Thursday, May 5, 2011

The death of cinema?

So I've been meaning to write this for a few days now. Shame it's taken me so long...

As reported in the Guardian and many other places on Sunday, several big-name directors have joined the cinema industry in attacking movie-industry plans to shorten the amount of time between the cinema debut of a film and its home availability, by making video-on-demand (that's streaming) films available as little (?) as two months after the film's release.

They roll out some interesting claims to fight these plans: VOD releases will increase piracy, they say, and will force cinemas to close. These are BAD THINGS and, if big, important names are saying them they MUST BE TRUE. Right?


One of the marks of almost any cultural industry (ugh, I hate pairing those words) is that those who've climbed their way to the top tend to have an (entirely to be expected) fondness for the status quo. Things are how they are and should be as they should be. Why would you change anything?

Sadly for them (but not for us), life doesn't work like that. We like progress. We like exciting new things. We like big shiny fun things that no-one else in the history of mankind has ever had. Hence we invent stuff, we find new ways to look at the world, we radically alter our relationship with life, culture, art and the environment. I am by no means suggesting that this is always positive - it's not, the obscene quantity of human-created human suffering is testament to that - but I am suggesting that it's inevitable: we're just not adapted to maintaining the status quo. Things will change.

So let's return to Earth for a moment and go back to look at their claim. It will increase piracy. It will. Will it? The evidence that it would is very shaky. Let's be blunt: it's very easy to find films on the internet. I (obviously) am not about to link to anywhere you can get it but the current box office smash Fast and the Furious 5 is all over the internet. I have no idea what kind of quality it is, but it's there and that's enough.

Now, what we have here is the Film Industry's Music-Industry-Moment. For the music industry, this happened somewhere around the whole Napster deal. Faced with a very clever technology (hello internet!) capable of delivering high quality content at (even then) fairly decent speeds, they were poised to make an industry revolution. They bottled it. Years later and the Beatles music has only just been made available online (November last year). No-one was keeping count, but thousands of Beatles albums were certainly downloaded in that time. Today's online music sites still often provide higher quality music than some shops sell.

The point I'm approaching (slowly) here, is that refusal to engage with digital distribution for fear of increased piracy is futile and narrow-minded. The Film Industry has to take the initiative and provide a decent service that people will pay for before they get used to downloading films. If they wander blindly into the same place as the music industry there is no way back.

The second point, and I think the one I object to more, is that it will mean cinemas to close. This relies on out automatic linking of "closing things = bad" without pausing to think about the relation in question: why will people choose to watch a film at home rather than in a cinema?

Some of the answers are related to progress again - we have bigger better TVs with bigger better speakers, the gap between home and cinema has narrowed - but there's also an implicit condemnation of the way cinemas are run and have been run for years.

Cinema visits in the UK are horrendously expensive. The price for a single ticket is already bordering on the price for a DVD in some cases. I might like the cinema but I can't afford to go as much as I'd like. If me and four friends each bought a DVD we'd have spent little more than it'd cost the five of us to go to the cinema and we'd see five times as many films.

It's also astonishing (and, depressingly true) how regular it is to hear serious film-fans describe the cinematic experience as being deeply disappointing. We brave the ticket prices, stump up and march in. The sticky floors and chewing-gum covered seats are what welcomes us. The bunches of screaming kids chucking sweets at each other and talking continues throughout. You leave thinking, 'I wish I could've seen that in my own house'. Seriously, what would it cost a cinema to have a member of staff to kick out the people who ruin a film for everyone?

So there we have it. Cameron, Bigelow et al are clinging to what they love. The cinemas are using this as another excuse to neatly avoid considering why less people go to the cinema and they're all intent on digging in their heels to slow the inevitable. And, I should add, by the inevitable, I certainly don't mean the death of cinema. This is not the end. This is another chapter. I love the cinema and will continue to go but it shouldn't need to be carefully protected: to survive it must make progress too, it must work to provide an absolutely inimitable experience that we're prepared to pay for.

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