Since the medium of film moved from manually operated eye-hole projection machines onto the proverbial “big screen” in the 1920s, it appeared as though the evolution of its format had stagnated and flattened to a plateau. The advances in streaming services and download technology in recent years, though, have reopened the can of cinematic worms and made the debate pertinent once again. So, what is the best way to consume movie-media now, and what will it be in the future?
Like Jonah Hill’s suit measurements, the direction in which Film is headed seems to change every five minutes. There are three main ways in which it is evolving rapidly: distribution, marketing, and format (although the digital revolution has rendered this last one not much more of a historical debate).
Let us look at how films are being distributed first of all. Everyone’s familiar with the route over the last 20 years of VHS Video tape to DVD to Digital download in terms of the “home-viewing experience”, but now the line between initial release and home-viewing has become blurred. With the advent of Netflix (and online pirating if we’re being totally honest), actual cinema visits represent a much smaller proportion of people’s viewing habits, even for new-release films. People can find films online within days of their being released in theatres, via legal or illegal methods. Obviously the internet in general poses a threat to cinemas because of the various distractions available, but even in terms of film it seems to be beating the Multiplexes at their own game. This has been recognised and addressed by studios in the new avenues they pursue to advertise their films, and I’ll come onto that later, but it seems as though the traditional cinema release is a fast-fading medium.
Independent theatres are closing down all over the country, but a spark of light for them (in an otherwise gloomy descent towards the same fate as the high street) is that people still value the appropriately “cinematic” feel of seeing films on the big screen. It’s not just about viewing the latest blockbuster, it’s an experience; a social gathering; a pastime to be preserved. That’s a cherished connotation of cinemas that will never die out in the public, so there may yet be hope.
The recent news that Netflix will be simultaneously streaming the release of the latest Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon sequel, however, is fairly indicative of the direction in which film is headed. The seemingly ubiquitous paid streaming service has already demonstrated its ability to create excellent original television (such as the Emmy-winning Orange Is The New Black and House of Cards) so there’s nothing to suggest it won’t be producing high-calibre films and releasing them by their own accord in years to come. It might not even be the only on-demand viewing platform; what is currently the competition, could have competition itself. As streaming services grow, so will their budgets. A fiscally powerful company that incorporates its own production centre, studio, and distribution service, all rolled into one media behemoth. That sounds like formidable competition to me. It remains to be seen whether the cinemas can survive, let alone compete.
So, if you can’t beat the internet, why not join it? This has increasingly been the mantra of studios for the last few years, utilizing every possible new form of marketing in the hopes that audiences will be drawn away from the warmth of their bedroom and into the all-pervasive nacho-aroma of the cinema. From self-aware Youtube adverts that implore the audience to “not skip”, to the advent of “roadside digital screens” (movie posters that talk: coming to a Bus near you) it appears that no potential marketing space will be left un-pillaged in the studios’ attempts to ensure you see their film in theatres.
Insultingly (given its importance to the future of film) this final portion comes almost as an appendage to the other technological advances I’ve discussed, but it’s especially critical to the passionate film-buff, if not the average public consumer: is the print form dead? In short, no. Since the late 1980s, studios began to shoot on digital cameras as opposed to actual film (the endless projection reels that have become synonymous with cinema). It’s a cheaper and more efficient way of doing things, but it loses some of the aesthetic qualities you get with non-digital projections. While films such as The Master are notable for their singularity in terms of modern films being released on 70mm print, there is a select group of filmmakers (including Tarantino, J.J. Abrams and Christopher Nolan) who remain keen to ensure that the digital way does not become the only way. Nolan’s own Interstellar, due to be released next month, was shot on film and will be projected on both 70mm and 35mm formats in an effort to preserve the endangered style.
In reality there are countless other ways in which the Silver Screen is undergoing a facelift, such as funding through crowdsources like Kickstarter, filming on 48 frames per second instead of 24 FPS, and many more. What is clear, though, is that so long as the viewing public hold dear those childhood memories of cinematic magic, then the medium will stave off the online competition and refuse to be confined to the annals of history. I hope it succeeds in doing just that.