In continuing with their Mulit-Millionaires Tell Us What’s Wrong With Their Industries series, The Wall Street Journal has published an op-ed by Christopher Nolan (available in full through Google News), describing all his issues with movies today. And they are many. So settle in, it’s going to be a crotchety ride. He’s upset about the demise of the great, grand movie in the face of rising personal technology, as well as the switch from actual film to digital.
The theatrical window is to the movie business what live concerts are to the music business—and no one goes to a concert to be played an MP3 on a bare stage.I mean, let’s set aside the fact that many, many people DO do that, and that it’s widely accepted that pop singers playing to those gigantic stadiums are basically lip syncing to their studio albums. Yes, let’s ignore that and just accept that we get his gist. He’s praising the impact of truly great cinema, and the importance of visiting an actual theater.
Once movies can no longer be defined by technology, you unmask powerful fundamentals—the timelessness, the otherworldliness, the shared experience of these narratives. The audience experience is distinct from home entertainment, but not so much that people seek it out for its own sake. The experience must distinguish itself in other ways. And it will. The public will lay down their money to those studios, theaters and filmmakers who value the theatrical experience and create a new distinction from home entertainment that will enthrall—just as movies fought back with widescreen and multitrack sound when television first nipped at its heels.A lot of the article reads as Nolan wanting television and VOD to get off his damn art house of a lawn. He sneers at the term “content,” arguing that movies should be movies and not slum it in digital gimmicks and VOD releases. He believes “content,” as a term applied universally to entertainment is a “reductive term,” just
jargon that pretends to elevate the creative, but actually trivializes differences of form that have been important to creators and audiences alike. ‘Content’ can be ported across phones, watches, gas-station pumps or any other screen, and the idea would be that movie theaters should acknowledge their place as just another of these ‘platforms,’ albeit with bigger screens and cupholders.
Basically, Nolan sees movies as pandering to the cheapness and immediacy of the digital form. In his view, the switch to digital has created an influx of dirty dirty “content” that has devalued the entire industry. He describes the future dystopian movie theatre of his mind, where we vote on our blockbusters, Gong Show-style.
The distributor or theater owner (depending on the vital question of who controls the remote) would be able to change the content being played, instantly. A movie’s Friday matinees would determine whether it even gets an evening screening, or whether the projector switches back to last week’s blockbuster. This process could even be automated based on ticket sales in the interests of ‘fairness.’ Instant reactivity always favors the familiar. New approaches need time to gather support from audiences. Smaller, more unusual films would be shut out. Innovation would shift entirely to home-based entertainment, with the remaining theaters serving exclusively as gathering places for fan-based or branded-event titles.Nolan’s rant, for the most part, comes off as a big pile of WTF, though there are some truly valid points buried in there. He seems to see film as an industry that has outgrown itself, and needs to Michael-Bay-explode before it can rise anew from its own fiery ashes. I don’t know that many of us would disagree with that. He cites Lars von Trier and Quentin Tarantino as the kinds of directors capable of bringing new life to a medium dying of boredom (and whose efforts to do so in the 90s have now been “co-opted by the very establishment it sought to challenge”). Still, the piece can’t help but come off as elitist. Nolan is ignoring the great benefit of this rise in “content,” that anyone with a great script and a few grand can make a movie. He’s railing against mainstream digitalization and blockbuster spectacles, but also damning the niche of accessibility that smaller independent films have carved out. By the end (and actually, pretty much right from the beginning), Nolan’s very specific rant, aimed at a totally unrecognizable audience, seems to be advocating a sort of censorship by snobbery.
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