Last week, writer Bob Lefsetz posited that the "heinous" experience of going to movie theaters was going to signal the end of the film industry as you've come to know it. "Forget the lack of focus and the sticky floors, what I hate most about the theatres is the other patrons," wrote Lefsetz in his newsletter The Lefsetz Letter. "Who talk and text and think they're in their living rooms. Hell, that's why I want to stay home. If you're a teen and you want to neck, if you want to get out of your parents' purview, I get it. Or if you're a couple with young children. But most of us have first rate exhibition systems in our homes. We'd rather see the movies at home." Well, not everyone wants to see movies at home; just ask New Yorker film critic Anthony Lane.
Buried in his pans of 'Tower Heist' and 'Melancholia,' Lane writes in this week's edition of The New Yorker that home theaters are an "oxymoron" and could forever change the way you consume movies... for the worse.
As you pause your film to answer the door or fetch a Coke, the experience ceases to be cinema. Even the act of choosing when to watch means you are no longer at the movies. Choice-preferably an exhaustive menu of it-pretty much defines our status as consumers, and has long been an unquestioned tenet of the capitalist feast, but in fact carte blanche is no way to run a cultural life (or any kind of life, for that matter), and one thing that has nourished the theatrical experience, from the Athens of Aeschylus to the multiplex, is the element of compulsion. Someone else decides when the show will start; we may decide whether to attend, but, once we take our seats, we join the ride and surrender our will. The same goes for the folks around us, whom we do not know, and whom we resemble only in our private desire to know more of what will unfold in public, on the stage or screen. We are strangers in communion, and, once that pact of the intimate and the populous is snapped, the charm is gone. Our revels now are ended.
As Lane notes, Universal had planned to release 'Tower Heist' to Atlanta, Ga. and Portland, Ore. residents three weeks after its theatrical debut via on demand as part of a test-run to see if VOD formats were viable for first-run features. The National Association of Theater Owners complained loudly about this tactic and the studio relented, but don't think it will be long before someone else tries a similar release pattern.
Download a Ben Stiller movie in Atlanta, and you wind up, a few years later, with a nation of vacant auditoriums. Moviegoers will still watch movies; they just won't go.

"Can you blame us?" they will cry. "Who wants to pay for a sitter, drive twenty miles in the rain, and sit in a fug of vaporized popcorn butter next to people who are either auditioning for 'Contagion 2' or texting the Mahabharata to their second-best friends?" And the answer is: me. I'm with NATO on this, all the more tenaciously because we will, in the final reckoning, lose. Universal actually backed down in the scrap over "Tower Heist" and cancelled the VOD release, but, like other studios, it will surely return to the fray. And the outcome? Showmen like James Cameron, I suspect, will continue to haul us off our couches for the grand, marquee events, but smaller fare may be streamed to us direct, and new films whittled down into just another channel on TV.

Of course what Lane sees as an end-of-days moment for Hollywood, some filmmakers see as an opportunity. During an Advertising Week panel earlier this month about the future of the film industry, Edward Burns praised the advent of VOD options.

"The audience just isn't going to the art house theater in the same numbers that they used to," Burns said. "In 1995 when I got into the business, on a Tuesday night, there weren't a helluva lot of options for you. You'd go down to the Angelika [in Manhattan] to see what was playing. Now on a Tuesday night, on VOD, you have incredibly programming from cable television. You have all of these things that didn't exist: movies available on iTunes, Facebook. It's much harder to find an audience."

VOD is a way to find that audience -- and if it comes with a less-heinous watching experience for the viewer, isn't that a good thing? Perhaps, perhaps not. Lane is right when he states that there is something special about going to a theater to watch a movie with a bunch of strangers, but too often that experience is far from perfect. And with rising costs and less disposable income and free time, don't audiences deserve something close to perfection from the experience -- especially when the product is so often not?

[via The New Yorker]

[Photo Alamy]


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