It's just not like it used to be.
Back when I was young, films ran for months. Sometimes, in the case of the gigantic blockbusters, they ran for years. Those days are long gone, of course - most films have a window of two months at most before leaving the theater and going on to Blu-Ray, DVD, and Video On Demand, which by all accounts is where the true profit of a film lies. Theatrical release is becoming more and more like a commercial for the home release.
Studios still rely on the theatrical window, of course, but a flop, by definition, means something different than it used to. Most films at least break even these days, even with all the wonky math that the studios use to determine just how much money a film made in all. But going to the theater is still a communal experience - maybe the last true communal experience we have, except for maybe going to church or a sports event. Theaters like the Alamo Drafthouse, or the Arclight, recognize this and do their best to make the best theatrical experience possible. Now, with IMAX, 3D, D-Box, stadium seating, and various other improvements in theaters since the 1980s, you would think that more people would go to the theaters instead of staying at home. Except, they aren't.
Now, flat out, it costs a lot to go to the movies these days. Tickets are upwards of $10, and for many places, that's a lowball figure. Add on the cost of IMAX, or 3D, and it could go upwards of $20 a ticket. For a family of four, that's a serious money investment, and you haven't even gotten to the concession counter yet. So on the money level, it would make sense for DirecTV's new Home Premiere to take off, where the family could see new films only two months after release date. For $29.99, you could see a newer film in the comfort of home, with your own food and drinks, and even guests, and it would make more financial sense for that family to enjoy a film. I understand that.
Today, 23 filmmakers - producers and directors alike - decried this new event in Video On Demand. Filmmakers like James Cameron, who has been a huge advocate for 3D filmmaking, Peter Jackson, Guillermo Del Toro, Michael Mann, Michael Bay, Kathryn Bigelow - these are Class-A filmmakers (yes, even Bay) who are concerned that their art is being compromised for the almighty dollar. Now, in the war of commerce vs. art, commerce almost always wins, and many of these filmmakers realize that. But they are truly fighting for the distribution of their art, and I think they deserve to be heard. You can read the letter in full here.
I cherish the theatrical experience. When you're in the dark, watching a great movie, and everything's clicking and the audience is polite and respectful, yet also engaged with what they're seeing - well, there's nothing like it for a film fan. With bright projection, terrific sound, and comfortable seats, going to the movies is still one of the best entertainment values for your dollar out there. Now, many of the theater chains out there are terrible at the entire presentation of their product. Crappy projection's my personal pet peeve - those bulbs have to be changed regularly and too many theater chains skimp when it comes to this and the film ends up looking like mud. That's one of the reasons I don't like 3D as much - the glasses automatically dim the screen, and most theater bulbs aren't bright enough to compensate. But I also think that's changing as audiences become more discerning of their theaters and theaters up their quality to compensate.
Watching a great movie in the comfort of home does have its advantages, of course. But I don't think that an early release of films to VOD is the answer. I think people have grown accustomed to having what they want when they want it. I also think that as a society we are becoming more and more marginalized, separating ourselves from everyone that isn't close to us. For regular folks, who don't go to the movies very often, this will likely make little difference, anyway, but for film fanatics like myself, the idea of not sharing this wonderful experience with others, even complete strangers, seems particularly horrible to me. I'm serious when I say this - I lose faith in people in general, but when I'm in a movie theater and we're having that great shared experience that only a good movie can bring, I feel much more optimistic about people. It's a nice feeling to have. We're not all factions or political parties or races in a theater - we're one. And increasingly, the theater is the only place I feel like that these days.
I remember lining up to buy tickets for STAR WARS: EPISODE I. Say what you will about the movie, and I'm sure you have ad nauseam at this point, but the crowd that was there was so hopeful, so happy to be there, and the theater was buzzing in that way that only comes when the audience is primed for a great experience. Or when I saw THE MATRIX opening weekend for the first time, and had no idea what to expect, and coming out of that theater with an audience so thrilled that they applauded all through the end credits - there's nothing like it. You can't judge a regular audience by Butt-Numb-A-Thon, of course, because that's a crowd full of film hypergeeks, but when every moment is shared with a crowd like that, it becomes as real a memory as any event in your life. When Sam carried Frodo on the slopes of Mount Doom, I turned around to watch the audience, my own eyes filled with tears, to see hundreds of eyes reflecting their own tears, and for someone like me, it makes you feel like you're a part of something larger than yourself. I'm not a religious person, but I've found the closest thing I know to God in a movie theater.
Can there be improvements to the theatrical experience? Of course. I'll call out the chains right now - you have to improve on your presentation of films. No one wants to sit in a theater full of texting kids and no one doing anything about it, or a screaming child, or some asshole talking throughout the entire film. I'm sure you're staffed by people little older than teenagers themselves, but I guarantee you that the reason many people stay away from theaters these days is that too many people just don't have any respect for their fellow moviegoer, and theaters shouldn't be afraid of kicking someone out for being disruptive. You have to replace your projection bulbs timely and have people checking every theater to make sure the screen is well lit. You just have to. As for the price hikes in 3D - the audience is paying $5 or more dollars for cheap plastic glasses that cost $1, maybe. Granted, studios are also behind those price hikes and those need to come down. I understand how it works when it comes to new releases - those first several weeks, you don't see any money from ticket prices, it's all about concessions. I don't mind paying for concessions as long as the food's good. I understand concessions are what makes a great theater possible. That said, you could also provide healthier alternatives to the same old candy and popcorn. You'd be surprised at how many people would respond to a simple bowl of fruit. I'd be all over it if my theater offered any.
All the commercials shown before a movie - again, I understand that the theaters need to make their money. I also understand that those commercials are incredibly disruptive to the audience experience. Before a film started I used to love talking to my friends and family about what we were about to see, or how our day was going - just visiting with each other before the film starts. The commercials now make it impossible. Plus, I think we need a respite from all that selling that we undergo every day, and in a theater, we can't even get that. Now, I love trailers, as I'm sure any film geek does, but what the hell am I seeing yet another car commercial for? I get that already just walking outside and looking at a billboard.
Maybe we can blame the films themselves - maybe they've gotten worse over the years instead of better. But I don't think that's entirely true. I think most everything is looked at through a veil of nostalgia and yearning for the past, where we make all the movies from "back in the day" seem better. But crap movies are universal no matter what time period they're made in. It's no more an exception today than it was twenty years ago.
I'm not saying anything new here. Critics of the theatrical experience have been saying it for years. But I think if these fundamental changes are made, people would flock to the movies again. Not to sound too much like an old grump, but seeing a film a couple of decades ago - we have the improvements in technology when it comes to the presentation but there's none of the joy or camaraderie in going to the movies like there used to be. We can blame the films, we can blame the theater, we can blame our changing society. Or we can do something about it.
I'm going to continue to go to the theater, until that option isn't available for me. I'll also enjoy films at home. But I don't think this 60-day window is the answer. The days of a movie playing for months on end is gone and they won't be coming back, not the way the audience demands their entertainment these days. I think the problem is more fundamental than theatrical release lengths, though. It's something more endemic, and not easily solved. I doubt theaters would go away entirely. I don't see that happening. But I can seem them becoming much rarer, and I don't think that's good for anyone.