I like to consider myself a movie purist — a fan of film as both experience and material object, with a romantic attachment to its grainy texture, mythic scale and enveloping sense of grandeur and collective worship. I have fulminated — in these very pages — against the encroaching tyranny of technology, from the diminished visual values of digital cinematography to the bland close-up-dominated grammar of a medium now as likely to be encountered on a three-inch phone screen as in a spacious movie palace.
Put simply — and to paraphrase Norma Desmond in “Sunset Blvd.” — my aesthetic expectations have always been big; it’s the pictures that got small.
But in recent years, forces have converged to make me reassess my stance. Obviously, TV screens and sound systems have gotten bigger, flatter and more sophisticated, allowing them to more closely approximate theatrical projection. With audiences texting, talking, beeping and buzzing through a movie they just shelled out nearly $20 to ignore, a compelling case can be made that watching a movie at home — even with kids, electronic devices and easy bathroom breaks — is more immersive and less prone to distractions than going to the multiplex.
Some industry analysts have suggested that it’s precisely those considerations that led viewers to wait to see “John Carter,” “Battleship” and “Dark Shadows” on VOD, rather than in theaters, a calculation that made them all box-office flops.
But in another corner of the movie business, where low-budget independent films huddle for warmth against encroaching extinction, the simultaneous release of films in theaters and on VOD — rather than the traditional months-long window between the two — has proved to be a sustaining, even crucial survival strategy.
In 2006, I interviewed Steven Soderbergh the day his experimental thriller “Bubble” made its premiere in Parkersburg, W.Va., where it was filmed. Soderbergh and the film’s distributor, Magnolia Pictures, were embarking on what was considered an audacious release strategy for the film, making it available on DVD and the HDNet Movies cable channel at the same time it opened in theaters (called day-and-date in industry parlance). Soderbergh — who’s never been particularly worried about the sanctity of his images — wasn’t concerned about whether his work was seen on a 70-foot theater screen or on someone’s tiny television. “I really don’t care how people see my movies, as long as they see them,” he told me. “I’m just not interested in controlling how somebody experiences one of my films.”