The question I pose in the title is something that I have been wrestling with for some time now. And, despite my repeated attempts to come up with an answer, I cannot.
I dislike multiplexes. It is something that I have only come to articulate recently with people. I cannot stand the advertisements before the feature, the overpriced tickets, or the idiot crowds that come into every new film and illuminate the experience with inappropriate laughter and distracting cell phone lights.The whole spectacle has become tacky and downright disrespectful.
What’s worse is that every single film that is designed to gain attraction is designed for this setting. That’s why, every single weekend, studios pour heaps of money into television ads for films whose scripts may as well have been written in a Mad Libs book. People no longer want to be challenged. In some cases, it is a secondary activity to watch a film in a theater. Why observe the nuance of any performance when your email needs checking, or your friend needs to know exactly where you are? But rather than try to destroy this behavior, everyone from theater managers to studio executives encourage it by designing the experience for these boors. And those few who do not are seen as the bad guys rather than the saviors – at least, by the patrons they correct. Perhaps you remember this?
Yes, it went viral and yes, the woman was mocked. But her actions demonstrate a sense of entitlement about theaters and what they are allowed to do, and more importantly, what they should allow HER to do.
Many have referred to this incident as part of the downfall of cinema, and that such an audience means there is no one of quality working today. That is simply not true and incredibly unfair. There are some great filmmakers working today, who are as good or better than their “old timey” counterparts. Off the top of my head, Paul Thomas Anderson, David Fincher, Christopher Nolan, Darren Arronofsky, The Coen Brothers, the films of Pixar, Steve McQueen, Michel Gondry, Guillermo Del Toro, and Nicolas Windig Refn are filmmakers as good as the previous directors who have already been acclaimed for the ages.
The problem is in the presentation. These people all have to show their works in a place that does not particularly care for them. Imagine viewing, say, a Goya painting in the Guggenheim. “Fantastic,” people will say. Then imagine that same painting painted on black velvet and sold on a Venetian street corner. It would seem cheap and tacky.
But that is not Goya’s fault. Nor is it Refn’s fault that someone sued the distribution company that distributed Drive. She was basically complaining that the film wasn’t the piddling action film that she expected to see but a (gasp!) film that required her to use more than one brain cell. Of course many people made fun of her, but the fact she felt she had a case demonstrates what the multiplex experience has done to her.
I know I sound like an old misanthrope, but I am not sure if it’s just me any more. According to The Hollywood Reporter, attendance has been going down – dramatically. Only a few films achieve noteworthy success, like The Hunger Games (which, at the time of this writing, has been #1 at the box office since its release). We’ve been seeing more dramatic flops, like Mars Needs Moms and John Carter, which were meant to be big tentpole releases. I think the message is clear. People would rather avoid the theater if at all possible, and film grosses are suffering for it.
So what does watching at home give you? It gives you a wider variety of films to watch (some of which are actually good), distributors treat the films with respect and care (like the Criterion label), it acts as a film school with its extras and interviews (no ads), and it offers people a break to get up, go to the bathroom, get something to drink, and sit back down without missing a thing. It is in this manner that I have experienced many of the best films I have ever seen – uninterrupted by outsiders. Only me and the filmmakers together.
But can this replace the theater experience? Well, not yet. It does not have one thing that is vital for people of all backgrounds – the social experience.
But if I may compare it to one thing, I would compare it to video game arcades. That used to be where everyone had to go to see the cutting edge games and a place to go with friends. But now it’s considered dead, and has been for some time. The experience can be replicated at home, thanks to the internet and smaller machines. People can talk to each other, replicate the experience, and play what they want to play rather than being held hostage by other people’s tastes.
Frankly, I see nothing wrong with this change for films. Some of the best experiences I have had in the past year, film wise, are gathering with friends at someone’s apartment and renting a film for cheap. We do talk to each other, but the conversation is secondary to the film, and I can see it in a new light that I don’t think I would have the opportunity to see in a theater, where I am not afforded the opportunity after surviving a deluge of advertising and cell phone lights.
I know that there are many people who still want theaters to continue. It is a place that can give life changing experiences. But you have to do your part. Turn off your phone. Stop going to multiplexes and paying to see crappy films. Go instead to the local indies that have some first-rate work presented in its proper way. Don’t buy the products that are featured in the commercials before the film. Don’t keep your phone on during the film (although commercials are fair game…it’s good protest). Demand revivals of classics (actual classics, not 3D rereleases of Titanic). And finally, challenge yourself. Don’t rush out to see a film that everyone else is seeing as a response of peer pressure. See what you want to see.