Streaming Killed the Cinema Star

This is a topic that just keeps coming up, and up, and up on social media: seeing movies in the theater versus waiting to stream at home. The latest go-round of this topic came up just in the last day or two, via this news report:

A new poll by HarrisX, exclusive to IndieWire, found that 34 percent of U.S. adults prefer to watch movies in theaters, which means a solid two-thirds would rather wait for them to be released on streaming.

“The competition continues between streaming services and the Hollywood engine. While we still see evidence of loyal movie-goers in recent box office numbers, our study shows that 2 in 3 movie watchers prefer to stream movies at home,” Alli Brady, VP at HarrisX, told IndieWire. “Despite this causing some upheaval for the industry, it also means that the demand for content is only increasing – nearly half of consumers say they stream movies weekly, more than 7x as frequently as those who do so in theaters.”

Brady’s pollsters also found that 30 percent of us stream a movie two or more times per week — the same percentage of respondents said they go to movie theaters “a few times a year.”

I have to admit that I have become one of the people who is more likely to wait for a movie to be able to stream at home than see it in a theater, though I’m not totally sure I’d call it a preference. If going to the movies was an experience similar to what I used to enjoy in the late 90s (before we entered the world of parenthood, after which movies became for a time a luxury in which we had to have the worlds of money and available time actually align), then I’d probably still prefer seeing movies at the theater.

Now, certain aspects have actually improved, or at least not got worse. The screens are still fine, and the sound may have actually improved, though the movies have certainly gotten louder, and not just action movies with explosions, either. When we attended a Fathom Events screening of Casablanca last year, I was rather put out by how blaringly loud the volume was, to the point that the movie’s mono audio mix really suffered and finer details of Max Steiner’s score were lost. I’ve noticed this for years; I’ve never forgotten when we went to see Notting Hill way back when and I was thinking throughout, “This is a rom-com! It does not need to be this loud!

And visually, the movies seem to suffer a lot less now…at least presentationally. I remember Roger Ebert’s frequent rants about how many theater owners years ago tried to skimp on costs by outfitting their projectors with bulbs of lower wattage, supposedly saving some electricity cost, which also made the movies themselves look dim and dingy. One theater I used to frequent in Olean did this, I am certain; that particular theater made the movie-going experience so bad, in fact, that eventually I refused to see movies there and if something arrived there that I wanted to see, we would road-trip to Buffalo for it.

But at the same time, screens and sound at home have improved in leaps and bounds. Does my home set-up rival the theater in terms of technical quality? Maybe not…but the difference is hardly so great that the movie itself suffers, either.

Another big factor cited by those who prefer streaming at home is cost, and for me, this is a huge factor indeed. Ticket prices are higher than ever, and so are concessions. I like to snack during a movie, and sure, I could just forego the popcorn–but I’ll get back to that. Time is also a factor, with movies frequently preceded by at least twenty minutes of previews and, deeply annoyingly, commercial advertisements. Apparently the high costs of attending the theaters are not even sufficient to keep them afloat, so they have to inflict ads upon the viewers prior to the movies. Ugh.

The responses when I point these factors out are typical: Just arrive twenty minutes late! Sneak in your snacks or just do without! Well, I honestly don’t much feel like picking my way through the darkened theater during the previews, and I also can’t smuggle in a large popcorn. And if you tell me to just “do without”, well then, you’re running into the last big argument the folks who still love the theaters have: it’s the experience, you see.

Seeing a movie in the theater, with an audience that is also into the story, is the real attraction of the theater. It’s the magic of the lights going down, and the giant screen enveloping you, and feeling the people around you rise and fall with the story in the same way you are. And look, that can be real; I wouldn’t deny that it is. I’ve had some wonderful experiences in theaters because of that communal aspect: a Nickel City con screening of Flash Gordon leaps to mind, or a recent film festival screening of a movie a friend of mine from work made. And I do have to admit that I wish I’d been able to attend a screening of Avengers Endgame in its first week out.

But, it’s generally my experience that those kinds of theatrical experiences, where everyone is into it and we’re all feeling it, are increasingly the exception than the rule. Instead nowadays it’s more common to catch glimpses of the light from someone’s phone, or having to shift to let someone get up to go refill their 64oz cup of Coke or go to the bathroom, or catch the whispers of conversations around. If you live in a place where the audiences still sit in the theater with reverent silence, awesome; I do not. And anyway, as an introvert, I tend to put less premium on the alchemy of the “communal experience” anymore. (And when the “But it’s the experience!” people tell me to go without popcorn or whatever, well…for me that’s part of the experience. That comment reveals an odd belief that I should cheapen my experience so I can be there to somehow enhance their experience, or some such thing.)

Many people do manage to stop arguing at this point, seeing that it’s really a matter of preference…but some really do look down on the very notion that seeing a movie in one’s own home is a perfectly acceptable thing to do. They’re only slightly pacified if you assure them that yes, obviously the theater is the best place to see a movie and it’s only because of these few factors that you just can’t get there as often as you’d like. The idea that the theater is simply not essential to the movie-seeing experience is never given the time of day, and this results in a not-uncommon accusation, one version of which was just leveled at me yesterday on Threads:

“You just don’t really love the movies, then.”

That is, quite simply, bullshit. One hundred percent grade-A bullshit. No aspect of that notion is not bullshit.

Take the simple fact that the majority of the movies I’ve seen on my life have either been seen on teevee, or on a computer screen, or projected onto a small screen in a small setting like a classroom, or even–gasp!–my tablet or–gasper!–my phone. Most of the classic films that I love, I have never had the opportunity to see theatrically, and if I did have a chance to see them theatrically, it was a one-time affair. I think it’s a conservative estimate to say that if I struck from my memory every film I have not seen theatrically, my roster of films seen would be reduced by at least seventy-five percent.

I’ve noticed similar arguments come up in regard to music: what is better, live music or recordings? And the arguments usually go the same way, ultimately referring to some undefined “electricity” or some other mystical element that takes place in a live setting. And sure, maybe. But then I think about books, and these arguments vanish, really. Once in a while someone will say that “audiobooks aren’t really reading”, and just about all of Bookish Social Media will rise up to laugh that person out of the room. Now, I don’t personally use audiobooks for my own reasons (basically: I can’t focus on them and I lose track of the story), but I certainly grant that audiobooks are reading. So are Kindles, e-book apps on your phone, and Braille. Nobody except a churlish weirdo ever maintains that it’s only reading if it’s, say, a first-edition hardcover. In this chair, underneath that light.

“You’re just not a movie person,” said the gatekeeping weirdo to me last night…and what am I supposed to do with that? Delete all the words I’ve poured into this space and elsewhere about Star WarsCasablanca, Princess Mononoke, My Fair Lady, and On Her Majesty’s Secret Service? Shall I forever recuse myself from conversations about Fred Astaire versus Gene Kelly? Am I unallowed forevermore to wax poetic about Harrison Ford in Witness and Jodie Foster in The Silence of the Lambs

I’m not a “movie person”, because I no longer see theaters as essential parts of the entire movie-viewing experience. Sure, OK. You can think that if you want to, and you can look down on my thoughts on film on that basis if you want to. That’s a you problem, not a me problem. I’ll just ignore you and keep seeing movies, once in a while at the theater but more often right here at home, with my own drinks and my own snacks and possibly a dog snoring next to me on this very couch.

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3 Responses to Streaming Killed the Cinema Star

  1. Lee McAulay says:

    Nothing beats cinema for films that have been made for a giant screen. You can’t get the same effect at home. Just no.
    That Star Wars scene where the Empire ship appears from overhead and fills the screen, and keeps on filling it? Impossible to experience how oppressive that is without it filling your entire vision.
    I’m still waiting for the chance to see Dune in a cinema with adequate air filtration – that soundtrack! – I can only imagine the rumble across the floor, the walls and the very air itself vibrating with sound.
    Nope, at home isn’t the same.

  2. Jason says:

    Wow, someone really accused you of not loving movies because you don’t going to the theater? That’s… extreme.

    You know of course where I stand on the theater issue. For me, a theatrical presentation is the ideal one for this particular art form, the one that the form was invented to use. But of course I also watch a hell of a lot of movies at home and the majority of what I’ve seen in my lifetime has been through non-theatrical media, just as you describe, and I don’t think there’s anything WRONG with that. (I draw the line at watching one on a phone though; I don’t even like watching TikTok/Reels/YouTube videos on a screen that small, but that’s me)

    My bafflement over this whole discussion comes from the outright HOSTILITY I see so many people projecting onto the theatrical experience because, well, I don’t have the kinds of negative experiences and associations so many others apparently do. And I concede that my personal history with the theater industry has skewed my view of things, because I tend to be on theater-owners’ side.

    That said, though… my experience is not your experience, and I hope I haven’t been an ass about it in our back-and-forth. That accusation that you don’t love movies is just beyond the pale. But then… social media, right? I’ve been getting a lot of static recently on my own posts over on that platform and it’s bumming me out.

  3. Roger says:

    I think one CAN see films at home and experience it in cinematic way. I know that *I* CAN’T do so very often. Of the Best Picture Oscar noms this season, I saw 8 in the cinema, and only 1 (Anatomy of a Fall) at home. Killer Moon I didn’t see at all and I have the streaming capacity to do so, but not the 216 minutes to watch it as it was meant to be watched, which, for me, is all at once. Heck, in the old Netflix days, I had The Hurt Locker DVD for FOUR MONTHS but I never had the two hours to give it justice. But my two closest movie theaters closed, and unless one comes back, it’s extremely unlikely I’ll trudge out to the Regal Theaters with their incessant ads before the films. So I either adapt or give up on movies. Ugh.

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