Going to the Movies

Chaos in Print

It’s fairly obvious to all who know me that I’m a guy who loves his movies. Ever since I was a child, going to the movies was an event. Because of how far I lived from the city, going to a movie was always the end of a grand adventure in the thriving metropolis. Even to this day, when going to the movies seems rather routine, I still get excited at the whole process of showing up well in advance, buying my ticket and snacks, and sitting in the dark waiting for the lights to dim and the curtain to rise. Well, the curtain doesn’t rise anymore. Now we wait for those annoying PowerPoint-style ads to stop.

But, for this past year, people have been lamenting that people don’t go out to the movies as much anymore. In 2005, the media made much fuss over the “box office slump.” Many reasons were floated as to why people weren’t heading out to the theatre. Some said that a night at the movies had gotten too expensive. Other analysts pointed to the steady stream of sequels and remakes and said that it was a lack of originality. The one thing that everyone latched onto, though, was the advent of DVD. The logic was why go out to the theatre when you can watch it in the comfort of your own home?

And there is a point to that. Rather than $10 for a movie ticket, you can watch it for the $4.99 rental fee. TV screens are getting bigger. Home theatre sound systems are getting better. And, most shocking of all, the gap between when a movie leaves theatres and when it comes out on DVD is getting shorter and shorter. I remember Elektra in Cold Lake. The film came out in January, and I saw it the week I arrived in Cold Lake. It hit the video stores in April, as I was packing up to leave town. That’s probably a little more than 90 days, which is starting to become the average.

That’s the one thing I want to know. Why is that gap getting shorter? I remember being younger. Who Framed Roger Rabbit and Jurassic Park came out on video a full year after they were in theatres. I thought that was great! That truly duplicated the theatrical experience, as the video release became as big an event as the theatrical release. It was a hot topic of conversation at school. “Have you rented it yet? Have you seen it again yet?” I remember Jurassic Park especially as that was the first time me and most of my friends had seen that now-familiar disclaimer: “This film has been modified from its original version. It’s been formatted to fit your screen.” We didn’t know that the disclaimer referred to cropping the film from widescreen to a TV screen. Instead, we spent hours trying to remember the theatrical film, and debating what scenes had been cut to “format it to fit our screens.” So, it seems that a long gap between the theatrical release and the home video release makes it an anticipated event again. Why don’t the movie studios want to do that?

In a word: money. Ad campaigns are expensive. You do all that hype and press to advertise the movie when it hits theatres, and then you have to do it again for the DVD. By shortening the gap between theatres and home video, you can get two ad campaigns for the price of one; get the DVD on the shelves while the film is still fresh in people’s minds. Of course, with that mentality, it’s not long before it’s taken to extremes. On January 27, Steven Soderburgh, the maker of Erin Brokovich, Ocean’s 11, and other fine films, releases his new film, Bubble. Bubble has already made headlines because, on January 27, the film will be released simultaneously in theatres, on DVD, to cable movie channels, and to video-on-demand services (e.g. pay-per-view). Soderburgh claims that this is the future of movie distribution.

That’s the core question, though. What is the future of movie distribution? The film industry is very much trying to decide that right now. What made the most headlines over the summer was 3D filmmaking. Several renowned filmmakers, such as George Lucas, James Cameron, and Robert Rodriguez, say that 3D films are the wave of the future, and that with advances in digital filmmaking, 3D films are easier to make and have better 3D effects than ever before. Over in the other camp, there’s Steven Spielberg, who shrugs off 3D movies as being a fad. Spielberg is quick to point out that the last time there was push towards 3D films was in the 1950s, when movie studios were trying to combat the threat of television. “It’s just history repeating itself,” says Spielberg.

Everyone, though, seems to be focusing on the home theatre environment. Back during the “great box office slump of 2005,” everyone said that it was DVD that was cutting into theatrical revenues. So I started thinking to myself, “OK, then. If that’s the case, then that must mean that 2005 is going to be a record-year for DVD! Because, in the Christmas season of 2005, when all those movies that no one went to see start hitting DVD, it’s going to be crazy as everyone flocks out to the stores to buy or rent those movies!” That was my logic. Less people going to the theatres + more people waiting for the movie to come out on DVD = record DVD sales.

But that was not the case! In statistics that were glossed over and buried, 2005 actually saw the first-ever decrease in DVD sales and rentals. I say “glossed over” because, in attempting to explain this statistic, we were given terms like “market saturation” and “uncertainty over the future of the market.” Of course, no one in Hollywood wanted to say, “Uhh, it’s because all the movies of 2005 were really, really crappy.” What backs that up is when you look at the statistics for DVD sales and rentals. People are watching the newest movies that they have a passing interest in. They’re watching the classics that they love.

And things are about to get even more complicated. This spring sees the first batch of next generation DVD players. New kinds of players and new kinds of discs resulting in much better picture and sound quality, and more room for bonus features. Sadly, though, there’s going to be two competing formats. In one corner, we’ve got Sony and their Blu-Ray discs. In the other corner, it’s Toshiba and HD-DVD. Ladies and gentlemen, we haven’t seen a bout like this since the good ol’ days of VHS vs. Beta. The fight begins in March.

And all the techno-gurus are telling us that the future will be the video-on-demand services. I could see that, actually. Just think. You pay a nominal subscription fee. When you feel like watching a movie, you just push a button on your remote control, and a list of every movie ever made comes up. Pick the one you want, hit play, and you watch your movie. I think, though, it’s going to be another generation or two until we’ve got that level of convenience.

When it comes to DVD and home theatres and video-on-demand, though, I just don’t care. I don’t think any of this new technology will be able to fully replace the theatrical experience. What going to the movie theatre still had over the home theatre experience is that going to a movie theatre is still an event. Wearing your best clothes (or, at least, clean clothes), heading downtown, buying a big bucket of popcorn and sharing an experience with several dozen strangers is still something that cannot be duplicated with all the technology in your living room. Granted, things are changing. The technology is evolving how the experience comes to us. But there will always, always be a place for the movie theatre.

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