A chasm has opened in Hollywood this week over a new service called Screening Room, which would allow users to watch films at home the same day they’re released in cinemas.
Directors J.J. Abrams, Steven Spielberg, Ron Howard, Brian Grazer, and Peter Jackson have all backed it, seeing it as a pragmatic solution to cinemas’ declining attendances and a blow to piracy, while Christopher Nolan, James Cameron and more think it amounts to theatres’ death knell.
“I’m surprised this is something that the industry in general would want to support, because it is so contradictory to what we try to create for moviegoers and audiences around the world - which is that very special and unique communal experience where the lights go down and you share an experience with others,” producer Jon Landau said - thoughts that have been echoed time and time again by film obsessives like Quentin Tarantino and Bret Easton Ellis.
I’m not going to pretend to ascertain whether it’s a smart business move for the industry - whether film consumption would be boosted by home screenings or if film would be undermined and made more disposable without a physical launch, as such, in cinemas, but I can speak on the viewing experience side of things.
It’s true, watching a pixelated, pirated version of The Hateful Eight that’s prone to buffering issues is undeniably inferior to seeing it in all its 70mm glory on the big screen. But at the same time, how many people can say that the first time they ever saw their very favourite movie was in a cinema? Was the sensation of the film so damaged by having watched it on a smaller screen?
I’ve been rapt by films shown on tiny screens embedded in the seat in front on planes, trying to hide tears as the air hostess offers me either the chicken or the pasta (it’s always chicken or pasta). I’ve been plunged into blissful, cinephilic silence sitting next to friends on the sofa while taking in a movie on the TV. I’ve watched Magnolia on a laptop at 4am and still felt soul-shattered when dawn started to break out the window just as the frogs rained down biblically on William H. Macy.
There seems to be two threads to the argument that the cinema experience is sacrosanct:
‘It’s not the same watching a film on your own. In isolation.’
That’s right it’s not; it’s better.
Sure, if it’s a comedy or a horror then there’s something nice about being surrounded by other laughing/shrieking viewers, but - and maybe I’m just a misanthrope - isn’t it nicer not having a load of people around? No sticky popcorn on the floor, no throat clearing, no views obscured by people with vertiginous hats, no awkward ‘So what did you think?!’ questions on the way out that are quite impossible to answer. We get such bliss from book reading and music listening being usually solo experiences, why shouldn’t film watching be the same?
‘You need that big screen and surround sound.’
In many/most cases indeed you do. That’s why I haven’t settled for the tablet method (completely sufficient though it may often be) and have saved up for a projector and decent sound system. This doesn’t actually cost as much as you might think, and if you watch films as voraciously as I do, you’ll ultimately save a lot of money on cinema tickets. There’s nothing quite as heavenly as cracking a beer and collapsing on your sofa/bed, a film filling the entire wall opposite you. Hell, you can even move the projector outside and hold your own rudimentary screenings (see top photo).
Of course, there have been many times when, in spite of all this, I’ve had that ‘I’m glad I saw it a cinema’ feeling - even if I can’t quite put my finger on why - and the day the cinemas do close their doors will certainly be a sad one. But we must embrace new technology and find ways to make people submit to the power of film (without constantly checking their phones or pausing and wandering off) outside of the cinema, not hold them to ransom in theatres and force them to turn to 360p .avi rips.
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