On Demand for the Theatrical Experience




“Straight to video” used to be a very dirty term for movies that are made without the intention or the success of obtaining a theatrical run. If the movie aspired to nothing more than to make small money from its meager budget, it would come in the form of a 3rd rate action/horror flick or exploitative, low-brow Pauly Shore vehicle. Or perhaps a straight-to-video movie could be an accident; a movie believed to be of quality by all involved, only to be sorely mistaken when no studio is willing to distribute a director’s labor of love. Regardless of why these movies went straight to video, what they had in common is that they had no place on the highly coveted big screen. Since then, the business of releasing movies has shifted so dramatically that to fault a movie for not obtaining a theatrical release would be asinine. While many viewers still covet the theatrical experience as the way films are supposed to be experienced, the modern market is so strongly weighted towards convenience that we’ve come to live in a time where home video arguably reigns supreme. Whether or not this is true, and such a premise can only exist for the sake of argument, it is my feeling that the big screen is no longer a coveted entity.

Allow me to provide a brief history of home video to demonstrate how far things have come since the golden age of the silver screen. Before home video was created in the early eighties, when a film was released, it would enjoy theatrical engagements that could last from months to years. The theater was your only source to experience the medium of cinema. Things began to change with the invention of television which offered occasional second chances to see theatrical movies in your home on a small cube device (slicing the intended widescreen at the wings into a form once known as ‘standard’), highly censored and compromised for advertising purposes. Then everything changed with the once unthinkable invention of video rentals. The concept that, for a day, you could take home a movie for 24 hours – and get this – watch it as many times as you wanted before returning it the next day, was nothing short of the revolutionary birth of cinematic availability. It was an exciting time when Blockbuster Video, a dinosaur of today, was a wonder house of possibility. A video store was like the ultimate dream dealer.

On the other hand, the advent of film accessibility meant a manipulation to the intended cinematic experience, as it had existed for well over 50 years. Firstly, watching a movie at home meant modifying the widescreen format to your 4:3 television screen. Then, there was the disruption resulting from the freedom to discuss the movie freely during the screening. Perhaps worst of all, VCR’s offered the ability to pause a film, dividing it into whatever increments the viewer saw fit. While I do see the convenience value of these enhancements towards comfort, it’s not hard to see why some skeptics considered them a major step in the devolution of the cinematic experience. Take, for example, one of the most successful, and long-lasting theatrical releases of the 70s and 80s, The Rocky Horror Picture Show. How can you translate what that film meant to a theatrical audience to the home viewing environment. It’s an extreme example but significant in that it reflects how removing films from their theatrical realm can alter the experience. There is something strangely wonderful about watching a movie in a dark room full of strangers with nothing in common other than the experience unfolding before you. In this sense, going to a film is almost like the great unifier. The shared immersion carries a profound effect, which, in conjunction with the blackness of the room, acts to throw away the film-goers reality allowing them to surrender to the dream-like images being projected on the large screen hovering above. 

Today it’s unthinkable that every movie that has ever existed  shouldn’t be immediately available in some form or another, but for the better part of 20 years the system went that after a movie experienced its theatrical run (its length determined by the film’s box-office success), the movie would become available for home consumption. If the film was a bomb, you may wait 5-8 months before being able to rent the movie. But if it was something like ‘93’s Jurassic Park, you’d have to wait well into ’94 to find it on your Major Video store’s shelf. Should you have the unfortunate fate of being a collector, you’d still be in for another yearlong wait before you’d get the opportunity to pay $23.99 to own a full screen VHS movie. The only ones not waiting a year to buy VHS tapes were the video stores, who paid roughly $110 for the movie, to be earned back in rental revenue before eventually landing on the previously viewed shelf to die. 

Forlorn VHS collectors found salvation in the late ‘90s. With the advent of the DVD came the ultimate home video revolution. DVD offered widescreen format, special features, and best of all, immediate availability to own. The DVD boom lasted well into the ‘00s until gradually, the download age swept through, leaving three decades of video stores to die of neglect, one by one, until even the mighty Blockbuster Video took its fall. Today the digital world has completely swallowed practical media in both film and music. Like invisible music contained within an ipod device, downloading movies via your home theater cable box, or on your computer, either through itunes or illegal means, is the modern means of home video.  You may virtually watch anything you want almost whenever you want it, whether it is an obscure film from 50 years ago or a brand new movie that has yet to even see its theatrical release. Naturally, this free-for-all era of free media has had a tremendous impact on the way films are currently distributed. Whereas historically theatrical release and home video were two completely separate animals, often separated by an entire year, with immediate access to new releases in a home environment, the theatrical experience began losing out to convenience and, movie studios were forced to address both markets simultaneously. Many studios didn’t even bother releasing some of their more independent acquisitions theatrically. In the last decade we’ve seen more and more theatre-worthy releases make their debuts in living rooms. Big budget films with A-list stars began appearing amidst the sea of titles provided by TMN On Demand leaving movie-goers baffled that they haven’t even heard of the movie in the first place. Home video, or perhaps, convenient viewing, has become a focal environment for the release of many great films. Thus, the notion of the straight-to-video movie is no longer derogatory. A studio bypassing a film’s theatrical run is no longer the mark of an unworthy film. Of course, the sheer output of movies today is a huge factor in the ratio of theatrical to video releases, but I can’t help but think it’s also reflective of an increasingly apathetic audience.

In the last month, two films have been released simultaneously in theaters and on demand that have struck me as especially indicative of how far things have come. They are Nicolas Winding Refn’s Only God Forgives and Paul Schrader’s The Canyons. While neither film has succeeded critically, they are nevertheless films that I have been eagerly anticipating for months. Refn’s last film, Drive, is as good as anything you can hope to see on the big screen. The Canyons is an independently produced passion collaboration between heavyweight writer/director Paul Schrader and writer, Bret Easton Ellis. Schrader is engrained in cinema history. With credits like Taxi Driver (screenplay), HardcoreAmerican Gigolo, et al, Schrader is an auteur with a wide-ranging filmography. Ellis is the author of Less Than ZeroRules of AttractionAmerican Psycho… His adaptations have made for widely beloved cinematic experiences. I could not wait for the theatrical release of these two films.  

And then over the last few weeks they were both released simultaneously in theaters and on demand. For reasons pertaining to convenience, when I found myself with some time one night, I could not help but throw on the unfathomably available Only God Forgives. A few afternoons later, I found myself with some more time – just enough to squeeze in a movie. With great shame, I chucked my immense desire to see The Canyons on the big screen in favor of immediacy, and watched a film to which I’d been so looking forward, with the midday sun shining through the window. I was immersed in the film, despite the daylight, but couldn’t shake the feeling that I was doing something very wrong. Although I sold out my theatrical values, at least the rental period was 48 hours and I was able to watch the film a second time – a sort of throw back to the early thrills of renting. I should add that these two films were equally available for free download prior to their first theatrical showtime of the day, but I couldn’t stomach the thought of treating movies I couldn’t wait to see (one of which was a Kickstarter passion project) with such low esteem. Paying the On Demand fee was the least I could do.

Only God Forgives and The Canyons have quite a bit in common with one another. They both exist in morally bankrupt universes, they both consist of tersely spoken characters, they’re both stylistically driven, both films are receiving negative attention on account of the fact they’re bold and unafraid to take chances, and most relevant to this discussion, as far as I’m concerned, both films are pieces of legitimate auteur driven cinema and thus deserve to be experienced on a big screen, in a state conducive to immersion. Whether or not you agree that these are two great films – and I’d be hard-pressed to find people who agree that they are – is beside the point. What’s relevant is that both films are rich in tone, and to casually drop in and out of either, or divide it into increments, is both a disservice to the filmmakers, and a means to cheat yourself out of a film’s intended effect. Imagine splitting a David Lynch film into 5 parts. Or watching something likeMulholland Drive on “your fucking phone” as Lynch famously condemned. I recognize that watching a film on your TV screen, or even computer screen, is not quite as absurd as watching a film on your phone, but it speaks to the increasing acceptability of the casual watching experience when film simply isn’t a casual medium. At its best, film engages both your ethereal consciousness and, in the case of directors like Lynch, or even Refn – whose Only God Forgives is more than a little Lynchian – engages your subconscious. Viewers of today, who value convenience over the film experience itself, will watch a movie on their small screens without regard for a darkened atmosphere, and having watched the images, will believe they have fairly experienced a film. Given the underwhelming nature of the modern viewing atmosphere, it’s no wonder that film is losing its cachet.  

It’s also no wonder that filmmakers like David Lynch are losing their desire to play to the modern audience. In a recent Hollywood Reporter interview, Lynch expressed his dwindling enthusiasm to contribute to an increasingly disposable medium. I think part of the reason ideas haven’t come in is that the world of cinema is changing so drastically, and in a weird way, feature films I think have become cheap. Everything is kind of throwaway. It’s experienced and then forgotten. It goes really fast. And you have to do those things you are just in love with.” Lynch’s quote, speaks more to the volume problem in film distribution today, in which auteur driven films become lost in the sea of generic imitations of overused formulas. Theatrically, movies don’t stick out in a multiplex that screens 30 movies. On TMN’s On Demand they don’t even have posters. It’s not hard to understand why it’s now considered okay to watch a movie on your phone when the bar for what a movie is has been set so low and continues to plummet. The real tragedy is that legitimate films are getting sucked into the shuffle and suffering from spreading disinterest in keeping the movie on a pedestal.

The Canyons screenwriter Bret Easton Ellis also recently discussed his thoughts on the decline of interest in cinema in an interview conducted by the A.V. Club. Basically, film and serious, auteur-driven movies… no one’s interested. I experienced the disconnect really powerfully for the first time this year. I do go to movies, and I still have that habit from when I was young: I want to drive to the theater, and I want the movie to control me. I don’t want to sit in my bedroom able to control the movie, and turn it off whenever I want.” It’s fitting that Ellis’ The Canyons takes place in a sort of modern Hollywood dystopia, where all the players in the dream factory have long since cared about the dream itself. Though this theme takes a back seat to a story more focused on power and privilege, the opening and closing credits set the landscape tone of the film, framing it within a photo collage of abandoned movie theaters. These images of barren auditoriums, with rusting projection booths and littered film reels on the dusty grounds, are some of the most tragic architectural photographs I’ve ever seen. Mega multiplexes have replaced the old way of movie-going, and it’s undeniable that the experience of going to the movies has dramatically changed. The vibe of the average movie house compared to the class of Hollywood’s past is like a gaudy carnival. With tacky colours, and designs that serve to overwhelm the attendee, movie theaters of today closer resemble an amusement park than anything suggesting cinema as a meaningful past time. Theaters boast of ultimate experiences in picture, sound and 3D as a way to compete with the increasingly popular home video method of experiencing movies.  The message here seems to be that movies no longer sell themselves.

I found myself extremely depressed, watching the ghost-theater slideshow closing credits of The Canyons on my television set in broad daylight. In addition to mourning the loss of an extinct way of life, the images also point to a death of the collective experience of watching films. The last image features a dilapidated theater with an apparent hole in the ceiling, causing a large ray of sunlight to infiltrate what is meant to be a dark room.

Glancing at the ray of sunlight coming through my own living room window, I shuddered in sorrow, realizing that I have officially become part of the problem.

– The Silly Serpent