David Denby had a great piece in the New Yorker last week about the present and future of movies. I was surprised to learn that Hollywood hates the movie theater-going experience as much or more than the rest of us:
Consider the mall or the urban multiplex. The steady rain of contempt that I heard Hollywood executives direct at the theatres has been amplified, a dozen times over, by friends and strangers alike. The concession stands were wrathfully noted, with their “small” Cokes in which you could drown a rabbit, their candy bars the size of cow patties; add to that the pre-movie purgatory padded out to thirty minutes with ads, coming attractions, public-service announcements, theatre-chain logos, enticements for kitty-kat clubs and Ukrainian bakeries-anything to delay the movie and send you back to the concession stand, where the theatres make forty per cent of their profits. If you go to a thriller, you may sit through coming attractions for five or six action movies, with bodies bursting out of windows and flaming cars flipping through the air-a long stretch of convulsive imagery from what seems like a single terrible movie that you’ve seen before. At poorly run multiplexes, projector bulbs go dim, the prints develop scratches or turn yellow, the soles of your shoes stick to the floor, people jabber on cell phones, and rumbles and blasts bleed through the walls.
If we want to see something badly enough, we go, of course, and once everyone settles down we can still enjoy ourselves. But we go amid murmurs of discontent, and the discontent will only get louder as the theatre complexes age. Many of them were randomly and cheaply built in response to what George Lucas conclusively demonstrated with “Star Wars,” in 1977: that a pop movie heavily advertised on national television could open simultaneously in theatres across the country and attract enormous opening-weekend audiences. As these theatres age, the gold leaf doesn’t slowly peel off fluted columns. They rot, like disused industrial spaces. They have become the detritus of what seems, on a bad day, like a dying culture.
Denby also considers what happens to movies when the primary target audience (12-30 year-olds make up 50% of the movie-going population) may prefer to watch movies on DVD, their computers, or on iPods.
No exhibition method is innocent of aesthetic qualities. Platform agnosticism may flourish among kids, but platform neutrality doesn’t exist. Fifty years ago, the length of a pop single was influenced by what would fit on a forty-five-r.p.m. seven-inch disk. The length and the episodic structure of the Victorian novel — Dickens’s novels, especially — were at least partly created by writers and editors working on deadline for monthly periodicals. Television, for a variety of commercial and spatial reasons, developed the single-set or two-set sitcom. Format always affects form, and the exhibition space changes what’s exhibited.
As a fan of watching movies on the big screen of a theater, I hope that sort of movie making doesn’t go away anytime soon.