The Slow Death of Cinema

These days I’m down on cinema, so it’s probably not the best time to be interviewed on the topic. But I was, by two journalists (Cody Benjamin and Chris Hayes) for their upcoming book: What About the Movies? Exploring Cinema’s Place in a World Full of Screens, Streams, and Smartphones (March 2020). And given permission to post the full interview here.

What is it about movies — both past and present — that you believe makes them so captivating, especially in comparison to other media?

Since the first moving picture of a stream train chugging silently right past a camera spooked French audiences in 1895 [L’arrivée d’un train en gare de La Ciotat], film has been intense, immersive, and thrilling. Our movies are much longer, louder, and complex. And the movie industry has become a dominant center of our cultural mythologies (The Avengers, Transformers, Star Wars, etc.). CGI and 3D and surround sound have all caught up to the imagination of the myth-makers, bringing to life imaginary worlds, amplifying those worlds to truly superhuman proportions.

Countless people in and around the movie industry point to two main reasons for the theater’s longstanding relevance — (1) its tech-fueled experience, which you can get at home (big screen, surround sound, etc.) and (2) its physical, communal space. Do you foresee those factors maintaining their influence amid today’s media landscape? Why or why not?

Once subwoofers, surround sound, and 60-inch TVs moved into the home, the personal theater was destined to become the epicenter of video consumption and the cinema was doomed to stagnation, now reflected in domestic profit growth lagging behind overall economic growth. Theaters have tried to incorporate 3D and various digital surround systems with proprietary names. But to this point most of the technologies that attract moviegoers into the cinema can be replicated at home to significant effect.

For cinemas to break from this stagnation they will be forced to incorporate more and more extraneous value-adds: Freestyle touchscreen soda machines, foodie-level dining delivered to your seat, over-21 screens with alcohol and waiters walking through aisles of La-Z-Boys with electric recliners. New ways of attracting moviegoers will have less to do with the movies themselves or A/V advances.

Would you go so far as to suggest that physically going to the movies (where we are prompted to “disconnect” and focus our attention on what’s literally in front of us) could be beneficial to our health, at least in some senses? Why or why not?

Movie theaters are public entertainment, like major sporting events. I don’t see any inherent virtue in them. I guess the question would be which setting fosters greater personal interaction to love others, and for me personally I know my experience with my family is that we typically feel more together at home, pausing for breaks, and talking about things immediately. For obvious reasons a theater intentionally stifles conversation, so we try to hold off our thoughts until we can get to a local restaurant in order to talk over what we just ingested whole. I do think there’s advantages to going to the theater on special occasions, but I engage with others more at home.

Being someone who’s researched and reported on digital media, technology, etc., what do you believe are the biggest pros and cons of theater-going, both in general and in comparison to at-home, on-demand media consumption?

The biggest cultural con is that theaters have notoriously been targeted by agents of mass violence. It’s really hard to break that stigma.

I think theaters will thrive around major holidays, with families seeking to go out and see new blockbuster releases together. Otherwise apart from pretty significant changes and adaptations to food culture, I don’t know if the theater will thrive, and if they do survive I don’t see them again claiming a cultural center like they once did as anchors in the golden age of the mall.

Looking at the movie theater industry from afar, what do you believe are some of the most promising signs of its survival/future success?

Bringing back historic films, remastered, could draw people back into the theater to relive memories of seeing a movie three decades later. I think the incorporation of live events, like concerts and major sporting events, could be a new way to leverage existing technologies for new purposes. Subscriptions (like, unlimited monthly movies for $19.99 a month) will bring volume up. But no matter what, the industry seems to be in need of major rethinking.

Similarly, what do you believe are some of the biggest challenges for its survival/future success?

Cinema is an incredibly powerful medium for projecting the dominant cultural mythologies of our age. But the video-gamming industry is doing the same thing, and better, by putting us inside the action. If 3D immerses us into a gigantic screen, video games immerse us inside the mythology itself. Action role-play video games move us from merely spectating a mythology to actually becoming a star/spectator within it. And it’s incredibly addictive, more addictive than the cinema.

The Netflix film Mowgli (2018) was a game-changer for me. I streamed the film with my family at the same time it was a new release in local cinemas. Theaters have gotten used to holding proprietary rights for a movie for a certain length of time before those films go to streaming services. And if this continues, as large media streaming services fund their own large-scale sitcoms, dramas, and feature-length movies, this will continue to blow up the big studio/cinema marriage we have come to assume. And as streaming giants find themselves in a foot race for proprietary content, this will continue to undermine theaters.

If you had to take a few guesses (educated or just for fun), what are some ways you believe movie theaters — the industry, the experience, whatever it may be — will change over the next 5–10 years? What other technologies might be weaved into cinema? And what is your general outlook on the industry as a whole?

Yeah, I think that’s the problem. The technology has reached its marketable limit. I don’t know many people who decide against seeing a movie because the theater didn’t have Dolby Atmos sound. Tech upgrades at this point are subtle and largely overlooked by the public. So theaters will survive as long as they can each brand themselves as something beyond a theater. It’s very similar to what happened to the brick and mortar bookstore industry, especially Christian bookstores, that could only survive by also selling music albums, Jesus trinkets, breath mints, gum, paintings, and figurines — all the things that have nothing to do with books. Those “book” stores have died off. Cinema is in a similar boat, forced to adopt endless amounts of supplementary offerings.

With or without the physical theater, do you believe movies themselves will survive or succeed in the coming generation(s), considering the more immersive qualities of video games, social media, etc.? Why/why not?

It’s hard to say. What is a movie? What is television? These lines are now blurred. During my formative years of adolescence, live-linear television was the place for a quick hit of sarcasm and slapstick comedy (Letterman, SNL, Simpsons). The cinema was where I went to have my mind blown by immersive CGI, longform storytelling, and thundering audio technology (ET, Star Wars, Back to the Future). But this dynamic has drastically changed over the past decade. We’ve entered the golden age of television. I remember a time when you’d never see a Hollywood actor soil their reputation on television unless they were promoting a film. Now television has incorporated many of Hollywood’s well-known actors, along with all of its CGI and audio tricks. Today, it would be really difficult for me to determine if the first season of Netflix’s Lost in Space (2018–) is a 10-part television series or a 10-hour movie. I honestly don’t know. I lean toward seeing it as a 10-hour movie. It offers all the CGI and acting you’d expect from Hollywood. All the lines are blurring.

Hollywood operates by a time limit of about 120 minutes. People don’t want to sit there any longer. So movies need to fit inside this attention-window. That was an impressive feat in the 1980s. And people came away satisfied in the 120-minute storyline. But now the length of how long people will engage with a cultural mythology exceeds 50 hours! People have changed. Media has changed people. Television has made our minds more complex, better able to follow multiple plots over longer periods of time.

Studies have demonstrated this historically. Dragnet (1951–59) was a television series about LA cops. It featured one plot per episode, beginning to end. Real clean. Simple. Each episode works A to Z as a standalone storyline. Starsky and Hutch (1975–79) was also a television series about LA cops. It featured two plots, one at the beginning that is picked up at the end, but a second, major plot filled up the middle. Each episode also tied off cleanly. Hill Street Blues (1981–87) came along, another police drama, but this one featured around eight plots per episode, relatively clean plots, rarely overlapping, some carrying over to later episodes. And then of course you come to The Sopranos (1999–2007), the hit mobster crime drama. It featured around ten plots per episode, overlapping one another, scenes where two or three plots are concurrently developed at the same time, unfinished plots carrying over from one episode to another episode, and some plots dropping out for multiple episodes, even for whole seasons, only to be picked up later. Very complex storytelling.

In today’s media landscape, to imagine an entirely developed storyline in just 120 minutes is overly contained. The Sopranos drama required 4,300 minutes. Again, this is one of the reasons why the home theater trumps the cinema. No one could watch The Sopranos in a theater. Some will say home theater watchers have settled for something smaller than the cinema. But in many ways this is exactly wrong. Home theater viewers are asking for mega-longform media, the kind of media that could never fit inside the cinema.

And would their survival/success be a good thing? Or, like the act of going to the movies at the theater, would it be no different than any other activity of entertainment?

I don’t know. I hope we continue to attend live sporting events and don’t just watch them all on VR goggles in 3D. But if that’s what happens, I won’t be too concerned. The stadium vendors will find other employment. The same is true of the theater. I’m rather ambivalent. But if theaters become a glorified marriage between the privacy and comfort of our dimly lit living rooms, while we are served a foodie-level menu by waiters from a kitchen with the best chef in town, could we really say that the cinema has survived? To double a patient’s life-support is not to say he’s now twice as much alive. It’s to say he’s twice as much dead.

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