Christopher Nolan on the 'bleak future' of movies and why theaters will save us

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Jul 8, 2014

Christopher Nolan doesn't like where the movie business is going these days, but he still sees a glimmer of hope.

The Dark Knight Trilogy director is one of the biggest filmmakers in Hollywood right now, and his forthcoming sci-fi drama Interstellar is easily one of our most anticipated films of 2014, but Nolan's got more on his mind than just getting his own films in the can. Nolan also cares about movies as a business, as well as an artistic medium, and in a new editorial for the Wall Street Journal, he bemoaned the way film studios and distributors treat films as "content" that can be shuffled off onto as many platforms as possible, thus devaluing the experience -- aesthetically for the viewers and economically for the studios -- of sitting down to see a film in a theater. For Nolan, theaters are still a singular temple of moviedom. For studios these days, he argues, they're simply another platform to toss out content.

"'Content' can be ported across phones, watches, gas-station pumps or any other screen, and the idea would be that movie theaters should acknowledge their place as just another of these 'platforms,' albeit with bigger screens and cupholders," he wrote.

For Nolan, the danger in this way of thinking isn't just that fewer people will see films in theaters, but that theaters will adopt a kind of instant gratification policy that rewards familiarity (think Transformers) while condemning risk (think Edge of Tomorrow). In this "bleak future" of moviegoing, the films that perform best on Friday will completely rule the theater for the rest of the weekend, while other films will be snuffed out without having a chance to build an audience. It would be like channel surfing, and the films with the most ticket stubs would hold sway over the dial in a very instantaneous way.

"The distributor or theater owner (depending on the vital question of who controls the remote) would be able to change the content being played, instantly. A movie's Friday matinees would determine whether it even gets an evening screening, or whether the projector switches back to last week's blockbuster. This process could even be automated based on ticket sales in the interests of 'fairness,' " Nolan said. "Instant reactivity always favors the familiar. New approaches need time to gather support from audiences. Smaller, more unusual films would be shut out. Innovation would shift entirely to home-based entertainment, with the remaining theaters serving exclusively as gathering places for fan-based or branded-event titles."

That kind of scenario is a nightmare for people who want to see smaller movies at the local cinema as well as the latest Michael Bay explosion-fest, but it doesn't have to be that way. For Nolan, there's also hope in the future of theaters, and it lies in the moment when studios and distributors "relearn the tremendous economic value of the staggered release of their products." In his mind, when theaters transcend the notion of "content," cinema will be better off. 

"Once movies can no longer be defined by technology, you unmask powerful fundamentals—the timelessness, the otherworldliness, the shared experience of these narratives," Nolan said. "The audience experience is distinct from home entertainment, but not so much that people seek it out for its own sake. The experience must distinguish itself in other ways. And it will. The public will lay down their money to those studios, theaters and filmmakers who value the theatrical experience and create a new distinction from home entertainment that will enthrall—just as movies fought back with widescreen and multitrack sound when television first nipped at its heels."

"The theaters of the future will be bigger and more beautiful than ever before. They will employ expensive presentation formats that cannot be accessed or reproduced in the home (such as, ironically, film prints). And they will still enjoy exclusivity, as studios relearn the tremendous economic value of the staggered release of their products," Nolan continues. "The projects that most obviously lend themselves to such distinctions are spectacles. But if history is any guide, all genres, all budgets will follow."

The entire editorial is well worth a read, in no small part because we've seen plenty of predictions of the death of cinema over the past few years, but few alternatives as idyllic as Nolan's "theaters of the future" ideas seem to be. We live in a world where it's nice to think about watching a movie in the comfort of your own home without worrying about some jerk a few seats down taking out his phone in the middle of the third act, but the power of the theatrical experience isn't dead yet, and Nolan seems to be betting on that power growing to compensate for the convenience of "platforms."

What do you think? Is Nolan on the right track, or will the future of movies veer from what he envisions?

(Via The Playlist)

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