Scott: When we conceived of The Dissolve, part of the mission was to account for the many different ways people watch movies. Per my “Letter From The Editor,” that means a site that’s responsive to a range of 21st-century cinematic experiences, whether readers spend their Friday night “at the multiplex, in their favorite New York City arthouse, or watching a new indie On Demand at home in Des Moines.” But I’m not going to lie to you: I’m feeling a little disoriented by it all. Keeping track of the multitude of viewing options is one challenge—theatrical, DVD/BD, streaming, and the untamed outgrowth that is Video On Demand—but there’s a more existential challenge, too. What does moviegoing even mean anymore? When the same digital technology links the multiplex with the HDTV, what beyond the details of screen size, resolution, and big sound separates one type of experience from another? These aren’t necessarily rhetorical questions, but I wanted to get your impressions of what going to the movies (and watching movies at home) mean to you now, as opposed to five, 10, or 20 years ago. How do you make sense of this new world we’re in?
Noel: Scott, you and I have had a long-running argument about how we should and shouldn’t watch movies (and TV, for that matter), and I’ve usually tended to come out in favor of people watching whatever they want, however they want. But I’m still sympathetic to your concerns about how overwhelming the options seem these days, between theatrical releases, physical media, and all the little content-pipes feeding into our TVs and laptops. I say “seem” because while the pipes have been multiplying, the content has been drying up—at least when it comes to the older catalog titles. But I’ll come back to that. For now, you ask us what moviegoing means? I can tell you that as someone who lives away from a big city, and whose best chance to see the most acclaimed films of any given year is to watch them on disc or on VOD, I still think of moviegoing as paying for a ticket at a multiplex. There are about half a dozen movies currently in theaters that I haven’t seen yet and am looking forward to watching, but if any of them were available to watch on my TV right now, I don’t know that I would. Maybe I’m showing undue bias, or I’m too stuck in an old mindset, but in my head, I still tend to divide movies into “watch in theaters,” “watch on Netflix,” “watch on cable,” and “watch on Blu-ray.” I tend to think of some movies as more appropriate for one particular mode of delivery.
Tasha: I do too, Noel. Broadly speaking, summer blockbusters are for theaters, on the big screen, possibly in 3-D. Smaller features can wait for solo viewing on DVD release; particularly laughable-looking or junky failures are for watching at home with a crowd of friends. But I also try to see certain kinds of smaller films in the theater: I know my attention is more likely to be riveted on the screen in a theater than at home, so I’m less likely to bail in horror during Killer Joe, or lose focus during The Turin Horse. My movie habits haven’t changed all that much with the VOD revolution. I still prefer Blu-ray to streaming; I still like the quality and extras of discs more than the immediacy of On Demand; I still like my ’splosion-fests on the biggest screen possible.
But the many ways of watching films these days still comes in handy. It may be harder for newer small films to find audiences, since there’s so much choice out there, but if one of us loves a small indie film, chances are better than ever that we can actually point people to a viewing option that isn’t “Buy this movie, sight unseen.” Films like Graceland or First Winter may never make it to multiplexes, but Netflix or Hulu or On Demand are all standing by, content-hungry and ready to give those films a platform. When I wanted to watch My Man Godfrey recently for something I was writing, I rented it from Netflix, then re-watched it again later on YouTube, where it’s streaming in free and pay forms. I can pay $20 to own The Avengers, or just re-watch it on Netflix Instant. There are too many options right now for anyone to make full use of all of them—I don’t have a mubi.com or Hulu Plus or Amazon Prime or Fandor.com membership simply because work, Netflix, theaters, and a DVD backlog gives me more films at hand than I can watch—but I enjoy knowing that all those options are there, and that people are using them.
Scott: To Tasha’s point, I’m more comfortable watching blockbusters at home than in a theater sometimes, particularly if they’re so disposable that they aren’t worth paying much to see, or if they’re post-converted to 3-D. But I want to focus on the independent theatrical experience, because that’s the arena that’s undergoing the most change. A piece of history to keep in mind: The whole notion of day-and-date releasing strategy—and now VOD before theatrical—is owed to the fact that the same company that owns the indie arm Magnolia Pictures also owns Landmark Theaters. Major theater chains balked (and still balk) at the notion of releasing a movie on DVD/BD and/or VOD on the same day as a theatrical release, because they worry they’ll lose business to people content to watch movies at home. Because Landmark is the only major chain showing independent movies, it established that beachhead, and other indie theaters and distributors have followed. This is great news for people who don’t live in a major city and want to see something like Berberian Sound Studio when it comes out, but…
…I worry that it diminishes movie-theater culture to a significant degree. Tasha, you admit up front that you’re more likely to see “smaller features” at home. The good part of that thinking is that it now puts the onus on independent filmmakers to be bold and make the types of movies that would benefit from screening in a large public venue. But I question whether other filmgoers parse out these distinctions as finely as you do. With so many independent films going day-and-date or pre-theatrical VOD, including visually striking ones like Nicolas Winding Refn’s Only God Forgives and Brian De Palma’s Passion, the theatrical experience isn’t even a concern. In the past, there were three distinct windows: Theatrical followed by video followed by TV and other ancillaries. Now those windows have collapsed, and release strategies are so willy-nilly that sorting them out is practically a full-time job for me. And if I’m baffled by it, the casual viewer is fucked.
Noel: Exactly. I don’t have access to the most common On Demand providers (my local cable-provider offers a service, but I’d have to use its DVR rather than my TiVo, which I’d rather not do), so I’m not as well-versed in where and how people can actually see some of the VOD titles I review. One of our readers recently asked in the comments where the movie I’d just reviewed was available, and I had to let another reader bail me out with an answer—or else I would’ve said, “Um… It’s on… demand?”
I do wish there was more of a logical order to when movies arrive on VOD (like the old home-video and cable windows you mentioned, Scott), or that VOD was primarily a delivery system for smaller films that otherwise wouldn’t make it past the urban arthouses. Instead, some quality indies debut on VOD around the same time as their theatrical release, but have to compete with big Hollywood movies that come to VOD day-and-date with their Blu-ray release, and micro-budget movies that would be filler at most regional film festivals. Maybe it’s that we’re approaching this as critics, who see it as our job to lead our readers to where the buried gems are (without having to sort through too many ugly rocks), but the whole system right now seems cluttered and disorganized.
“It’s up to us to make things better by showing corporations where the money is—essentially by buying quality products, whether that means seeking out great films on VOD instead of settling for whatever an apathetic surf brings us...”
I have some pie-in-the-sky thoughts on how the whole digital realm could work more effectively for film buffs, but first I have to ask: Does it need fixing at all?
Tasha: I’m going to reach into the depths of my vocabulary and my strategic reserve of rhetorical flourish in order to make the following argument: “Meh.” Let’s be realistic about this: There’s no way to complain that things ain’t the way they used to be when we were younger, or that today’s dang kids have too many movie-watching options, without looking like a bunch of hand-wringing old coots. Yes, theater culture may be dying, given the seemingly endless wave of online griping about people talking and texting in the theater, coupled with the rise of increasingly impressive home audiovisual systems. I’d be sad if it died entirely; I have a lot of nostalgia bound up in theaters, and I think they’re still the best way to see a movie. But if theater culture does die, it’s because people prefer other options, and for very valid reasons, too. You can’t hold back technology, or the tide of changing tastes.
What you can do is help shape those tastes, and how those technologies are used. Critics can direct people to the gems on the popular services. VOD providers can be clearer about what they’re offering and when, rather than—oh, say, like Netflix Instant—being secretive about when their offerings change. Consumers can communicate with their services about what films they want to see—and if those services aren’t responsive, or easy to navigate, or clear about launch dates and scheduling, consumers can vote with their wallets. Meanwhile, sites like Hacking Netflix and InstantWatcher and Can I Stream It? help bring order to the chaos. If there’s a demand for a service, such as organizing information on entertainment for consumers, someone’s going to jump up and provide that service. Problem (eventually) solved, yes?
Here’s my question for you, Scott. You’re worried about the potential lack of separation between the home experience and the theater experience, or between theatrical, VOD, and physical-media home releases. Why? Does it matter if those lines get blurrier? As long as people are watching movies—and watching lots of them, with increasing ease and access and choice—what’s the big deal?
Scott: I like the idea of people seeing movies together, as a social experience. If nothing else, it’s fun to see how a movie can play to an audience: I saw Michael Haneke’s original Funny Games and Caché in sold-out festival screenings, and when each movie got to that signature Haneke moment where a shock completely sucks the oxygen out of the room, there were gasps and screams that burst through the palpable tension. There’s also the pleasure of a lot of people being able to take part in a conversation. If they watch a movie at the same time, they can then exchange ideas and arguments that enhance their understanding of it. Otherwise, the movies become too much like what music has become, due to the iPod: We don’t listen to the same music coming from the stereo, and it can be narrow and isolating. That’s part of the impetus behind The Dissolve’s Movie Of The Week idea. It’s illuminating—we hope, anyway—to spend a few days looking at a film from every angle, but I also like the idea of everyone watching something at the same time.
The blurry lines, however, are a big problem, Tasha, because it can be extremely difficult to sort out what’s available in what form from what source—and what’s more, there are massive gaps in the online movie marketplace. When Netflix first exploded onto the scene, it offered the promise of the ultimate video store: You could order up any movie you wanted, and there it was. But we’ve now seen that it’s all been a bait-and-switch, where the convenience of Instant has come at the steep price of an untended DVD business and a bunch of older titles slipping through the cracks altogether. Getting a movie that came out in the last few years has never been easier, but with the DVD/BD business falling off, and the limited pickings of Instant taking over, I’m feeling increasingly grateful that I accumulated so many physical discs over the years, because I would not have access to them otherwise.
And one last concern about the new independent/foreign-film landscape: Individual titles are often treated carelessly, now that all these other windows (VOD, DVD/BD, streaming, TV outlets) have taken on equal or greater value than theatrical. On the one hand, I’m grateful that companies like IFC Films, Magnolia, Tribeca, and others are picking up so many titles for distribution and flooding the marketplace with them. But the downside of that is the lack of care given to titles that might be really special: At worst, it feels like they’re just shoveling movies into the content maw. Where’s the TLC?
Noel: Going back to what you were talking about, Tasha, here’s the problem in a nutshell, as far as I’m concerned: The different digital-delivery subscription services and VOD retailers should be differentiating themselves by the quality of their interfaces and organization, but instead, they’ve been working on exclusivity deals, which has added the whole confusion of our watch-at-home options. Movies that were on Netflix, Hulu, or what-have-you yesterday might not be there today. A movie I can download from Amazon might not be on iTunes. In my dream world, that kind of dealmaking would go away, and streaming-video companies of all kinds would be no different from retailers that sell physical media. Yes, there are “Best Buy exclusives” and “Target exclusives,” but those are relatively rare. For the most part, when a new Blu-ray comes out, I can go to my local big-box store or click over to Amazon and I can get it, without having to check first to see who signed a licensing agreement with whom. I’d like the same to be true for digital video, be it something I download to keep, something I rent to watch once, or part of a service I subscribe to.
Then, following up on what you’re saying, Scott, I’d like these services to focus more on the curatorial aspect of their business. I’d like the subscription sites in particular to treat their catalogs the way TCM treats theirs. Forget the dumb, algorithm-based “you might also like” recommendation systems. Tell me what you like. Create essential viewing lists, and rotate them from month to month, or even week to week. To some extent, Netflix and Hulu do things that are like this, but the layout of their sites is so bad that no one recommendation stands out over any other.
“There’s no way to complain that things ain’t the way they used to be when we were younger, or that today’s dang kids have too many movie-watching options, without looking like a bunch of hand-wringing old coots.”
In the end, what I really want as a consumer and a film buff is for every older movie to be available to download or stream for a reasonable fee (as with old-fashioned retailers), for subscription services to organize and promote their offerings better (like old-fashioned cable channels), and for VOD services to emphasize the smaller, high-quality movies that otherwise don’t get much distribution (like old-fashioned arthouses). Maybe that’s just me being stuck with my old ways of thinking about how I get my entertainment, but I honestly believe that a clearer sense of purpose and mission—as opposed to just “here’s a list of movies we have the rights to show you, so flip through them”—would serve a more useful function, and make writing about this new digital realm much less of a muddle.
Tasha: I agree that all that would be nice, Noel, but I don’t think we’re going to see the end of exclusivity deals anytime soon, especially as more streaming services go into original content production, and try to find other ways to force consumers to use their service instead of anyone else’s. And I don’t think you’re ever going to see studios making their products as universally available through VOD sites as they were in big-box stores—not if they can control the means of distribution themselves, and drive profits that way. Basically, if there isn’t money in it, don’t expect them to do it.
The upside is, if there is money in something you want—if there’s a real demand for it outside our entrenched little film-buff circle—then someone’s going to try to provide it. Which explains the slow rise of theaters that ban kids, serve drinks, offer cushy chairs, and kick out texters, all in an attempt to preserve and redefine old-fashioned theater culture. It also explains boutique houses like Criterion, which focus on curation and presentation. And the websites I mentioned above, which are filling the niches left by VOD services’ sloppiness. Frankly, while we’re living in a transitional time—and given how fast technology is proceeding, I expect to live the rest of my life in a transitional time—and it feels a little Wild-West-y out there right now, I think everything’s going to be fine. It’s just that we have to participate, not just worry or kvetch.
It’s up to us to make things better by showing corporations where the money is—essentially by buying quality products, whether that means seeking out great films on VOD instead of settling for whatever an apathetic surf brings us, buying well-designed film packages, going to the theater when it does get films we want, or standing by whatever VOD service has the best selection and navigation. Vote with your money, guys, and be vocal about where you’d be willing to put it if you had the option, and be vocal about where other people can find streams or discs or theatrical releases worth spending their hard-earned money on. The corporations aren’t going to altruistically look out for our interests, but film fans can look out for each other, by recommending films and companies that are doing things right, or at least getting closer than average. Everybody’s a critic these days—and that isn’t a bad thing.