the film snob

A cyberspace journal about my experiences as an NYU film school grad student, reviews of current and classic films, film and TV news, and the rants and raves of an admitted (and unapologetic) film snob.

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Esse Quam Videri -- To be, rather than to appear

Friday, June 16, 2006

The Future of Film

A few weeks ago I heard a story on NPR that discussed the advent and successive market dominance of MP3 players, such as the ever-popular iPod. An interviewed audio/visual store manager said he now sells twice as many MP3 devices as he does traditional stereo systems.

What makes the story remarkable is that MP3s compress the musical data stream and hence, play their music with noticeably less quality. So why are they outselling traditional units which are made for crystal clarity? Convenience seems the be the best answer anyone can give. People like the ability to store thousands of songs on a single, tiny device and take it with them wherever they go for instantaneous gratification.

The NPR story got me thinking, not about the future of music, but about the future of film.

It’s no secret that Hollywood has been in a slump the past few years. Fewer and fewer people are attending films in theaters and Tinseltown is feeling the pinch. Why? A myriad of reasons, it seems: the high price of tickets and concessions, the proliferation of movie commercials and ads, frustration with impolite audience members and, of course, a lack of anything good to see. (I discuss this topic at greater length here and here).

While I agree with many of those sentiments, I confess I am nowhere near giving up on my local movie-house. (Ask me again in August when I start paying New York City prices!) I simply cannot see myself trying to enjoy something like The Lord of the Rings or The New World on a small screen--no matter how advanced my home A/V system is. For me, film is a community experience and I like my movies to tower, envelop and overwhelm me. However, I am, it seems, in the minority here. More and more, people are opting to skip the cineplex and take in a film in the comfort of their homes on DVD. Or download it and watch it on their computer.

Are movies going to go the way of music? Will we soon begin trading quality for convenience? Haven’t we begun doing so already? Will watching transcendently beautiful films such as Lawrence of Arabia on an iPod become standard for future generations? If so, how tragic.

In the 50s, when television came on the scene, it clobbered Hollywood’s bottom line. People simply stopped going to the movies. The studios tried their hardest to keep up--churning out massive, multi-hour epics only they could afford to produce in an effort to draw people back to the theaters--and still they imploded. A few decades later, when they’d recovered some of their base, the VCR hit the market and Hollywood responded by trying to make it illegal to watch a movie in the privacy of your own home! Now, several decades removed, Hollywood is once again under economic attack.

What will Hollywood try to do this time? How will it entice audiences back? More large epic films? Better films? Cheaper prices? Or, will the studios once again collapse?

The first collapse initiated a wave of superb, independent filmmaking in this country. At the start of the 21st century, the independent movement is already here, tearing at Hollywood’s doorstep. Are brilliant but smaller films the answer? Will the advent of HD and digital technology save the day or is it too little, too late? Whatever happens, Hollywood cannot continue churning out one expensive blockbuster after another without any sort of legitimate return. (Let’s hope the upcoming Superman Returns does well--it cost a quarter of a billion dollars to make!)

Meanwhile, the technology that instigated the panic in the first place goes unnoticed. Or does it? TV is no longer the ugly stepchild Hollywood once painted it to be. Once thought to be an embarrassingly sub-par entertainment medium, TV is now enjoying a place of artistic prominence and sophistication that it has never before experienced. Thanks to premium cable giants like HBO, television dramas look and sound better than many films on the silver-screen; The Sopranos anyone? Basic cable channels like SciFi produce brutally intelligent series’ such as Battlestar Gallactica and even the networks, known more for their mediocrity than mastery, give us shows like The West Wing (alas, no longer) and Lost each and every week. Movie actors who would once never stoop so low as to be seen on TV now make regular guest appearances or star in their own shows.

What happened?

Could it be that both the actors and the viewers love the immersion TV allows? Could it be that the seemingly endless canvas TV affords is attractive to storytellers who need more than two hours time? Could it be that TV, with its two-dozen episodes a season, provides a deep and nearly plumbless field from which to create multi-faceted characters and generous stories? Could it be that TV got intelligent? Will movie houses fall and living rooms rise up to take their place?

Recently the three networks, ABC, CBS and NBC announced their fall lineups. It was a fascinating glimpse into the future of home entertainment. There were less new sitcoms announced than at almost any other point in modern television history, prompting some to declare the sitcom dying, if not dead. Reality TV, that titanic boom of the past decade, seems to be fizzling with far fewer shows projected on the horizon; the best, it seems, have sorted themselves out leaving the rest to starve to death. Most interesting of all is the fact that, far and away the largest genre to hit our September airwaves will be dramas, easily the most difficult and by far, the most expensive television to produce.

Is this the future of film? Will it get shorter, more episodic, look more like TV? Or will Hollywood respond by upping the technological ante--racing to discover the next entertainment medium? Just as film gave way to digital technology, so too much digital technology give way to the next step in visual evolution. Holographic displays? Fully immersive and interactive environments?

As accessibility to new, cutting edge technology makes it possible for just about anyone to make a film (actually making a good film is an entirely different issue!), there promises to be no end of filmed entertainment in our future. Just what quality, shape and size that entertainment takes is anyone’s guess.


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