Does this conversation sound familiar?
Man: Did you see that movie?
Woman: No. I was thinking about it, but it looked like I could wait for it to come out on video.
Man: Absolutely. It’s a rental.
OK, that last phrase, “It’s a rental”, is dated, but you get the idea. Now, I guess, you’d say “I’ll Netflix it.” I’m sure you’ve heard some version of this conversation, or even had it, in your life. I’ve definitely had it, often with myself when I’m debating whether to go to a film or not.
Which films are deemed worthy of a trip to the cinema and which aren’t? I think there are two things at play here. One is a simple measure of perceived quality. The film doesn’t look that good, but I’ll give it a chance, when it’s cheaper and more convenient. Or maybe, it looks mediocre, so it’s worth less to me; I’ll pay a couple bucks, but not 15 at a theater.
The other seems to be a measure of size. It’s heresy to see AVATAR on your tiny 50″ HDTV. It has to be seen in the theater to be fully “experienced”. Of course, 3-D is an attempt to add to this, but generally speaking, you need to see “big” films, like Lawrence of Arabia, in a theater. This is the Hollywood lifeblood. All Hollywood films are “big” because they all cost a shitload of money and they usually have stars. Hollywood also fills up all the screens, so it’s almost a moot point, except for that first reason: the quality factor. Hollywood movies are often big and sucky.
There is also a feeling, much less felt, that you have to see a film with others to experience some sort of collective euphoria. This gets marketed from time to time with a film like PARANORMAL ACTIVITY, where they actually feature audiences jumping in the trailers. This would also apply to comedies, and I think it’s more justified with comedies. Films do seem funnier when everyone else is laughing (and less funny when they are not). What’s ironic about this last one is that, apparently, the most common complaint about going to the movies is that other people are making noise.
I would rather see almost any film in a theater, and I think most people who like films feel the same way. Why else would the home theater be such a big ticket item? I love my big TV and the picture from my Blu-ray player is probably better than it was in most of the theaters I sat in throughout my life. THUNDERBALL looks so good that you can easily tell when it’s not Sean Connery swimming with the sharks – I’m sure that wasn’t the case in the theaters of 1965. It definitely looks better than those old Art House theaters I used to frequent, like the Scala in London, or the Thalia Soho in the City, with the sticky floors, moldy smell and eccentric clientele. I’d still rather see it in a theater. It’s a great film.
VHS killed those art house theaters, so it couldn’t have been a quality issue with them. As grungy as they were, VHS was worse. Convenience trumps all, but it was also the curated nature of those theaters that got me to go. I loved those calendars that they printed with all the clever double features, mixing camp and horror and art. There’s no question that my idea of what a quality film is was formed by the wacky tastes of the crazy people who ran those places.
In a sense, even multiplexes have a sense of being curated. There is still a feeling that a film that doesn’t make it to theaters is not as good as one that does, although I’m sure this is changing. And people, at least the audiences that are catered to, generally like the films that are shown in theaters. Pretty bland stuff, but that’s not their fault. Whether they are “events” or they “have to be seen in theaters”, something is still bringing people to the theaters. It would be cynical to think that it is just the marketing of Hollywood, but that has a lot to do with it.
So how do you make a film that must be seen in a theater? Obviously, you have to get over that first hurdle, which is that it has to be, or at least appear to be, good. Size in films has always been a nebulous thing. I would consider a character drama like WHO’S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOLF more epic than AVATAR, but I don’t think everyone would agree with that. I would like to think that making a film cinematic would help get people into theaters, but I’m not sure it does. The more visual the story-telling and the less “talky” it is, then you should see it in a theater; after all, an uncinematic film is just TV anyway, talking heads and dialog.
But I think the most important factor has to do with that curation element. A film has to be deemed worthy to make it to the theaters, and then deemed “must be seen in theaters”, and the curator has to be someone who has earned their reputation. The harder it is to get a film into theaters, the more valuable a film that gets into theaters is, despite the fact that this is controlled by factors that have little to do with the quality of a film. When a film like SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE breaks through, it has faced countless obstacles and has earned its value: people go to the theaters and see it.
I don’t have any conclusions about this, but I do know that a film that gets put out on video isn’t necessarily worse than some Hollywood schlock that gets into theaters because it cost 50 million dollars to make. And finding a screen for your film is still the most valuable and the hardest thing to get.