Will Theatrical Films Survive The 2020s?

What will become of theatrically run movies?

The blending between the forms of television and film is a phenomenon we are already deep into. It signals the end of an era. But to be honest, the cinema era ended alongside the twentieth century. In 1999, I remember seeing three films by auteur filmmakers and feeling like they were a last hurrah of sorts: Affliction by Paul Schrader, Bringing Out the Dead by Martin Scorsese, and Eyes Wide Shut by Stanley Kubrick. I loved each of these films intensely and saw them more than once in the theatre. That was more than twenty years ago.

Three things began around then which led to our current moment. The first was the increasing digitization of film. Part of the reason I loved going to theatres to see old and newer films was the luminosity of seeing light projected through celluloid. In the mid-90s, there was a very rick Kodak Eastman stock which made the golds, reds and greens sensuous and glowing. Older films have a pearly, lustrous sheen due to the presence of silver nitrate. Being in a theatre, seeing films this way, was almost a religious experience – it was different from video or TV because of the warmth and light; film was a liquid honey that enveloped you. As film became more digitized, the tones shifted toward murkier browns, greens, and greys; though it was still on celluloid, the light didn’t quite shine through in the same way. In films like Saving Private Ryan, during the battle sequences, the frame rate and motion appeared different. Now many movies are purely digital through the use of 4K video cameras. Scorsese famously held out against going digital, but even he’s had to finally give in for economic and production reasons.

The second thing to changed was the advent of computer generated images or “CGI.” This replaced model making, matte paintings, and even some sets. The Matrix was a big hit in 1999 and though its digitized, CGI environs were more in accord with the film’s ‘virtual’ premise, it influenced future films’ production choices in a major way. George Lucas had also played fast and loose with his classic Star Wars films, doctoring them using CGI. Models may be imperfect, but they feel more real. There is a sense of light, surface, and depth which evokes a reality (while, of course, an illusion) that I’ve found absent in even the highest quality CGI. It was as if every subsequent film employing CGI was now set in the Matrix, a place we all now lived.

The third thing: TV productions adopted more of film’s aesthetics and storytelling sophistication. During the ’80s and much of the ’90s, TV had been seen as episodic ephemera; structured around commercial breaks and designed to hook you so the broadcaster could sell advertising. A film on the other hand was to be taken in during one sitting, a set of ideas or propositions developed and resolved – it was thought to be more substantial than TV. You could, perhaps, say that TV was like an on-going comic book and film was like a graphic novel. When HBO led the charge and changed that model of TV, other cable channels and even broadcast stations followed suit. All of a sudden, writers, actors, and directors who would normally belong in the land of film dabbled in TV and turned the model around. This has generally been praised as a good thing, elevating the medium of TV, but where does that leave film?

A kind of osmosis seems to have happened where film increasingly becomes more like TV while TV becomes more like film. I’m all for democratization, but this change seems to have led towards a sagging in the middle. Not with everything, as there are more films produced now than there were before (largely due to the accessibility of shooting and editing high definition video, which is also a good thing) and I’m not talking about the advent of one film genre over another (I love all genres as long as projects are pursued with authenticity and commitment) but there definitely seems to be less weight towards passion projects. Scorsese will still pull an audience in regardless of what he does, but that’s largely due to popularity earned in former decades. There was a time when people went to see films because they were created by a particular director and if a director earned auteur status, they worked on projects that were personal and important to them. Their talent and resonance drew audiences. It was more like going to see a play than watching TV. Now, projects are much more franchise driven. There was no shortage of spectacle films in the past, but now they dominate the box office. The only younger American auteur I can think of consistently making auteurist films is James Gray.

Furthermore, films like The Godfather, The Exorcist, Alien, or The Terminator (now considered classics) blended auteur sensibility with mainstream appeal – and audiences seemed more comfortable with this arrangement. Watching the most recent Halloween installment on the other hand, I was left with the feeling it was trying to present the individualistic sheen of its forebear, but was just entertaining mush on the inside. Filmmakers have lost that sense of personal style, voice, and project. And audiences have stopped wanting those films. It’s a shift in literacy and thinking. Whereas once, many people read novels (you could buy an Ernest Hemingway book at a train station for example, and people read him for the sense of adventure just as much as the stylized prose), publishers struggle to move their mid-lists. There’s something akin to that happening with films. People wish to be entertained, transported, and caught up in the latest thing. Movies are becoming the equivalent of pop songs whereas once they were symphonies and operas.

This piece originated because my editor mentioned Disney’s decision to release Mulan in the United States via its streaming service, forgoing a theatrical release. It doesn’t surprise me. I think we were trending towards that anyway; it’s just arrived sooner because of COVID conditions. I think a kind of blending of film and TV is inevitable given the shifts in technology and consumerism. Many people watch movies on their phones, and streaming services like Netflix have become even more popular due to worldwide pandemic lockdowns. My own favored streaming service offers Eyes Wide Shut for free, so I watched it before writing this piece. I guess the guts are still there, but something was very different — especially in terms of the size and fidelity of the image (the practical) and the overwhelming sense of dream and mystery which were diminished (the ephemeral) in a home viewing. I also watched HBO’s film The Wizard of Lies (about Bernie Madoff) for the first time. I enjoyed it. But here was a competent film directed by an established filmmaker (Barry Levinson) featuring Hollywood royalty (Robert DeNiro, Michelle Pfeiffer) that still played like something created solely for TV; hitting the beats and conveying the information and moving you towards the desired point of completion with skill and drama, yet leaving no lingering impression. Despite the serious subject of the film, it still felt like TV/film for the sake of entertainment and escape, paycheques and production, rather than aspiration or affect.

My guess is that as time progresses, the dominant form of viewing will combine aspects of film, TV, and more immediate media like Tik Tok. Because of the way we’re consuming media (I couldn’t help but pause Eyes Wide Shut a few times to attend to other things), it’s going to slowly eradicate the longer format in favour of shorter, digestible chunks. Addiction (which social media giants like Facebook and Tinder have incorporated into their business strategies from the get go) may become the driving force. TV shows like Breaking Bad have capitalized on this. There are some projects that have gone the other way (The Wire, for example, became something like a Russian novel in its essence), but they are few and far between. The capitalistic pull of the short fix is too pressing.

Marshal McLuhan wrote that new media in their initial stages resemble the function of predecessor mediums – the mobile phone at first mimicked a telephone before becoming more like a personal computer – and I think films are going through this essential transformation. At the moment, they mimic a previous generation of films. But after the transformation is complete, they will be something else. Whatever that thing will be will most likely be shorter, more fleeting in its hold upon consciousness, and more in line with the mass sensibility. We will still have the need for stories as we have done since the time of our earliest ancestors, but their shamanistic appeal will have to be sought elsewhere. Perhaps they might be found in Virtual Reality or interactive systems which connect more with the experience of watching and inhabiting a play. I don’t really know. I still feel the pull to go to the cinema. Although, given the lack of advisability of that practice these days, I am refraining. For most people, unlike live sporting events and concerts, the experience of seeing a film in the cinema will be a manageable loss. Many people are not even consciously aware of the significance of the experience. But for me, as long as there are a few repertory theatres still projecting my old favourites on celluloid stock, I’ll be happy.

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