Last week, I laid the table for a discussion of the future of distribution by laying out some of the challenges and opportunities presented by the new technologies of digital media, from the proliferation of devices to the ease of piracy to the lower costs associated with the production of content. In that first article, my focus was on how these emergent technologies have changed our consumption of all filmed narrative (really, all filmed media), and allowed for the proliferation of different formats, such as the short internet video.
Today, I’d like to zoom in more closely on the theatrical release, the traditional model of distribution for feature films and, supposedly, an institution under threat from the development of digital media. Though the theatrical release as our primary channel for the consumption of feature films – and, indeed, its importance in the development of what we understand the feature film to be – may be an accident of history, it has nonetheless made possible the most ambitious and far-reaching expressions of the filmed narrative. Though not appropriate for all such narratives, I believe that it would be an artistic loss to both filmmaker and film watcher were the theatrical release to disappear.
The first movie theater, if we can call it that, was Vitascope Hall in New Orleans, LA – or so Wikipedia tells me. Vitascope opened in 1896, and was the first theater dedicated exclusively to the exhibition of motion pictures. Early motion pictures were short and silent – The Great Train Robbery, a milestone movie for its editing techniques and final shot of a man firing a gun directly at the camera, was only twelve minutes long – and were primarily shown in ‘nickelodeon’ theaters, charging five cents for admission and showing these short films one after another in a continuous loop. As time went on, demand grew for longer, more sustained entertainments. By 1906, it became possible for Australian director Charles Tait to present the first feature-length movie, The Story of the Kelly Gang; nine years later, D.W. Griffith presented The Birth of a Nation with a running time of over three hours, and ended up with what was at the time far and away the highest grossing film in the brief history of the movies.
Today, consensus (and audience preference) has the ideal feature running between 90 and 150 minutes, with some very rare exceptions. Compared to other media, the high cost of production and limited number of screens limits the number of movies available at any one time. That, coupled with their ability to be distributed and seen wherever there are theaters, from New York to Idaho to Washington, means that, more than music or literature or the visual arts, movies can become cultural landmarks embedded in the popular mind. And, for most of its history, the theatrically released feature film has been, technically and artistically, the most prestigious medium for the filmed narrative.
With the rise of our current golden age of television and the development of alternative forms of film distribution, the importance of the theatrical release has seemingly diminished: why should you pay twelve dollars to go to the movies when you can get it for so much less on your iPad, laptop, or Netflix Instant account? Why should you watch a two-hour movie when it’s so much easier, and takes so much less time, to watch a 45-minute episode of NCIS? Though movies still make most of their money through box office grosses, home video, On Demand, and streaming services also represent lucrative channels of distribution, and it’s hard to imagine that they won’t become ever more so as distributors develop better models through which to monetize them. Meanwhile, other entertainment options abound: competition to the theatrically-released movie comes not just from the ease of access to piracy and home video but from television of ever-increasing quality, from the more fully immersive experience of video gaming, and from two-minute videos featuring existential cats.
From an aesthetic standpoint, the importance of the theatrical feature film is simply that it is the most realized embodiment of the filmed narrative in its essential visual character. Apologists for contemporary television and their belief that that medium is where the most interesting work in entertainment is being done like to speak endlessly of ‘the kinds of stories’ that one can tell in television but not in film. The filmed narrative, however, is by its nature something seen: where the dramatic form, focused on the delivery of story through words, usually falls under the realm of literature (cf Hamlet II.ii, “We’ll hear a play tomorrow”), filmed media tells stories through the presentation of images. And, of course, the bigger the image that you see, the more, and more clearly, you see: just as there is a big difference between seeing a photo of the David and seeing the real thing, so too is there a big difference between seeing a movie, even if it’s in Blu-Ray and on a 42” screen, on your television and seeing it projected onto a thirty-foot-tall screen.
That’s not just a philosophical or scientific claim: the need to fill that screen as convincingly and compellingly as possible is a direct result of its scale and resolution, and is responsible for many of the things that we prize most in our entertainment experiences. Even the most lavish television budgets – on shows like Rome or Game of Thrones or in its way Mad Men, shows which convincingly create sprawling, immersive worlds – can’t execute on the kind of scale that a feature film has to be able to, a fact which television shows constantly have to work around. (That isn’t to say that television doesn’t have its own unique strengths and capabilities, just that the visual experience is not one of them.) What you can see on a movie screen is limited only by the imagination of the director, the impatience of the financier, and some limitations of technology. That means that you can have enormous set pieces, like the charge of the Rohirrim in Lord of the Rings or the astonishing oil derrick explosion in There Will Be Blood, which would be too expensive or too long for a TV show. Meanwhile, because of the scale of the medium, scenes like this one reach their full effect only when seen on the big screen. There’s a reason that one question that resounds in office meetings in Hollywood is, “Is it theatrical?” – meaning, is it big enough to fill that screen? And even if television shows had the budget to film those kinds of scenes, they wouldn’t look as good or have the same appeal on the small screen as they do in the theater, making investing in them a misuse of resources.
Meanwhile, the greater energy demanded of audiences by movies, precisely what makes it somewhat less palatable than television, is nonetheless one of its greatest strengths. When you sit down in a darkened theater, you are effectively held hostage by the film for two hours, and it may use that time to unfold its story and ideas in whatever form and at whatever pace that it wants. Unlike television, which must pack as tightly as possible its twists and turns into a comprehensible twenty-two or forty-four minutes, the movie is free to demand attention and patience as it proceeds from one point to another. In demanding that patience, the movie can force the audience to experience something in its totality that the distractions and conveniences of modern life prevent in other media. And, as above, it can do so on a scale and at a level of execution that most fully embodies the concept of the recorded image.
The theatrical release, then, is the vessel for the narrative form, in the feature film, that most fully realizes the possibilities of the recorded image, and, in insisting on its audience’s undivided attention for the duration of its run time, allows for a level of sophistication in the development of ideas and narratives that simply isn’t possible (in the same way) in other media. It’s tempting to claim, as one friend of mine does, that the introduction of new, more accessible forms of media should mean that we democratically allow the feature film to die, via the death of the theatrical form. If, as I contend, the theatrical release enables us access to something valuable, then the question becomes how to maintain it as a commercially viable option for filmmakers.
So, how do we do that? Tune in next time to see if I’ve come up with any brilliant ideas.