Movies, like all art forms, are in a constant state of change. The last forty years have seen a dramatic transformation in the ways movies are watched, how they are made, our relationship with them, the value we give them and, ultimately, their very essence.
For about the first sixty years of their history, films could only be seen in a movie theater. Except for the rare re-release of a blockbuster hit like Gone with the Wind, there was almost no opportunity to see a movie after the original theatrical run was over. Every movie was a spectacular one-time experience that lived only in memory. Back then, a beloved or unseen movie could achieve an almost mythic stature amongst film lovers in much the same way opera fans discuss great singers from the time before recordings.
Television was the first big change. It made the movies small and brought them into our homes for free. Still, the quality was poor, there were commercials and we were locked into the whims of TV station schedules. Film fans of a certain age remember staying up until the wee hours of the night to catch an elusive movie. TV seemed earthshaking but the arrival of VCRs was the true watershed moment. For the first time, movies were something the average person could own, hold in his hands and watch anytime he wanted. Videotape was followed in quick succession by cable, DVDs, downloading, video on demand, Netflix and iPhones. Each innovation made movies more accessible and convenient while also making them smaller and seemingly insignificant. The grand theatrical movie experience has been replaced by watching movies on a phone between other tasks. Movies once seemed indescribably valuable but it’s hard to feel that way when even the biggest hits will soon be discounted used DVDs at 7-Eleven or cheap downloads on iTunes.
These new viewing opportunities changed our relationship with movies as fans can stop a once mysterious work of art, rewind it and watch it repeatedly until it gives up its secrets.
In an epochal transformation that most haven’t noticed, even the substance of film itself is changing as movie theaters replace 35mm film projectors that worked by flashing light through thousands of individual celluloid images with new digital projectors.
Over the past year, several gloomy articles have proclaimed the death of movies. They correctly note that movies are not as popular or culturally dominant as they once were. However, to paraphrase Mark Twain, reports of cinema’s demise seem greatly exaggerated. The New York Times reported that more movies were made in 2012 than at any time in the history of cinema. The new digital technology is making filmmaking more affordable and young filmmakers are seizing this opportunity. Most importantly, great movies continue to be made.
The only true certainty about the future of movies is that they will keep changing and it seems like people will keep watching them, one way or another.