What cinemas are for
In a world with 4K phones and 22.2 home surround systems, why should we go to the cinema?
We can potentially match theaters in quality, and surpass them in experience, due to our control of the home environment. There’s no strangers talking in my living room. No one forgot their ringtone on. I can eat and drink whatever I want, pause and resume playback whenever I want.
The value proposition of cinema is threefold:
- It provides a publicly accessible place for spending time “in private” with someone else.
- Films are available sooner than in other venues.
- They provide a distraction free environment.
The first point is really important to anyone who doesn’t live alone, and that’s a massive demographic depending on the country. It ceases being important for most Americans when they reach their 20s, but it’s definitely a factor in overcrowded metropolises, or wherever cultural and economical factors conspire to make people stay with their parents.
The second point is largely useless, in a world in which we never manage to consume all the content we want. We all have massive backlogs, the difficulty is wrangling our time and our attention spans.
Which brings me to the third point. Fast paced action movies are great at keeping our attention, and that’s increasingly the most produced “genre”, reflecting the consumption of films in highly distracting environments. Thoughtful films are being relegated as awards bait, they’re basically not being made for profit anymore. Perhaps more importantly, they’re not being shown in theaters.
Theater operators seem to concentrate almost exclusively on blockbusters, to the detriment of everything else. They seem to think they still have the advantage in terms of quality, and that people will flock to see the new Avengers movie in the cinema to enjoy the full scale special effects. I don’t think that’s generally the case, people go to the theater for those films because they know what they’re getting, and they don’t want to be left out of the massive cultural discourse surrounding them (which I guess is point 2, which I had declared useless).
If you can wait for the newest Marvel fare to be available at home, you’re not going to miss much from the theater experience.
Let’s compare instead with something like Only Lovers Left Alive, or The Red Turtle. These are both visually stunning films, with very meditative pacing.
If you’re watching them at home, at the first mobile notification your immersion will be destroyed. They’re great films, and I can only really enjoy films like that at the cinema. I’m really glad I splurged them to see them the way I did, but they only tend to be available in essai cinemas.
I watched Moonlight at home, and while I rationally saw that it was a great movie, I just couldn’t enjoy it for what it was, I wasn’t immersed.
Of course I realize it’s all down to self control, but it’s unthinkable for me to even glance at my phone in a dark movie theater, at home I do it all the time. Sometimes I’m even attempting to watch the movie on the phone.
Theater operators also seem to think about language as a negative but uniform modifier. They know original language showings generally have smaller audiences than dubbed ones, so they schedule blockbusters for original language showings. Of course, nobody is interested in admiring the original dialogue for the Transformers movies, some people might be interested in the non-ruined-by-dubbing dialogue in Paterson.