Recently, the INDY asked me if I’d provide a list of the top 10 films I saw in the past year.
The request threw me, because it made me realize something: There’s a lot less pressure to see a film in the theater than there used to be.
Understand, I’ve never been a primary part of the skilled crew of film critics for the paper—my wheelhouse includes plays, bookstore events and comic books. Often, the films I write about are revival screenings at local theaters. But the gaps in my moviegoing this year are shameful, and the worst part is, I know exactly why I didn’t see many of the most talked-about films. For example, Boyhood is nearly three hours long. Factor in travel time to and from the theater, and that’s nearly four hours. Every time I tried to block out that four hours, I found myself thinking, “Well, I could go to the gym, or to a bookstore, or could finish binge-watching The Shield TV series on DVD… .”
The “I can put it off” mentality led to complicated scheduling. If I visited www.therialto.com, I could see exactly when the indie films they were showing would be leaving the rotation. “ENDS THURSDAY!” was a red flag. I usually work a part-time job until 8 on Thursday, and if a film was splitting theater space with another film, it might only have a screening at 7. And, of course, Wednesdays often meant regular film showings were preempted for a revival screening, such as Cinema Overdrive. A few times, I’d spontaneously decide to catch a film on Wednesday, only to find I’d forgotten to check for a special event. Viewing window gone.
Cinema Overdrive and other events created a reverse pressure—if I knew a movie would only play one night or a single weekend, I felt more compelled to see it than a major Hollywood production. My work schedule keeps me from seeing many of the wonderful films at the North Carolina Museum of Art, but with Cinema Inc., the aforementioned Overdrive and Cool Classics at the Colony, and the many Retrofantasma and related features at the Carolina Theatre of Durham, there was plenty to fill the gap.
When I did make it to theaters, I put smaller independent films at the top of my list, films I knew wouldn’t have a wide theatrical release in the Triangle. I’m still glad I caught the likes of Snowpiercer and the Roger Ebert documentary Life Itself at the Colony (if you missed it, it was recently announced that CNN will show it Sunday, Jan. 4, at 9 p.m.).
Hollywood films were easier to miss. In the 1980s and 1990s, there were limited screens and a wait of about a year before a film became available on VHS for rental. Now, there’s only a three-month delay or so between a film’s wide theatrical release and it becoming a $2.25 ticket at the second-run Carmike near my house. Wait a little longer and you can outright own a film on DVD or Blu-Ray, or enjoy it on Netflix Instant, Amazon Streaming, iTunes, HBOGo (which most people “borrow” the password for anyway) or assorted other options.
It all reminds me of what I read about television becoming popular in the 1950s. You could experience for free at home what once required a movie ticket, so how did movies compete? Some got larger, like Roman epics in “Cinemascope.” The smaller films, such as horror movies, went for gimmicks like 3-D and exploitation to draw in curious audiences.
You can still see patterns like this in modern cinema. Go to a larger theater, and you’ll get an ad before a film where a big action scene shrinks down to the size of a computer screen, with an admonition that it really deserves to be seen at full size. Many big studio releases use (often unnecessary) digital 3-D as an added incentive to see a film in a theater. And one of the most lively revival screenings I caught this year was a presentation of gimmick-king William Castle’s The Tingler at the Carolina Theatre, where fans packed Fletcher Hall to experience flashlights being shined in their eyes, a skeleton on a bungee cord and onscreen cues telling them when to scream. There was a sense of community you couldn’t get from watching the same movie at home on a DVD.
As guilty as I feel for cutting back my theater-going experiences in 2014, I recognize that I still made it to the movies more frequently than many less-cinema-obsessed people. Revivals included, I probably saw 30, 40 movies in a theater this year. According to Nielsen’s 2014 Moviegoing Report, the average person saw 7.3 films in a theater in 2014, down from 7.7 in 2013. The drive downward was blamed on “Digitals,” those aged 12-24, who preferred a streamed (and, in some cases, pirated) experience.
So. What does this mean?
The logical answer would seem to be that studio films are going to keep getting bigger, and keep relying on countless sequels, remakes and adaptations to lure audiences back. Indeed, a recent piece by the excellent writer Mark Harris at Grantland offers a truly intimidating compilation of what we’ll see over the next several years. Even as a hardcore comic book fan, I’m expecting to get burned out on the various linked-and-semi-linked Marvel Comics-based movies, or Warner Bros.’ efforts to compete with their build-up to a Justice League film. And every time a multi-film plan for some novel adaptation comes up, I die a little inside. When I was a kid, The Hobbit was an 80-minute cartoon on TV, not a nine-hour trilogy that takes longer to watch than to read the original book (yes, I know they delved into other Tolkien material to pad it out. Still don’t care).
But I’ve got a strange optimism. I’m teaching a course at N.C. State’s McKimmon Center in January based on another Harris work, his book Pictures at a Revolution, detailing the Best Picture nominees of 1967. Those five films were Bonnie and Clyde, The Graduate, In the Heat of the Night, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner? and Doctor Doolittle, a crossroads of the dying studio system’s bloated, out-of-touch productions and the edgier, more relevant “New Hollywood” that resulted in the creative renaissance of the 1970s—the decade of Scorsese, Coppola, Altman, Hal Ashby and some of the best American movies ever made.
What’s most intriguing about the times to come is how filmmaking might adapt. Are more small films going to bypass theaters altogether for streaming and on-demand services? Are studios going to try to find a way to enjoy lower risks and higher rewards like Universal Studios, who enjoyed record profits this year by not relying on tentpole projects? Are big-budget superhero movies and young adult novel adaptations going to backfire the same way overblown studio musicals and epics did in the 1960s, leading to a resurgence in mid-level films? And how will movie theaters, particularly the smaller, independent-film-based ones, continue to compete with services such as streaming?
On my end, I recognize the challenge for moviegoers is the same as in other areas of life—the willingness to get up and make an effort when every form of entertainment is almost literally at your fingertips in this technology-based age. Not all films are worth the trouble, but there is still value in that large, projected image that gives you the filmmakers’ intended vision.
So, that’s why I don’t have a Top 10 list for this year. I will try harder in 2015. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to work this weekend and need to figure out when the hell I have time to catch The Babadook.