Christopher Nolan went off-script at CinemaCon, and for a moment, at least, the movie universe blinked. But maybe just for a moment. Asked what he thought about the brave new world that was potentially coming, in which major movies would be offered to home viewers through video-on-demand as early as 30 days after they first opened in theaters, Nolan replied, “The only platform I’m interested in talking about is theatrical distribution.”
There was a bit of an ouch! to that remark. Yet it was a very classy bit of gnomic dismissal, because Nolan, on the surface, was voicing a sentiment that almost any film director would agree with — and that, indeed, many studio representatives recited with dutiful reverence at CinemaCon. Nolan was there to promote to “Dunkirk,” his upcoming World War II epic about the legendary evacuation of Allied soldiers from the northern French city in 1940. After all the WWII movies we’ve seen, you’d better believe that Nolan’s is going to thrive on size and scale and a gotta-see-it-on-the-big-screen awe factor. Nolan was reminding his audience — rightly, if a bit curtly — of the primacy of the theatrical experience.
But, of course, he was also speaking in code. By ducking any direct comment on the VOD revolution that is now in the works, he wound up making a statement that was deafening in its silence. He was saying, implicitly: No, I’m not happy about it, and I don’t “approve.” And maybe because Christopher Nolan, in addition to being a visionary film director, is also a gentleman who commands the power and respect of an ace politician, he knew, at that moment, that he was speaking not merely for himself but for an entire side of the business: all of the other visionary directors — the ones whose job it is, every day, to put the dream in the dream factory.
You could say that they represent the “art” side of the art-vs.-commerce divide, the one that has always created a defining tension in the movie business. Yet in saying so, it’s important to remember that the art-vs.-commerce divide isn’t really a divide — it’s a yin-and-yang symbiosis. The industry that Hollywood represents depends on artists; and the artists who work in Hollywood need the movie business to be a business. Christopher Nolan, in insisting that “Dunkirk” be talked about as a big-screen phenomenon, wasn’t standing up for some “boutique” side of moviemaking. He was standing up for the essence of what movies have been for 100 years.
The question that now looms is: Are they going to keep on being that thing? If you want the answer to be “yes,” there’s a good case to be made that the coming VOD revolution, if it happens in the way it’s being talked about, is not a revolution that’s going to wind up being on your side.
Let’s be a thousand percent clear about what a gargantuan change it would be: the biggest change in how we watch movies, I would argue, since the advent of the video cassette in the late 1970s and early ’80s. That change had the potential to upend the movie business, and in many ways did, but it cushioned the upheavals it created with new revenue streams, a paradigm that continued through the introduction of the DVD (and then through VOD and streaming services). On top of that, the big change the VHS created — the evolution in how we consume films — is one that everyone liked.
You could now see movies at home! You could go out to a video store and that night, that very moment, decide which film, from a vast storehouse of old and new titles (in a good video store, the history of cinema was laid out before you), you wanted to see. This wasn’t an anti-movie revolution; it was a pro-movie revolution, one that helped to spawn new generations of film fanatics. And part of the paradigm was the length of time it took for a new release to come out on VHS. It was usually three to six months — not so long that you had to wait forever, but just long enough that the release of a film for home viewing didn’t tread on the magical primacy of the theatrical experience.
That window has shortened a bit over time, but it has remained, in essence, true to the 1980s VHS window — until the introduction of video-on-demand, which allowed films (usually smaller ones) to become available for home viewing right after, or sometimes the day of, their theatrical release. But given the nature of the movies we’re talking about, this seemed nothing less than a healthy development. I first really registered it in 2011, when I discovered that Lars von Trier’s “Melancholia” had been released on VOD before it opened theatrically in New York and Los Angeles. Once I got past the shock, I thought: That could be a good thing. It meant that people in other parts of the country who’d heard about the movie and were eager to see it now wouldn’t have to wait. Before, unless they were lucky enough to live near an art-house multiplex, they would have to wait at least three months. That’s a long time if you’ve got a passion for movies.
But is 30 days a long time? It’s understandable that exhibitors, until recently, have drawn a line in the sand at discussing a radically reduced theatrical window. They feared that their business might go up in smoke. They have finally been lured to the negotiating table with the promise of a much better deal, in terms of percentages of revenues. So it appears that this is now, at long last, heading down the road to truly happening.
Yet no one knows — no one at all! — what a world of major Hollywood releases available on VOD in 30 days would look like. And, more important, what it would feel like. Because we simply haven’t been there; it’s that unprecedented. There has been speculation that a heightened price — $50 for one movie, say, and maybe more if it’s an especially coveted title — would be prohibitive enough to not cut into theatrical revenues in any drastic way. But that analysis strikes me, frankly, as a touch naïve. Going out to the movies, which used to be a relatively cheap entertainment fix, has become famously not-so-cheap. If you’re a family of four and you like to eat some overpriced popcorn, a night at the movies can easily cost you $100. Even for a couple, it tilts into the $50 range. So $50 to see a “current” A-list movie at home doesn’t strike me as all that much. But what I’m really talking about isn’t money. It’s the evolution toward a new way of doing things.
The transition would probably take place gradually, over several years. Old habits die hard. As it is, we’re already in the middle of a slow-motion paradigm shift toward home viewing — the whole “Netflix and chill” thing, the idea being not just that the comfort of home trumps the hassle (and expense) of going out, but that what you have the potential to see on the small screen is now better than what you could see on the big screen. As a film critic, I, of course, have a chip on my shoulder about the whole notion that “TV is better than movies,” because I think it’s been vastly overstated. There are too many things that good movies do — the visual moods they create, the places they dare to go to, the quality of the epic they conjure — that even the vast majority of quality television doesn’t touch. Yet the shift in allegiance toward home viewing has happened, and when major movies become more readily available at home, it’s going to kick that dynamic up to the nth degree.
Or will it? The question we’re talking about here — and the gauntlet that Christopher Nolan implicitly threw down — isn’t just economic or habitual or consumerist. It’s religious. After 100 years, what is the movie experience? Does going out to a theater to stare up at an oversize screen and share what you’re watching with the eager souls around you still count, in our culture, as a sacramental event? (When the movie is stirring and audacious enough, when it’s “La La Land” or “Rogue One” or “Moonlight” or “Zootopia,” I would argue that the answer is a reverent yes.) Or is it just another way to consume a product? (When the movie is what too many of our movies are — namely, product — the answer, sadly, may be yes as well.)
Viewing movies at home, even great ones, isn’t a novel experience. Back in 1989, there were many people who saw films as disparate as Steven Soderbergh’s “sex, lies, and videotape” or Tim Burton’s “Batman” for the very first time on VHS. If they now choose to see the equivalent movies at home a little earlier, what difference does it make? Actually, it could make all the difference in the world if those movies aren’t just watched at home but feel, for the first time, like they belong there.