Summer evenings sometimes begin and end with requests for candy. It’s common when traveling to the movies with a four-year-old.
Last Saturday night, Sour Patch Kids were devoured as usual but the setting was very different. At a local theater, down the street from our house, a makeover fit for reality TV had taken place. The seating looked more like a lavish home theater. My daughter and I had the rare pleasure of sitting in luxury as we consumed overpriced snacks. We stretched out with automated leather chairs. With a push of a button we were nearly laying down. We watched “Despicable Me 2” without being aware of anyone else around us. It was like we were watching at home. The screen was bigger. The bathrooms farther away but overall, it was a private and completely new experience.
The cineplex may have just figured out what we want.
Most of today’s big hits either are kiddie flicks with realistic animation and lovable characters or doomsday action films. This polarizing plate of entertainment choices reveals what entices American audiences to venture out to the theaters. In a recent article by Marvel screenwriter Zack Stentz, who co-wrote “Thor” and ‘X-Men: First Class” he said, “Hollywood seems only interested in taking the collected talents of screenwriters, directors, animators, and pre-visualization artists and using it to … blow stuff up.” He’s right. The movie lineup has been filled with superheroes and villains, zombie attacks and intergalactic battles for Earth. All in stunning detail, as the special effects have been pushed to the point of seamlessly meshing with the real world.
Earlier this summer, two guys named Spielberg and Lucas, who know a few things about moviemaking, pointed out the end of the film world as we know it. “You’re at the point right now where a studio would rather invest $250 million in one film for a real shot at the brass ring than make a whole bunch of really interesting, deeply personal — even maybe historical — projects that may get lost in the shuffle because there’s only 24 hours,” Spielberg said.
It seems that the big screen venues have defined what attracts audiences and the studios are investing in a narrow slate of titles. With massive budgets to market and promote these blockbusters, there isn’t room in the media attention span for large audiences to know anything about that cute little comedy or that fascinating cold war drama. The marketing blitz of a major movie super hero is found everywhere from TV to consumer products to corporate sponsorships and in your grocery store. Will the type of filmmaking celebrated at Cannes or Sundance become too infrequent to notice?
We are in a transformative time. Content that is made “exclusively for digital distribution” means that TV is about experience and not how the content gets delivered to the device. Case in point: Netflix original programming, House of Cards and Arrested Development, exclusively delivered through their digital only platform and landed 14 Emmy® nominations. The series seasons are released in their entirety so that viewers can watch all episodes immediately. Each month, more episodic content is being created by digital services. They are streaming millions of hours to viewers and creating interesting programming themselves to attract audiences as they grow subscriptions or ad impressions. Does film apply here as well? I think that thoughtful storytelling could have found a new avenue to aggregate audiences.
“Cable television started to go niche, and now we’re really in that situation where all you need is a million people, which in the aggregate of the world is not very many people,” Lucas said. “And you can actually make a living at this, whereas before you couldn’t. We need to have these quirky things, and the quirky world is getting bigger and bigger. Because you can put your movie in little houses, put it on Netflix or something and actually make some money out of it.”
What if “little houses” didn’t mean theaters at all? What if the global creative storytellers built movies to be distributed to all viewers that cared, wherever those viewers are? If the niche audiences are addressed without following the traditional theatrical release, then more feature length content will find a following via digital distribution and, theoretically, become more profitable.
Right now, I can go to Rotten Tomatoes, Fandango or IMDb to find out what critics and audiences thought of a movie. But what I cannot do on these services is find out where to see one I like right now, in the comfort of my own home. This year, the Sundance Grand Jury prize went to a film called “Fruitvale Station.” In its opening weekend, the film could be seen in seven theaters nationwide. It grossed $377,285, which is a great opening for an independent film. But I can’t help but think that plenty more people would have pressed play this weekend from their favorite seat, if they had the chance.
I can’t wait to go back to the comfy theater lounge chairs for another big flick with my daughter but what if the majority of movies are better suited to be watched at home? A premiere may soon just mean a red carpet press event that celebrates the release of a digital copy that can be downloaded or streamed through your favorite service that night!