WORDS ON FILM
BY NOLAN LAMPSON
About a year ago, during a lectern speech at the Cinema Audio Society Awards, one of Hollywood’s biggest, boldest, and brightest beacons stood before a crowd. Few times in his life, I imagine, did he ever feel so desperate, panicked before a sea of fellow filmgoers and lovers. But the message in his mind had reverberated across town several times over, enough to hear the metallic chatter worldwide, and it was something he needed to say. In a heated tone, maybe along with spirited hesitation, he declared, “I hope all of us really continue to believe that the greatest contributions we can make as filmmakers is to give audiences the motion picture theatrical experience.”
I think about Steven Spielberg’s words, today, after AMC Theaters and Universal Studios signed a multi-year deal, per Variety, allowing films to hit VOD and streaming services after seventeen days of their theatrical run, significantly chopping the usual 80-90 day window before theatrical showings appear in the home market. Perhaps Spielberg is an obvious choice among Tinseltown’s elite echelon to eschew streaming, in no small part due to his decades-long success with theatrical runs and a gargantuan net worth to prove it (illions, with a ‘b’ in front of it). Moreover, though, I think he was speaking on behalf of a sizable sect of the industry, a sect he certainly is a face of: those who grew with exhibition, not just as children mimicking what they saw on the big screen, but as young craftsmen who played a seminal role in the resurgence of theatrical importance.
Sure, the United States would never return to the days of the depression-torn thirties, wherein most historians estimate a third of the population was rushing to the cinema on a weekly basis. But in the 1980s, with help from a new block that had a tendency to be busted, theaters regained stature in the culture. It’s this stature that has rendered many ‘glory-days’ directors practically myopic, unable to face or resign to a medium trending away from the Odeon and towards the couch. Much like his peer Martin Scorsese, who months later would stir himself in controversy in an odd ‘slashing-but-sort-of-not-really’ of superhero films, Spielberg’s comments have these roots. Those of an old order struggling to find ways to fit the puzzle piece that is the digital generation. Those of tradition being toppled second after second, pandemic closure after pandemic closure, Disney Plus after Quibi after Peacock, then soon, I suppose, Regal and Cinemark Theater Streaming Plus Go Mobile 1000.
I think about his words, specifically as he used them. Hope. Greatest contributions. Do he, Scorsese, Christopher Nolan, and the countless other swear-by-theater filmmakers feel they have failed today? Etched in Spielberg’s (and Scorsese’s) words were a palpable fear; but now, with a major indication that the fear has been met with a curtain call for theaters, does it sting as they thought it would? This Universal-AMC deal, a harbinger of things to come, or a postscript to an era that, slowly and surely, has already ushered out wide exhibition?
There is a counterpoint to all the pessimism practically imbedded in the Universal-AMC deal’s fine print: the studios are winning this deal -- they most certainly are, due to their ability to descale marketing for post-theater VOD release and their freedom from theater chains, the largest of which are only demanding more box-office cuts every year. If the studios are to have more financial freedoms and flexibility to release anything other than a billion-dollar gross guarantee, that paves a path for the films Scorsese yearned a return for, those of passion, heart, soul -- a few qualities he did not seem apt to adorn to many of the franchises of today’s cinema. The studios could greenlight the light to overcome a dark web of sequels, prequels and Furious 15. The light just wouldn’t be shining on a silver screen.
This deal, a stack of papers sitting on a polyurethane-finished oak desk in a Culver City high-rise.
Is it the end of movie theaters?
Maybe, maybe not.
Today, how we watch movies changed forever. But change is successive, rapid, and in an industry increasingly predicated on maneuverability of entertainment, a domino effect. Who knows, in the next week, even, which studio or service or theater chain will be the next to strike ink-to-paper. The end of theaters? Well. Certainly not today, and maybe not too soon, but... the next drive you take that passes by the multiplex, maybe glance at the marquee for a moment. It isn’t too often in life we can knowingly glance at an artifact of history, beaten and on its last legs, and prop it up on our shoulders for a while.
comments on the screen by nolan lampson.