Today: February 21, 2024

Cinema Experience

With Titanic released in 3D this month, and a host of big name films following suit in the Summer, Jonathan McCalmont asks, is there more to ‘the cinematic experience’ than popcorn and coke? Or, with the advent of 3D big screen entertainment systems, would you rather just see new movies in the comfort of your own home?

Titanic released in 3D this month, and a host of big name films following suit
in the Summer, Jonathan McCalmont asks, is there more to ‘the cinematic
experience’ than popcorn and coke? Or, with the advent of 3D big screen
entertainment systems, would you rather just see new movies in the comfort of
your own home?

Cast your eye across the latest box office
figures or the grim spectacle of people in designer outfits posing on red
carpets and you could be forgiven for thinking that the film industry is pretty
content with its levels of success. However, look beyond the golden statuettes
and you will find an industry defined by bitterness and the fear of imminent
technological annihilation.

The numbers do not lie. In 1942, 80 percent of
Americans went to the cinema once a week on average. By 2000, that figure had
fallen to 10 percent. Of course, films continue to be hugely profitable and
population growth means that cinema audiences remain reassuringly large but how
much money would Hollywood be raking in if 80 percent of Americans still went
to the cinema every single week? Television did not simply eat the film
industry’s lunch. It did so within living memory and today’s film and cinema executives are terrified
that some new technology will emerge and consume what is left of their
audience. Torn between the desire to protect their
traditional business and embrace the potentially destructive revenue streams
offered by streaming and video-on-demand, the film industry is at war with
itself and with the technology companies. And this war is fought for the
ownership of the so-called Cinematic

The term ‘cinematic experience’ appears in the
marketing materials of both cinema chains and technology companies. On the one
hand, technology companies promise us an entirely cinematic experience using
big TVs, high-definition media players and complicated speaker systems. On the
other hand, cinema chains are at pains to remind us that you cannot have a properly
cinematic experience unless you are sitting in an actual cinema. Desperate to
edge out the opposition and enshrine themselves as the default way of viewing
films in the 21st Century, both sides are locked into a surreal arms race in
which billions are spent on gadgets straight out of a 1950s drive-in.

The race began when James Cameron resurrected 3D technology and made a fortune with his
Smurf-based epic Avatar (Main
Picture). Convinced that 3D was the future of film, cinema chains spent
billions retrofitting their theatres with digital 3D projectors. For a while,
this worked quite nicely and everyone made money. Then audiences began getting
tired of having to pay extra for poorly made 3D films and technology companies
soon found a way of providing 3D at home, thereby sending everyone back to
square one.

Next came the suggestion that the only way to
experience Brad Bird’s Mission Impossible – Ghost Protocol was
on one of those giant IMAX screens that are usually used to entertain tourists
with images of shipwrecks and dinosaurs. Unfortunately, while it is difficult
to imagine Samsung and LG finding a way of making home IMAX systems, the
failure to sell Andrew Stanton‘s John Carter as an IMAX experience
suggests that the popularity of IMAX may be even more fragile than 3D.
Furthermore, if IMAX is to become the new benchmark for cinematic experiences,
then cinema chains will be forced to spend even more money building thousands
of new IMAX. With many industry insiders already talking up vibrating seats as
the Next Big Thing, the toxic and self-destructive nature of this technological
arms race is becoming all too apparent.

Aside from the absurdity of suggesting that it
is impossible to have a cinematic experience without a vibrating arse, the
glorification of new technologies has only served to devalue the traditional
screens that provide cinema chains with much of their day-to-day business.
Furthermore, much of the new investment appears to have come at the expense of
the thousands of mundane elements that have provided the core of the cinematic
experience since the days of Chaplin
and Valentino. Indeed, if today’s
cinemas are struggling to bring in the punters it isn’t because the films
aren’t in 3D and the seats don’t vibrate, it’s because going to the cinema is
all too often a decidedly disappointing experience.

The disappointment begins with the realisation
that it is now more expensive to see a film at the cinema than it is to own it
forever on DVD or Blu-ray. Combine this with the hair-raisingly expensive junk
food and the tendency of cinema ushers to search customers’ bags in search of
recording devices and you have a cinematic experience that begins with an
audience feeling cheated and harassed. Then we have the fact that cinemas
refuse to publish the actual start times of their films and preface every film
with half an hour’s worth of adverts, trailers, copyright warnings and jokey
reminders about turning off your phone. These days people are reluctant to sit
through adverts when they are at home, why should they be expected to do so
when they are paying a premium for the pleasure of not just seeing a film but experiencing it? Add to this, the lack
of properly trained projectionists and the decaying fabric of most cinemas and
it is hardly surprising that increasing numbers of people are choosing to have
their ‘cinematic experiences’ in the comfort of their own homes.

There is no denying that new technologies can,
when used intelligently, augment and rejuvenate a cinema-going experience that
has remained largely unchanged for the last hundred years. Many of us may want
and even come to love big screens and vibrating seats, but many also love going
to see quiet dramas without hissing speakers and undertrained staff who do not
understand what is meant by the term ‘aspect ratio’. When thinking about the
future of the cinematic experience, it’s hard not to feel that cinema chains have lost sight of what it is
that made the cinematic experience so special
: great stories, great
performances, great direction and a comfortable and distraction free
environment in which to experience all of these things. That is the core of the
cinematic experience; everything else is a fairground ride.

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