September 22, 2008

The Times,They Are A-Changin’

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The other day I passed by Collegetown Video on my walk home from class. Its oddly industrial-chic storefront was covered with all manner of incentives begging customers to come in: membership benefits, a DVD repair service, three movies for the price of two, and so on. As I walked away, I couldn’t help but feel that these were the last desperate cries of a dying business model.
This feeling was reinforced when I got home and found a new Netflix movie in my mailbox. And later that evening when I watched Weeds online. And the next day when I downloaded Pineapple Express in the law library.
It made me wonder: When was the last time I’d actually set foot in a video store?
It’s no secret that the Internet has remade the landscape in almost every corner of our culture. The Draconian anti-piracy efforts of the MPAA notwithstanding, the film business is changing as well. But we still suffer from a bit of shell-shock: The effects of the new world order in movie-watching have yet to sink in, and the institutions lag behind reality like the hat of a Looney Tunes’ character after he’s run off screen.
Cinema hasn’t gone the way of popular music — at least not yet. Millions still line up at the box office, and films like The Dark Knight prove that the good old studio blockbuster has a lot of staying power.
But young movie audiences today are experiencing film in a way that no other generation yet has. Sure, cinema is one of the youngest of the art forms, and it’d be hard to describe a paradigmatic “movie experience.” Nevertheless, the ground has shifted: For most people, big-screen projection is now probably the least-used method for taking in a movie, and online services like Netflix and BitTorrent have made thousands of films available without leaving home. How will these changes in the presentation and availability of film affect the genre?
One adjustment can already be seen in the staggered release schedule of box office pictures. It used to be that movies sat in theaters for a while, retired to the studio’s archives for several months and then were given a second birth on VHS or DVD before being put out to pasture on cable TV. That process has sped up radically in recent years: Many movies are out of sight for only a few weeks after leaving theaters, and on-demand cable services have sped things up even more. IFC now offers various films on-demand simultaneously with their theatrical release. “Only in Theaters” has lost some of its urgency.
It doesn’t seem likely, however, that the whole theater-DVD-TV process will die out anytime soon. Box office returns are still the biggest moneymaker for studios, and they’re going to protect that cash flow by limiting access to their product.
But that isn’t to say that the nature of the market won’t influence how films are made. Directors now know that their pictures aren’t one-off affairs that play at the corner theater and then fade from memory until brought back for a midnight showing. They are bought, downloaded and shared. They split space on a laptop with your family photos and tax forms; they are watched in ten-minute bursts and fast-forwarded and rewound. This increased level of scrutiny (and also perhaps a diminished respect for the work as a whole) will certainly affect how directors and screenwriters conceive their films.
And then there’s the YouTube phenomenon. Theaters were once the sole arena for seeing anything filmed. Television came along and stole some of their fire, and the Camcorder gave them another blow. But unlike other art forms such as music or literature, it wasn’t until very recently that film broke free of the tight grasp of its professional class. Now a movie doesn’t need a producer, director and studio to be seen by millions; all that is required is a webcam and a modem. Freed from the constraints of the corporate mindset and the profit margin, film could undergo a folk revolution.
Of course, any attempt to see into the future of an art form is doomed to failure, especially in this epoch of exponential technological change. Still, it’s interesting to hypothesize how film might respond to the factors enumerated above. Amateur online video, although broadly characterized by boring introspection and flippant irony, could push the professional sphere toward innovation.
However it pans out, the new world of cinema is sure to be interesting. Collegetown Video and other relics of the old order may fade away, but we can delight in the fact that we were here when it changed. And there’s nothing more exciting than revolution.