The Current State of Cinema

When we look around in movie theatres today what do we see?

People passing time. People little engaged. Some distractedly checking their phones. Some whispering to their companions. Some have turned off their minds happily to be taken over briefly by the latest comic book movie, adaption or remake randomly playing this week. However, too often, as the credits roll, they awaken as if from a stupor rather than invigorated from having had their souls massaged.

But, mostly, we see empty seats. Movie lovers have left town. This cultural shift has not happened overnight. Frustrated, disappointed and sometimes driven away, movie lovers have turned to other media. Yet big screen cinema adds something unique to a viewing experience. Something unavailable on a mobile phone, computer or standard T.V.

The reality is that, in addition to all the other signal changes in lifestyles and technology going on all around, movies have not been delivering the goods. Movie lovers apparently have given up hope that movies will deliver, on a consistent basis, the added experience that one can get only in the cinema.

But not me.

For the first time in years I am excited about movies. In fact, now may be one of the most exciting times ever to be a movie lover. Have I gone mad?

steven soderbergh

Everyone from casual movie-goers to acclaimed filmmakers are declaring a state of emergency.

True, cinema may be in a state of emergency. If we are honest, movies haven’t delivered consistently since the late 90s. And if we are really honest, perhaps not since the late 70s. To understand why, we need to understand what an audience needs and expects when purchasing tickets.

Any given movie should deliver entertainment or spectacle, education and motivation. A great movie delivers all “the goods” in the proportion suited to its natural audience. Delivering these things in some near right proportion will ensure that any given audience leaves satisfied. Great movies fire on all cylinders and audiences return for repeated viewings.

The big screen is especially suited to larger than life spectacle. But, “larger than life” also means big themes and big characters. Once, movie lovers also had a reasonable expectation that “big budgets” might mean “big efforts” to deliver everything for which movie lovers go to the cinema.

Today’s movie creators have a different agenda. Controlled by the big studios, these aim to satisfy the need for entertainment and spectacle, tending to ignore education and motivation. Yet, a movie that only entertains and offers spectacle will not succeed as a great cinema experience.

Studios then shoot themselves in the foot when they produce remakes, sequels and adaptations from other media. These have an increasingly reduced chance of even just being entertaining the further one goes down the path of diluting the original idea. Even spectacle, when not supported by the other elements, is boring. Are those 3-D glasses fooling anyone into thinking an ordinary experience was made magical? Yes, one may have extracted the last possible dollar from a story franchise, but the marketplace as a whole has been diminished. Without intending any disrespect, movie lovers leave home expecting to find themselves at, say, “Holt Renfrew” or “The Bay” but find themselves instead at, say, “Walmart.”

There are still “the indies.” These movies tend to be original and created specifically for cinema screens. However, they may try too hard to push back as an alternative experience. In trying to fill the information and motivation void, they may fail to offer sufficient entertainment or spectacle. A movie that fails to entertain first of all will seldom be good, let alone great.

Not so long ago, there were niche divisions at the major studios aimed at the middle ground. These gave respectable budgets and distribution to original content by deserving filmmakers. About five years ago these began to be axed. The wind now blows through their boarded up offices as if they were ghost towns on a western movie set.

tumbleweed saloon

Niche divisions at Hollywood studios have been shut down and boarded up.

Why? A few weeks ago, Steven Soderbergh explained that no one in today’s studio system has figured out how to distribute movies cheaply. So, after you make, distribute and promote a movie, you need to gross a small fortune from the diminished audience just to break even. As a result, only movies that appeal to broad audiences get made. This is not inherently a problem: great movies appeal to broad audiences. However, as Soderbergh points out, movie studios have little ability to identify projects with the highest potential to become great movies. So, they minimize the risk using statistics.

Soderbergh is a soldier of cinema. He has been on the front lines through the last two decades, arguably some of the worst years in movie history. He can barely hide his frustration, pessimism and battle scars. And now, like the movie lovers who have abandoned their seats, Soderbergh is leaving town too.

But when everyone, from casual movie-goers to acclaimed filmmakers, is giving up on movies, one should pay attention. The human journey proceeds through cycles. What has been the most successful formula will almost certainly begin failing in its hour of triumph. The current movie studio regime will be no different.

Three things give me hope about the future of movies:

1. Tomorrow’s filmmakers. The young filmmakers that will lead us through the next 20 years have lived through the movie apocalypse. They intimately know the dissatisfaction audiences feel with movies and know they can do no worse. All they need are the tools. The next “New Wave” will be on us before we even know it.

2. Affordable Digital Equipment. Suddenly, filmmakers are able to make professional movies for a fraction of the cost ten years ago. This gives them more control over their stories.

3. Internet Distribution. The writing is on the wall for the current system of distribution. Opening the playing field empowers the filmmakers with the best movies. The “big screen” experience depends mostly on a sense of proportion and positioning in relation to the action. While it seems counter-intuitive, the big screen experience is becoming increasingly possible in smaller venues.

Make no mistake: revolution is in the air. These are exciting days to be a movie lover.