Opinion: "The Cinematic Experience" is a crutch

Written by Mystic Fungi

August 3rd, 2022

Over the years I’ve grown disillusioned with the movie theatres, and I know I’m not the only one, considering the many discussions online regarding their decline. Home video has threatened the profitability and relevancy of cinemas as consumers now have easy access to a greater variety of content at a much lower price. When audiences do go to the theaters today, it’s to experience something they can’t get at home. They want the giant screen and the booming loudspeakers, and they want to put it to the test. In simple terms, they want to go big or go home. It’s not hard to see why multi-million-dollar blockbusters dominate the mainstream theatres while the smaller-scale stories are regulated to the living rooms and arthouses.

As someone whose tastes leans away from the typical CGI firework shows, I have no interest in the majority of films which screen at my nearby Cineplex. This is why I roll my eyes whenever certain directors bring up the importance of the so-called “theatre going experience” in relation to their own movies. They’ll claim that they designed their movies with the cinemas in mind, and that audiences are doing a disservice by watching them on TV. These sentiments were shared by Denis Villeneuve and Christopher Nolan in December 2020, when Warner Brothers announced that they would release their upcoming films to both theatres and streaming on the same day, a decision spurred by the COVID-19 pandemic. Villeneuve, whose film “Dune” would be affected, wrote an open letter to Warner Brothers expressing his disappointment.

“Streaming services are a positive and powerful addition to the movie and TV ecosystems. But I want the audience to understand that streaming alone can’t sustain the film industry as we knew it before COVID. Streaming can produce great content, but not movies of “Dune’s” scope and scale. Warner Bros.’ decision means “Dune” won’t have the chance to perform financially in order to be viable and piracy will ultimately triumph. Warner Bros. might just have killed the “Dune” franchise.”

“Dune” ended up raking 400 million dollars at the box office and has a sequel in works. Christopher Nolan would go as far as to break off his long-time partnership with the studio, even though his film “Tenet” released months prior to this decision. Now, is it wrong for directors to want their films to be seen in the cinemas? No, of course not, but what irks me is this idea that their films are more deserving of this treatment then others.

Here's the truth: every film, from the expensive epics to the low budget dramas, benefits from being played in the theatres. Every movie deserves to be seen in the best way possible regardless of quality, but most films are not given this opportunity. In fact, it is these films which rely on spectacle above all else which have pushed out other genres from the theatres. But here’s something to consider; after a month or so, movies are eventually pulled from the theatres. Sure, a film may receive anniversary screenings years down the line, but after that initial period the main way it’ll be viewed is at home, and it’ll stay that way for the rest of its lifetime. This is what I find sad about directors who care so much about crafting a “cinematic experience.” They care more about exciting people through scale as opposed to content, and by doing so they are hurting the longevity of their art. When the big screen and speakers are removed, the impact is lessened and the actual things which make up the film (writing, acting, editing, cinematography, etc.) can be judged more clearly. It’s not like people are just going to automatically like a film just because they saw it in theatres. I watched “Dune” in theatres, and I found it painfully dull and self-important. On the other hand, I watched Tenet at home, and I also found it painfully dull and self-important. Villeneuve and Nolan are similar in the sense that their fans believe they create thought-provoking entertainment, which to me ends up being neither thought-provoking nor entertaining. They aim for a more cerebral aesthetic with their slow paces, depressing moods, and muted color palettes, yet tell stories which act as pretexts for explosions and action set pieces. The result are movies which appeal to mainstream sensibilities while giving the illusion that audiences are watching something smarter than the average Marvel flick. Needless to say, their films are not for me.

I can only speak for myself when I say that the big screen and speakers have never been enough to make me enjoy a movie, while the vast majority of what I consider my favourite films were viewed at home under my own terms. It would’ve been nice to watch them in theatres, but watching them on my TV did not diminish my love for them. This is not to say that there are no bad ways to watch a movie, because there are, but I believe that when viewed correctly a movie can still maintain it’s impact when viewed at home.

1) Obtain a high-quality copy of the movie (minimal compression artifacts)
2) Watch it on the biggest screen available to you
3) Watch it in a dark room
4) Minimize distractions (put your phone away, avoid pausing the movie, reduce background noises, etc.)

I am glad to have a sizable TV, a decent soundbar and a comfy couch, but I know that not everybody is as lucky. Watching movies on laptops, although not ideal, can still be good with a nice pair of headphones. The only thing I wouldn’t recommend is watching stuff on phones, as the screen is just too small to get properly immersed into the movie. Regardless, a good movie is a good movie no matter where you see it. We’ve come a long way since VHS. The divide in picture quality between the theatres and home video is narrower than it’s ever been. Some people like Tarantino claim that actual film projectors produce a better-looking image than digital. Again I can only speak for myself, but when I saw a 35mm screening of “Licorice Pizza”, I didn’t really notice an increase in quality. In fact, the picture appeared a little soft, and I noticed some scratches despite it being a new film. I honestly don’t get the hype. This is all to say that there isn’t much to miss out on by watching a movie at home.

But another thing I hear people say is that theatre going is a “communal experience”, to which I say not really. You just sit down next to other people who you ignore unless you need to tell them to stop being disruptive. Going to the theatres is seen as a great activity for a date or friend meetup, yet you are discouraged from talking once the film starts. I love cracking jokes with others while watching movies, but this is only something you can freely do at home. One time I was told to shut up by some rando while the production logos we’re coming in, as if the movie had actually started. This guy would probably be upset with the Minions: Rise of Gru shenanigans, where adults attended the movie to scream and throw bananas at the screen. That actually sounds like a communal experience to me, where people come together to let loose and have fun, but of course they ended up annoying those people who just wanted to enjoy their corporate children’s product. When I really want to get immersed in a film, I’ll watch it alone where I can’t hear the creaking of seats, the crunching of popcorn, and the laughter of folks who erupt at every slightly humorous quip. Likewise, if I want to enjoy a movie with friends, I prefer to do it in an environment where our stupid comments won’t disrupt other people. In both scenarios, I don’t have to sit in a cramped and uncomfortable chair or spend money on overpriced snacks.

Don’t get me wrong, I don’t want the theatres to go away, but after so many unsatisfying trips to see movies I ultimately don’t remember fondly, it’s become difficult to hold them in high regard. These films which are created with the big screen in mind will only suffer when they are regulated to the small screens. It should be the other way around: aim to create films which retain their impact when viewed in a living room, because if a film requires an expensive setup in order to derive any entertainment, it's probably not a good film to begin with.