Pictures at an Evolution

Movie theaters are open for business again. and the film world is abuzz with new release dates, in-person festivals, an accelerating Oscar race, an array of Covid-19 protocols and anxious prognostications. Is this the death of cinema (again) or its glorious rebirth? Or has it mutated into something new altogether, a two-headed Disney-Netflix monster with art somewhere in its genome? Our chief film critics, Manohla Dargis and A.O. Scott, have some thoughts on these matters. They also asked some industry veterans to weigh in.

MANOHLA DARGIS Hello, friend — it’s been awhile. I recently returned from a book leave and having failed to win the lottery, I am back (happily!). I ignored most of the movie news while I was gone, though was sad to learn about the closure of my favorite theater here in Los Angeles, the ArcLight Hollywood, which was felled by the lockdowns. It felt like the beginning of the end of something, but here we are in a new season that looks more like 2019 than 2020 — even with requests to see our vax cards. What’d I miss?

A.O. SCOTT You didn’t miss much, except for a few episodes in the continuing discourse — part soap opera, part séance, part tech seminar — about the Future of Movies. Judged solely from the slate of upcoming releases (some held back from 2020), that future looks a lot like the recent past. The fall will see new work from both Andersons, Wes and P.T. Jane Campion’s first feature in more than a decade. A new James Bond. The predominance of familiar directors and stars along with newly minted auteurs (like Chloé Zhao, following her best picture win for “Nomadland” with a Marvel spectacle) creates a reassuring sense of continuity. Cinema as we have known it seems to still exist.

At the same time — though not for the first time — it is widely feared to be in mortal peril. Some of that anxiety is Covid-specific. Nobody knows when or how this thing will end, and whether audiences will return to theaters in sufficient numbers to revive the old business models. The pandemic is not the only factor, and the future of movies and moviegoing may depend less on virus mutations or consumer preferences than on corporate strategy.

If Covid stretches on, we will lose more art-house theaters, resulting in less box office revenue. At some point there won’t be enough theaters to generate sufficient revenue to justify releasing a movie theatrically. If you lay on how the past 18 months have changed viewing habits, it looks even worse: the art-house audience is more mature, and that demographic has so far not been eager to return to cinemas.

— Richard Abramowitz, founder and chief executive of the distributor Abramorama

DARGIS That we’re social animals is what made me think that we’d get back into theaters, that and there’s too much money at stake. Moviegoing has been up and down forever. But for decades the major studios have been eroding exhibition — the moviegoing habit itself — with a business model that banks on a handful of youth-baiting tentpoles and some monster weekends. Their audience flocks to the theaters for a bit, and everyone else waits for home video (or not). I looked at the numbers for the last “Avengers” movie: it opened in American theaters in April 2019 and played through September, but it sucked up more than 90 percent of its domestic haul in 30 days.

I imagine that a lot of people waited to see it, just as earlier generations waited for stuff to hit TV, cable, video — all once viewed as a threat to moviegoing. For a time, these different avenues seemed fairly complementary. But the habit of on-demand, whenever, wherever watching has proved overwhelming, which is bad for exhibition but good for the multinational companies that own the studios because they also own the companies which funnel stuff into homes. So, maybe these multinationals will shift exclusively to streaming. Maybe they’ll re-embrace theaters or buy them all up. In the end, I am far more worried about nonindustrial cinema and if its audience will return to theaters.

Sure, there’s the occasional blockbuster they may want to see as an Imax experience and want to have that shared community experience, but like everything in the world, with the multitude of choices available and given time, effort and expense to go to the movies, most opt to see movies in the comfort of their homes.

— Marcus Hu, co-founder of the distributor Strand Releasing

SCOTT The small screen is definitely getting bigger, whether we like it or not. Subscription revenue is unlikely ever to match blockbuster box-office numbers, but for a lot of independent-minded filmmakers, streaming offers money for projects the big studios don’t make anymore. For a long time, the big studios have been concentrating their resources on franchise, I.P.-driven entertainment at the expense of stand-alone features aimed at adult audiences. Streaming has picked up some of that slack.

The upshot is that what you and I and others in our rapidly aging demographic understood by “going to the movies” may have been replaced by a different menu of choices and practices. What I mean is the idea of the movie theater as a destination, independent of a particular film that might be showing. A lot of the time, you’d just go and see whatever was there, and there was always something — art, trash or in between — worth the price of the ticket, which wasn’t all that much. A movie habit was easy enough to acquire, and a lot of us did.

Kids nowadays haven’t developed it in quite the same way. They have more screens, more options and different reasons for buying a ticket. I’m not lamenting, just observing. What I wonder about is the effect of these changes on the art form that we’re still calling by the anachronistic names cinema and film.

The studios stopped making the kinds of movies I make around the time we were finishing “Moneyball” — I remember an exec telling me he would have passed on it if it had come to him then. In the years it took to get that movie made, the world for that kind of movie turned.

— Rachel Horovitz, producer

DARGIS Let’s check back in 50 years to see how streaming affected cinema, which is always a moving target. To be honest, while it’s interesting to see how the big companies are handling the newest normal, the work I tend to love has long had a separate ecology, with its own way of doing things, its own community and relations. In 1991, Julie Dash’s “Daughters of the Dust” needed a slow release, critical love and word of mouth to make a dent, and the same is true of most of the movies we care about now. As a friend asked the other day, would Bong Joon Ho’s “Parasite” be “Parasite” if it had only been streamed? We both think the answer is no — it would still be great, but not a cultural sensation.

Movies, unlike branded entertainment, need to live in the world, not just on personal devices. This isn’t about the putative romance of moviegoing, but how people experience art and culture, because while we’re talking about infrastructure, we are also talking about pleasure — the pleasure of the cinematic object, and the pleasure of your company and conversation. It’s frustrating that people keep writing lazy obituaries for cinema, something they have no feeling for or interest in. I don’t love all that’s transpired in movie history — the shift from film to digital, the loss of technical competency — but I remain buoyed by the persistence of the art and how its ecologies adapt and persevere.

Even so, and I think I’ve said this before, I do increasingly view the segment of the movie world that I most worry about as akin to jazz. It’s something usually appreciated by a niche audience but that needs new blood — the kids you mentioned — to truly sustain it.

Theatrical films will have exclusive windows in theaters, but those windows will be shorter and more flexible. But movies that matter, that have cultural impact, will again play exclusively in movie theaters for some time, likely 45 days.

— Tom Rothman, chairman and chief executive of Sony Pictures’ Motion Picture Group

SCOTT I guess I’m always optimistic about the tenacity of artists and the curiosity of audiences, and aware that the good work most often gets done against the grain of whatever the system is at a given moment. But it’s nonetheless important to be critical of that system, and reasonable to wonder how its current iteration might stymie some kinds of originality while encouraging others.

There’s no going back to any previous golden age, and the gold rubs off pretty quickly when you take a close look. The old studios whose products earned the designation “classical” were built on exploitation and predation, and ruled by autocratic moguls. Things were not much better, from an ethical or political standpoint, in the New Hollywood ’70s or the indie ’90s.

Still, great and weird movies were being made then, as they are now. But I fear that many of them will languish in the streaming algorithms or in the margins of micro-distribution, estranged from even the smallish publics that might have discovered them. One cause for alarm — which has nothing to do with streaming per se — is the mass extinction of the local newspapers and alt-weeklies that nourished local film scenes across the country. The health of movies is connected to the health of journalism.

[I worry] that the economic challenges will force the art-house cinemas away from the smaller titles that add significantly to diversity and inclusion in our cinematic landscape. Additionally, that the downsizing of newspaper and media coverage for smaller films will force the theater owners’ hands in these decisions.

— Dennis Doros, co-founder of Milestone Films

DARGIS The pandemic has brought specific issues to the fore — at the least, maybe improved theater ventilation will put an end to watching multiplex fodder in a miasma of despair and stale popcorn. More to your last point, I think that mostly what the pandemic has done is underscore, again, that all of us are still navigating the world created by the internet, which changed how we labor, play, read, watch, think. The movie industry has a history of different production-distribution-exhibition models that work until they don’t, yet throughout these shifts, movies kept being made and people kept watching them, and I imagine they’ll keep getting made and we’ll keep watching and talking about all of it.

SCOTT Let’s hope so! Otherwise we may both find ourselves on permanent book leave.

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