more worthwhile (or at least watchable) than it once did. But the threat to movies appears more existential now, because the very digital revolution that has changed how movies are made has also changed how many of us watch them.
Movies are no longer only in theaters or living rooms, but also on our devices, streaming at us wherever and whenever we want them — that is, if the connection is good and you have access both to the Internet and to devices. (Less than half of lower-income households in the United States have Internet service at home.) But like every other digital advance, the on-demand era brings loss and anxiety in its wake, including whether movies — one of the defining mass arts of the 20th century — can continue to provide a communal experience. The chief film critics for The Times, Manohla Dargis and A. O. Scott, consider the state of moviegoing in an era of omnipresent screens.
MANOHLA DARGIS One of the big, possibly bad movie stories of the last few months has been Sean Parker and Prem Akkaraju’s proposed new venture, Screening Room, which would bring first-run movies into living rooms for $50 a pop for 48 hours, though customers would also have to pony up $150 for the device to stream these titles. A lot of the news stories on Screening Room have focused on the industry: Theater owners have given it the thumbs down, because it will cut into their business, as have those lovers of big-screen spectacle, Christopher Nolan and James Cameron. Those who support it include Steven Spielberg and, surprisingly, Martin Scorsese.
Right now, Screening Room sounds like a hustler’s dream, suitable mostly for agoraphobics and children’s birthday parties. But it is worrisome for what it suggests for cinema and its future. That may sound apocalyptic, but it’s not, given how fast movies zip from theaters to video on demand. It’s no wonder that the scholar David Bordwell has called the Screening Room idea “weaponized VOD.” Or that the Arthouse Convergence — a group representing more than 600 art-house cinemas and businesses — wrote an open letter that forcefully takes issue with this venture, arguing that it would devalue the in-theater experience and increase piracy. Put another way, it could destroy an entire segment of the industry — exhibition — and moviegoing itself.
A. O. SCOTT It’s been 20 years since Susan Sontag wrote that “no amount of mourning will revive the vanished rituals — erotic, ruminative — of the darkened theater.” Even then, before the arrival of the Netflix queue, moviegoing had, at least in the eyes of some cinephiles, lost its essential, sacred luster. For others, though, digital home viewing had the potential to usher in a new golden age. A decade after Sontag’s elegy, Roger Ebert hailed the DVD’s “incalculable value to those who love films.” It delivered “prints of such quality that the film can breathe before our eyes instead of merely surviving there.”
How quaint it all sounds. Ebert’s words testify to the lingering power of the old — digitally stored and projected motion pictures are technically neither “prints” nor “films” — and also to the speed with which the new passes into obsolescence. For the studios, DVDs were a boon to the bottom line, and to consumers they were collectible tokens of movie love. In any case, they didn’t last long and are now increasingly niche items rather than commodities for mass consumption. Why clutter your shelves with special editions of last year’s blockbusters when a whole mobile cinematheque is a few clicks and swipes away?
The deeper question, though, is whether the widespread, at-your-fingertips availability of movies is a blessing or a catastrophe or a little of both. Without wanting to play the devil’s advocate — or Sean Parker’s — I’m not entirely sure that streaming is necessarily an existential threat to moviegoing. Recent market research from the Motion Picture Association of America suggests that frequent moviegoers (defined as people who see a movie in a theater at least once a month) are more likely than their more casual counterparts to own gadgets like tablets or smartphones. And also, not to be completely heretical, what’s so sacred about “the darkened cinema” anyway?
It’s often idealized as a space of collective reverence and aesthetic bliss, where photochemical alchemy unfolds in room full of worshipers. But how often does that really happen? Most of the time aren’t we just eating unhealthy snacks and watching a digital file in obnoxious company? Couldn’t we just do that at home?
DARGIS It’s nice that we can pay five bucks to stream a crummy studio movie that looked too awful to leave the house for, I suppose, but I had superior, more interesting choices at my local video stores than I do with Netflix streaming (no Douglas Sirk!) or even Amazon. If you want to stream nonindustrial product, you often need to do time-consuming digging online. And even if you do, you will never find the online equivalent of a Kim’s Video — the extraordinary New York home-video emporium that closed in 2014 — because part of what made it great was being in that store with other people.
The key word here is people. After all, what makes movies a mass art is that they are made on a mass scale for a mass audience, which is true even for work that’s largely exhibited on the festival and art-cinema circuit. What happens to that art when we begin to remove, well, people from part of the equation? What happens to its democratic promise, which may be a fantasy at best, a lie at worst, but remains nonetheless? When I think about Mr. Parker’s Screening Room, I flash on the image of Howard Hughes in Mr. Scorsese’s film “The Aviator,” watching films all alone in his private theater, safely isolated from the contamination known as other human beings.
For some, part of the allure of Screening Room, clearly, is that it would allow them to see first-run titles in Hughes-like isolation. There seems to be a high level of dissatisfaction with moviegoing, much of it focused on other people’s behavior, including texting. This brings to mind the days of early cinema, when theaters issued audiences dos and don’ts like take off your hats, don’t spit, don’t talk. (D. W. Griffith even made a film mocking women’s haberdashery: “Those Awful Hats.”)
But theaters aren’t monasteries, and while some movies are better watched in shared, relative quiet, others are better suited to the call-and-response of the volubly engaged audience. And quiet doesn’t mean dead. There’s something unsettling about the fetish of silence that certain moviegoers insist on. It’s partly symptomatic of a kind of art-film preciousness — shh, we’re watching art here — but also of people habituated to viewing images at home, where you can view in silence or while in full yammer. At home, we have control, not so in movie theaters, where our individual wants and needs must accommodate those of other people.
SCOTT Like the movies themselves, moviegoing has changed dramatically from one decade to the next. The nickelodeons of the earliest days gave way to movie palaces, which were supplemented by humbler main-street Bijoux and Roxys. In the ’30s, the major home-entertainment platforms were radio and the upright piano in the parlor, and movies offered a cheap, accessible and climate-controlled escape. And millions of people went often, less out of reverence than out of habit, returning every week to take in double features, shorts and serials, newsreels and cartoons. Cinema in its Classical Age was also destination television.
In the postwar years, the rise of car culture and the growth of the suburbs planted drive-ins in wide-open spaces, while grindhouses, art houses and campus film societies flourished in the cities and college towns. Moviegoing has never been just one thing.
And people are still doing it! The M.P.A.A. notes that theater attendance increased by around 4 percent in North America in 2015, after wobbling and dipping in the previous few years. The highly scientific explanation for this, as you and I have discussed, is that the studios released a lot of movies that people were eager to leave the house to see, including “Jurassic World,” “Trainwreck,” “Straight Outta Compton” and “Inside Out.”
On a recent Saturday in Lower Manhattan, I bought a ticket to see a 35-millimeter print of an old movie (“The Big Clock”) at a brand-new theater (the Metrograph) staffed by eager youngsters sporting vintage threads and fresh tattoos. The popcorn was organically grown; the Milk Duds ethically sourced. There was a degree of self-conscious retro-ness to the experience that I found bittersweet, because it was inspired by someone else’s nostalgia for something I knew firsthand. At the other extreme, a few months back, I attended a “premiere” of a virtual reality “film” at which people were seated in rows with goggles pressed to their eyes, each one nodding and twisting in a private reverie. Sometimes I feel whipsawed between the future and the past. I like going to the movies. I like reading books on paper and listening to music on vinyl. I also enjoy the modern world, and I’m always curious as well as worried about where it’s headed.
DARGIS One doesn’t need to be an alarmist or a nostalgist to know that there’s much about the contemporary art and industry to be concerned about. The major players have forced the industry to shift from film to digital, and now, courtesy of Screening Room, they are flirting with an idea that could irreparably damage theaters and perhaps endanger the theatrical experience and the art both. I don’t think that will happen — as we know from the Metrograph and theaters like the Cinefamily in Los Angeles — there is an audience (and a young one) willing to leave the house to watch movies.
Still, the notion that moviegoing could become a specialized pursuit for certain knowing audiences — like going to a jazz club — is bleak. Many more people watch movies than listen to jazz and always will. But it’s also true that a lot of what we watch, including in movie theaters, is television. Some of this is good television, much of it is mediocre, but it is television in that it has been produced, big yakking heads and all, to be viewed on small (home) screens. This isn’t about movies versus television and whether one is superior to the other (the mediums have long influenced each other). It’s about larger, more difficult questions: What happens to movies if they are made to be watched only at home? Isn’t that television? What, then, is the cinematic? Because, in some important ways (including experientially), television is closer kin to radio than to cinema.
SCOTT Interesting that you bring up radio, a medium that, like the movies, is believed to be wobbling toward extinction, undone by streaming services and podcasting. Movies and radio are the twin progenitors of the modernity we inhabit. Radio got the world hooked on recorded music and the sounds of strangers’ voices in our private spaces. Movies begat our addiction to screens. And both seem to be in danger of being devoured by their offspring, by the power of the appetites they unleashed.
We’re increasingly able to bring the movies home, and also to bring the comforts of home with us wherever we go. Moviegoing is not what it used to be, for sure, but I suspect it will flourish as long as it answers to the primal human urge to get out of the house.