I’ve been holding off on writing this (probably) final installment of my ‘Future of Distribution’ miniseries for almost a month, because it’s been hard to dig up the time but also, and more significantly, because it’s hard to imagine that a 1500-word article could offer much insightful on how we can start to reorient our approach to getting movies seen. Nonetheless – if we’re going to take movies seriously, we need to think about how they’re seen and how to try to ensure that the new challenges and new opportunities afforded by this new digital age can help us to make movies better, rather than more cautiously.
Before we can get there, though, let me first recap my major points from the first two articles in this series. In Part I, ‘New Challenges, New Opportunities,’ I pointed towards some of the forces that have forced the re-shaping of the film industry, in particular the widespread dissemination of digital technology and the development of the internet. A major part of that discussion was the way that new technologies have been more obviously suited to television than to motion pictures. That’s at least some part of why the last five years have seen an explosion of high-quality, unprecedently ambitious television (another major reason has been the ongoing success of HBO’s business model), while studios, production companies, and financiers have shied away from the kinds of ambitious projects that only the movies could accommodate in the past. The greater ease of access to filmmaking equipment and the proliferation of media on which to view the filmed story (not to mention the concomitant development of other forms of entertainment such as video gaming) have crowded the marketplace and made it difficult for pictures, especially in the mid-budget tier, to find an audience.
At the end of that essay, I pointed to three base questions for the business going forward: 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?
I answered my parenthetical question in Part II, ‘The Theatrical Release,’ in which I took a closer look at the traditional model of movie distribution, the theatrically shown feature film. There, I argued that the theatrical release was important to maintain, as the most fully-realized embodiment of the filmed narrative, as a unique and sophisticated aesthetic experience, and as a form that by its nature pushes other forms of filmed media to be more ambitious and lifelike. The theatrically-released feature film is both supremely visual and supremely narrative; as such, it is adapted to telling certain kinds of stories in certain ways that are impossible for television (and vice versa).
The question then becomes: How do we change our approach to distribution – and to making movies – in order to best take advantage of new technologies and new patterns? I have a couple of ideas.
First of all, producers, writers, directors, and studios should take note of the interesting things going on in television right now and start thinking about movies in terms of series rather than in terms of franchise. Serials like Game of Thrones, Mad Men, and Breaking Bad, all following on the example set by The Wire, are (as has been noted many times before by people who think more about television than I do) novelistic in structure, spinning out gigantic webs of plot with large casts and intricate storylines. And, though the episode is the basic building block of these television series, these shows have demonstrated that an episode does not have to comprise an entire chapter, with some units of action taking place over the course of a single episode and others being chunked into larger groups of episodes. Indeed, it happens sometimes that a given episode doesn’t have a recognizable storyline of its own: we follow the actions of our characters through a set of circumstance based on what has come before and setting up what will come later, but without any particular narrative thruline.
Movies series, meanwhile, are almost always constructed episodically, with each film representing a complete unit of action. In almost all the great film sagas – Star Wars, The Godfather, perhaps even Christopher Nolan’s current Batman films – one can tease out overarching storylines, but each film becomes a world unto itself, another unit of examination within the lives of its characters. I don’t wish to say that that narrative structure should be ignored; as those examples should demonstrate, much great work has been done using the episodic model. But filmmakers should also avail themselves of the opportunity to tell bigger, more complicated stories in which the episodes have fuzzier edges. It’s harder to do this in cinema, where the wait time between pictures is more significant and where each episode by itself is a financially risky proposition. But it can be done, and has been recently with Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings films.
Second, it’s time to step back and spend a not insignificant amount of time rethinking the theatrical experience. There aren’t many things that you can get almost everyone to agree on, but the claim that movies are better seen in theaters is one of them. Yet going to the theater can be an impossibly frustrating proposition, between the inconveniences of driving, high ticket prices that often include surcharges for add-ons that the viewer doesn’t really want but has no option but to accept (I am speaking of 3D, in case you didn’t realize), and a limited selection of films that rarely offers up anything right in a moviegoer’s wheelhouse. There are people who will continue to go to the movie every weekend, no matter what (I am among them). When the local multiplex, though, is serving up Ted, The Amazing Spider-Man, and Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter on the majority of its screens and has only limited showtimes for its other offerings, it becomes a less appetizing proposition to go. The tricky thing, of course, is that movie theaters are in the business to make money, and they play what they think people really want to see. What we need to figure out is how to make the moviegoing experience more accessible to more people.
Lastly, and perhaps paradoxically, we need to complement the moviegoing experience by making access to movies through other channels more, not less, accessible. Studios have been trying to do this for years, and have unsurprisingly been met with resistance from theater owners. The fact is that we need either far more or far fewer movies to be released in theaters, and I’m not sure which answer is accurate – but either way will require a rethinking of the relationship between distributors and exhibitors. At the same time, we need to be more judicious in understanding before making a movie what platform we’re making it for – and we need to be aware that there need to be movies out there for all platforms, not just aspiring to a theatrical release and taking something else if that doesn’t work out. As the business stands now, this process is essentially one of natural selection: especially in the independent world, movies are made and then go through a Darwinian process to find distribution. A more systematic approach to making movies for different media – and suiting the product to fit its specific media – will, I think, begin to help to put the film industry on more stable footing.
A final word on the topic: Everything I’ve said here has been hashed out and discussed in board rooms and in print by people with far more knowledge of the topic than I am; the biggest obstacle to changing how we think about distribution is not, I think, a lack of ideas about how we should change but that the infrastructure of the movies is entrenched enough to force us to maintain our current way of thinking even when we want to change. The bigger challenge to righting the ship is the way the ship is made – but it was made that way for a reason. That doesn’t mean that we should give up, only that it takes a lot more creativity – and, perhaps, some measure of philosophy – than I can offer up in 1500 mildly-informed words.