Last weekend, being wholly uninspired by the selection of new movies available to me (how excited did you really expect me to get about Dark Shadows, A Tim Burton Film?), I was pleased to discover that the ArcLight Hollywood was doing a set of screenings of classic movies. I found out about it too late to go to Doctor Zhivago, which would have been my first choice, but was happy enough to make it to a 5pm screening of Stanley Kubrick’s Vietnam drama Full Metal Jacket. It was my sixth of Kubrick’s movies, but only the first that I’d seen on the big screen.
It wouldn’t be accurate or fair to say that, having seen it on the big screen, I now can’t imagine seeing it any other way; great movies are great wherever and however you see them, be it in the theater or, now, perhaps even on the screen of your iPhone, whatever David Lynch has to say about it. Nonetheless, it was a distinct pleasure and privilege to experience it that way, and it’s hard to imagine, for instance, the vividness and clarity of its final set piece, when Private Joker’s squad is trying to track down a sniper in the hell of a bombed-out Vietnamese town, coming across nearly so powerfully from my television set.
Increasingly, though, the traditional lines that separate film and television are being blurred. For most of the (brief) history of the filmed narrative, there were exactly two types, and the distinction between them was clear. A television show was a brief narrative, either a half-hour or full-hour in length, that was broadcast via airwaves and watched on your television set and was almost always iterated over some number of episodes. A movie was a longer piece of stand-alone storytelling, usually between ninety and 150 minutes long, recorded on positive transparency film and projected onto a large screen for a gathered audience. Now, in an age of home video and with the emergence of low-cost, high-bandwidth internet, Video on Demand, the ubiquity of cable television, and the proliferation of alternative entertainment, there’s a large and growing grey area between the two traditional media.
Accordingly, traditional models of distribution for filmed stories have been changing, and will continue to do so for the foreseeable future. Over the next few weeks, I’ll be trying to explore what is often construed in alarmist tones as a ‘crisis’ over the future of the movies: what’s going on, the significance of the traditional model, and, if all this reflection leads to any insights, perhaps also some thoughts on where distribution might be going. For today, I’ll focus both on the challenges to distribution presented by the explosion of digital media and the opportunities they present to artists and filmmakers. (For some earlier thoughts on the topic, check out my February article on the death of film.)
Discussion on the topic must begin, of course, with the piracy issue, which increasingly has become a problem for the film and music industries, has been a major source of tension between industry professionals and their consumers (as the collective outrage over the shutdown of Megaupload has demonstrated), and has been at least partially responsible for the increasing conservatism of the major studios. For a long time, the film industry had a bit more protection from the issue than did the music industry, solely on the basis that it takes a lot more bandwidth to download a two-hour movie than to download a three-minute song, but with rapid improvements in technology that’s no longer the case: it’s so easy, and so free of repercussions, to download a torrent of recent releases that one forgets that it’s an act of theft. Yet piracy, perhaps at this point something to be considered a sunk cost, represents tens of millions of dollars of lost potential revenue every year: consider that Game of Thrones, the most-pirated show of the year, gets 2.5 million illegal downloads every day. HBO is fortunate that its deals are structured in such a way that it doesn’t rely on individual consumers to, but how much more money would it make if those consumers waited until DVDs of the show were released?
Movies, on the other hand, have always been wedded to the theatrical model: the profitability of a film, with rare exceptions, is entirely about its box office performance, and then its box office performance in its opening weekend. Executives have begun to try to figure out how the new channels of distribution can be monetized, with some success – Margin Call, for instance, had only a limited theatrical run but had a successful life on Video On Demand that kept it alive long enough to be nominated for an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay. Meanwhile, the window between theatrical release and DVD release continues to get smaller and smaller, as executives keep trying to figure out what the best cut-off is to maximize the number of people who go to the theater but minimize the number who would rather download a movie illegally than wait the lag time to get it on DVD. And, finally, it’s true that box office numbers are up in 2012, but only after a dismal year in 2011 – and the totals are inflated by the rising cost of tickets and by the almost-offensive surcharges for 3D that moviegoers are suckered into paying for almost every major new release. To many potential moviegoers, it’s simply not worth it to go to the theater anymore. I’ve never heard anyone not allow that movies are almost always better on the big screen, but it’s hard to argue with economics of paying zero dollars to download a movie versus at least $20 for a ticket and concessions, not to mention having to get yourself to the theater and back.
What really suffer from the problems besetting the theatrical model are not the big event movies: as 2012 is proving over and over, studios are willing to foot huge bills for event movies like The Avengers ($220 million), The Dark Knight Rises ($250 million), and even Battleship ($209 million), and audiences are willing to pay the money to see them. Meanwhile, low-budget movies are, if not flourishing, at least no more difficult to get made, since such movies can make back their money pretty easily through a small release and a relatively successful life on VOD. Vanishing, however, are the mid-range movies between $30 and perhaps $80 million that fall outside the commercial horror and thriller genres.
At the same time, as I explored briefly in that article on the death of film, the explosion of media has created new opportunities for artists and filmmakers. The cost of making a movie is far lower today, when you can shoot everything digitally and edit it on your laptop, than it was even ten years ago. We’re seeing new forms of stories that can be supported by the internet but that wouldn’t even have been able to get onto television in years past: the ten-minute shorts, the two-minute sketches. Yes, there’s a lot more bad art out there than ever has been before, and there’s a lot more noise to cut through. But there’s also more opportunity for aspiring directors and technicians to get their work out into the world. Similarly, the new media have created the possibility of universes of narrative that span across platforms. Known as transmedia, it’s like the age-old idea of adapting a TV show as a movie, but scaled up: TV shows, movies, video games, and online experiences all advancing the same brand within the same universe.
The challenge facing the movie business, then, has three aspects. First, how do you cut through the endless hours of content to find and promote the stuff that is actually good? Second, how do you gain the attention of an audience amidst all the other entertainment options that they have and get them to sit in a dark room for two hours (or is it time to leave the theatrical model for dead)? Finally, how do you turn the massive bandwidth and access to content now so readily available into an asset rather than a liability?
That’s a brief overview of what I see as the key points in this ongoing challenge to the film industry. When I return next to this topic, I’ll post at more length on the importance and significance of the theatrical release, and finally finish up this miniseries with my thoughts on a potential new model of distribution.