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Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Sundance panel: `Going, Going Gone? The Culture of Moviegoing'

Finally, a panel discussion at Sundance where they let you know who’s speaking! Robert Rosen is the moderator; he’s dean of the UCLA School of Theater, Film and Television. Russell Collins is CEO of the Michigan Theater in Ann Arbor. Mark Fishkin is founder of the California Film Institute, which runs the Mill Valley Film Festival. B. Ruby Rich is a film critic and author. Connie White is a film booker for a number of theaters (including the Coolidge Corner in Boston) through her company Balcony Booking. She also runs Balcony Releasing. Bingham Ray, who co-founded October Films and who used to run United Artists, isn’t listed on the Xeroxed handout – seems like he must be a late addition.

Following are my impressionistic notes. Actual quotes are in quote marks... everything else is close, or paraphrasing...

Ray says his first job in the film business was in exhibition, as the assistant manager of the now-defunct Bleecker Street Cinema in Greenwich Village. “There I got the fever – the bug -- for art house exhibition, and I’ve had it my entire life.”

Rosen begins his official introduction. “I have a real commitment to theatrical screenings…to get people to see movies they wouldn’t ordinarily see,” he says.

The film experience has “been a characteristic icon of life in America, and indeed around the world, for the last 100 years,” he says.

The “omnipresence” of the theatrical experience hides the fact that since World War II, the numbers of people on a regular ongoing basis having that experience has gone down, Rosen says.

The box office slump “has put the issue of why do we go to the movies into the foreground.”

Immigrants used to want to go to the movies because it was cheap, and you didn’t have to know how to speak English, Rosen says.

He has a series of questions for the panelists.

To what extent is the desire and need to go to the movies a function of historical circumstance?

Are there really two types of movies and two audiences – one for younger people who go to the big studio films, and another for other people who’re older? If that’s true, what happens when that younger audience gets older?

Is content what drives people to the movies? [Mel Gibson’s “The Passion” and Michael Moore’s “Fahrenheit 911” got a lot of people to go to the movies in 2004.] Maybe it’s the theatrical experience – the waiting in line, the overpriced refreshments, the cell phones? How has the movie-going experience as such, changed, and what impact does that have on people going to the movies?

He also asks, is it the economics? You can buy two brand new DVDs for the cost of two people going to a first-run movie, given parking, refreshments, tickets.

Finally, Rosen asks about the impact of technologies, now and in years to come… With digital distribution and digital projection and online purchasing of tickets and marketing activities going on – what does that mean for our kind of movies? Are there some extraordinary new types of possibilities that we might seize?

Collins talks about the popular music industry, and the classical music industry: “they sometimes overlap, but are really quite distinctive. The classical side of the music industry is mission-driven, and it’s run by non-profit organizations. That may be the model that will come to the foreground as we get farther and farther into the 21st century for motion pictures. That magic of going to the theater is irreplaceable.” (My question: how much larger is the pop music business today than classical? And isn’t that a little scary if movies head in that direction?)

Rich says that she has often heard concerns about the demise of the theatrical experience, going back to the 1960s. In the 1960s, the art houses were disappearing – and being converted into X-rated theaters, because a number of landmark anti-censorship cases had been won. Then, there was the advent of home video, and movie attendance dropped off drastically. Video helped create a whole new broader community for the art house.

Rich brings up the issue of individual versus community: what do people get out of seeing movies in their homes, versus in the theater? How can those differences be built on, she asks, to enhance the experience of movie-going in the future? Perhaps film needs to become more like a “live event” – something you need to go to – and ignore all those red Netflix envelopes lying around the house. (Like a film festival.)

I think it’s a period of real invention that we’re entering, Rich says. In some ways, it’s going to be about holding fast to what we have – in other ways, it’ll mean broadening and modifying it.

Ray: “Our need to get out of the home…is absolutely rooted in our souls as human beings. Not just in North America, but all over the world. The need to go out and commune with people like ourselves, and unlike ourselves. You can go back 1000 years, to the shamans. It’s not going to be replaced by a smaller, much more intimate experience, where we will isolate ourselves...” (Later, he tells me he’s not wild about the notion of watching movies on an iPod…no surprise there.)

Tech comes in waves, Ray observes. Why did the studios invent 3-D? Because they were really scared of television.

I guess I’m a Luddite, an old-schooler, he continues. I really believe in the integrity of the experience. [All around the world,] there are theaters that I just can’t wait to get back to. Do people come for the content, or do they come because the place, the building has some magical allure, he asks, and then answers his question: both, probably.

Think about the festival experience, Ray says. How are you going to have a digital festival? Where would you do it? Your house?

Collins: Film admissions have gone from 4 billion to 1 billion in the years from 1948 to 1964. Movies replaced the [live] theaters as primary means of pop entertainment in the second decade of the 1900s. TV replaced movies in the 1950s. The shifts that are taking place now are incremental. When videocassettes came out, and the players hit $100, I lost 50 percent of my business that year. Lately, we’ve experienced the same thing with DVD players. But right after people pay off their investments with their VCR, or their plasma screen TV, they come back to the theater.

I would be fearful if I were a multiplex theater, Collins says, rather than an art house.

Rich says that the Internet is having a bigger impact on newspapers than DVDs are on art houses.

White says that in Boston, distributors are often reluctant to have their art films play during the summer, because the perception is they’ll lose out on the college audience. In reality, she says, it’s faculty and staff who support those movies – and they tend to have more time to see movies in the summer. Younger people are viewing studio films, she implies.

Collins says, “People’s tastes grow up… maybe they only went to the pop culture, Adam Sandler Film Festival at their cine-mall when they were in college.” But eventually, their tastes expand.

Ray mentions the “huge threat” from the videogame industry, when it comes to competition for the time of young adults. It’s unlike a movie, he says. It’s all about interactivity.

Rosen says, when the cost of digital projection declines dramatically, and when the cost of digital distribution drops, he thinks there’s great hope for a vast proliferation of community-based theaters – not just maintenance of the theaters we have today.

Ray: “Film will be a thing of the past, sooner rather than later, and I’ll grieve that. We’ll be able to visit museums with projectors, and you’ll be able to say to your kids, this is a platter system, and this is a carbon-arc projector…”

Someone in the audience from the Ragtag Cinemacafe in Missouri quotes Bertold Brecht: “A theater without beer is just a museum.”