Movies belong on big screens in cinemas, not on the tiny screens of phones or tablets. The artists creating films design their works with audiences in mind. Movies should be experienced, from start to finish, with an audience.
We lost something important as movies moved from grand theatrical releases in cinema palaces to small-screen multiplexes and finally to direct-to-video streaming services. Today, some movies are released in theaters and on streaming services on the same day. We no longer have to wait six months to a year (or longer) to watch a film at home.
When the Visalia Fox Theatre converted to a multiplex I was only eight years old, but I knew that the “improvements” ruined the cinema experience. For many years, multiplexes meant smaller screens, fewer seats, and mediocre presentations.
Hollywood had one of its best summers for movie ticket sales ever in 2016, thanks to a handful of blockbusters. Tickets cost more than buying films, so the revenue numbers are misleading. Many of us now avoid the theatrical releases of films. We wait a few months, at most, to watch movies in the comfort of our own homes and on our devices.
The last movie I saw in a theater was “Up,” which I saw in Davis. That was seven years ago. The movie remains one of my favorites, despite a lousy theater experience. The mostly empty room was lit by cell phones. The chattering of young people never ceased. The sound system included random buzzing sounds, similar to what my radio emits when I place our cordless phone nearby. I have not been to a movie theater since that summer.
As a film student working toward my master of fine arts, I am surrounded by students and faculty passionate about cinema. And most of them do not pay to see movies in theatrical release. Instead, they wait eagerly for new releases on Amazon Prime, Netflix, Hulu, iTunes, and other services.
I don’t live in New York or Los Angeles, so art houses that might attract film lovers aren’t an option. Even when a theater does show limited-release films, it is only for a weekend or two at the strangest possible times. Streaming services win, thanks to their convenience.
Even before streaming, theaters were in trouble. The IMAX chain struggled, even filing for bankruptcy protection in 2003. General Cinema had filed for bankruptcy in 2000. There are still too many screens showing too few films. When a multiplex shows the same film on a third of its screens, they might as well go back to having larger theater spaces. I never understood why more multiplexes don’t set aside two screens for smaller budget and independent films.
Theaters and studios resorted to gimmicks to sell movie tickets (and discs). The 3D trend proved to be short-lived again, just as it was in the 1950s. There are still some movies in 3D, but people want to see great films regardless of format.
I’m not sure the latest trends will counter the streaming impulse, either. There are now cinemas with lounging massage chairs complete with cup holders. Other cinemas have installed chairs that move along with the on-screen action. Several chains have “dinner theaters” with full meal service before the feature. A handful of theaters are experimenting with double features again, a true return to the past.
The worst idea I’ve seen: encouraging people to use social media during films. The reason I stopped going to movies is now supposedly a selling point to teens and young adults. Screens outside the theater display the latest trending hashtags for the films being exhibited. I am not about to pay for the privilege of sitting among a hundred texting teens.
Maybe Hollywood could try the novel approach of making better movies? Though I do buy some movies on disc, I buy fewer each year. There simply aren’t that many “must-have” movies. I might watch a mediocre film once via streaming, but I won’t buy that film on disc.
The market for physical media has fallen victim to on-demand services. Only a few years ago, I anticipated Tuesdays when new CDs and DVDs appeared in stores. Now, the music and video sections of stores, when they have them, are sparsely stocked. Only the most popular discs survive the battle for retail space. Within a year, many discs find their way to discount bins for $5 to $10 each.
Personally, I do like CDs and DVDs because streaming services don’t always have the music and films I enjoy. When they do have the titles I want, they might only have them for a year.
Like most of my friends and colleagues, I subscribe to Netflix and Amazon and have cable on-demand service. That’s three monthly bills for watching movies. The cost likely exceeds what we once spent on going to movies. We still buy discs of our favorite movies, so we’re using the streaming services the way we once used video rental stores: a way to test movies before paying full price.
I keep hoping that there will be a renaissance, a second Golden Age of Hollywood. Arguably, streaming has brought about a new era of great television shows. The best television is on a mix of cable and streaming services, with “binge” watching the new normal. Few people rush home to catch the first airing of a new show: they stream the show when it’s convenient.
That might be the future for great, small-budget and independent films. They will go straight to streaming, skipping the theaters entirely, and be viewed by many more people.
Even if streaming is the future, it will never match the experience of the large screen in the Visalia Fox Theatre. I believe you do feel more intensely when the people around you are also responding to the laughter, the crying, and the other emotions on screen. Watching a film alone on my iPhone or even in a home theater will never capture that same magic.