The first movies could only be watched on arcade machines by one person at a time. The earliest movie theaters were plain rooms with rows of chairs. People called them nickelodeons because admission was just five cents. As the art of movies evolved, theaters became larger and more ornate. The classic movie palaces were cinematic temples promising a transcendent experience. Subsequent years have seen this process spin in reverse. Many movie theaters are again plain rooms with rows of chairs, and we are exhorted to astonishment at new devices allowing movies to be watched on a small screen by one person at a time. Some new filmmakers have shrunk their ambitions to fit the new formats. The closest precedent to the gag-filled shorts dominating YouTube is the one-reel comedies of a hundred years ago.
This general devolution also affects audience behavior. People have always complained about talking, but now some moviegoers have proven unable to resist whipping out their smartphones during a film, not unlike compulsive masturbators. The National Association of Theatre Owners recently presented a panel discussion on whether moviegoers should be actively encouraged to use their smartphones to tweet and Facebook in theaters. Panelist Tim League, owner of the Alamo Drafthouse Cinema in Texas (coming soon to NYC), loudly exclaimed “Over my dead body!” League’s argument carried the day, but the discussion isn’t going away.
Some argue that increasingly short attention spans make it impossible for people to watch a movie without checking their phones. Others claim this is a more evolved and interactive form of viewing. Both concepts are specious. Even in our modern world, most people crave a compelling experience they can concentrate on for several hours. Interactivity is wonderful in video games, but a non-starter in movies. The whole point of movies is turning your consciousness over to the filmmakers, retaining no control except the ability to walk out. All attempts to create interactive movies have failed. The effort to recast in-theater cell phone use as interactivity might carry more weight if the result were anything other than wise-ass commentary that reduces all movies to the level of Mystery Science Theater 3000.
The future of movie viewing is at stake in this fight. Since the beginning of film history, watching a movie has been a deeply immersive experience. We sit a in a darkened room, surrounded by friends and strangers, transfixed by the flickering shadows on the wall as they form unimaginable fantasies, hysterical comedy or moving reflections of our lives. Do we really want to exchange this for ultra-convenient, highly-fragmented viewing on tiny devices and have even our visits to movie theaters interrupted by social networking with our supposed friends? There is little question of how electronics companies want this to end, and Hollywood will just follow the money, but ultimately it is movie fans who will decide. Voting with their ticket dollars and behavior, they will write the next chapter in the story of film. That’s right, the choice is yours.