The end of films?

In a recent interview, two giants of the film making industry, George Lucas and Steven Spielberg, predicted that the theater going experience (and movie making in general) will cease to exist in the near future. (Click to read the interview.)

Lucas and Spielberg feel that the film industry distribution model is fundamentally changing.  Similar to many of the issues that authors (well-known or not) face  when trying to get a book released or marketed in the mainstream publishing industry today, studios want to score big on what they view as sure fire hits.  Hence fewer and fewer screenplays, that aren’t part of an existing brand, are being produced by the mainstream media.

As someone who enjoys seeing and discussing films (see the Hindsight is 20-20 podcast) and has aspirations of selling a screenplay some day, I have to say that these remarks by two Hollywood icons caught my attention.  They contend that due to the costs involved in producing and marketing the big blockbuster films today that studios and theaters will attempt to offset those costs with tiered pricing for tickets (example: a special effects laden film like Man of Steel would cost you $50.00+ per ticket while a film like Argo might cost you $9.00+), far fewer “big” spectacle movies (the blockbuster movie model would cease to be and films might run for a year in the theater), and more and more movies/media content will be delivered directly to the consumer at home through a service like Netflix with no true theatrical release.

While all these types of predictions may not come to pass it’s impossible to deny that change is (and has been) underway in how we as a society consume media.  I recently watched Season 4 of Arrested Development on Netflix streaming.  The entire season was released at once. Was I glad I could watch the show at my own pace, without commercials, at the same price as everything else I can watch on Netflix streaming? Absolutely.  Was something of the experience with new content lost since I watched it in a relatively short amount of time? Probably.  This new on demand form of media means I have to watch spoiling the show for others or can’t discuss it until weeks later when they’ve finished watching it. The model also arguably lessens the viewer’s connection to the content.   I can view it all at once, quickly, then move on to the next thing without really allowing time for it to sink in or really reflect upon it.  When a show is released an episode at a time it allows the viewer additional time to evaluate how they feel about a storyline or character, speculate what will happen next, involve others about their insights and  opinions about the show.  The viewing becomes a shared experience because of the discussions that spring from it.  How many relationships have been enriched by talking about a movie or television show?

There is a huge social aspect to movie or television viewing.  People love to absorb, share, discuss, and critique stories.  It’s in our nature. We’ve all had bad experiences at the movie theater: obnoxious people in the audience, rising costs to go, sold out shows,etc. Still there’s something wonderful about going and sharing the experience of seeing a film on that big screen and escaping, if only for a short time, into the world on screen.  I’d hate to see that experience end because the flaws in the Hollywood studio system.

If the movie industry follows the path envisioned by Lucas and Spielberg, how will that impact not only the consumers and Hollywood industry but the creators and writers as well?  Some claim the more innovative productions and storytelling are already taking place on television.   Obviously they’ll follow the money into whatever viable forms of distribution present themselves but will the quality of the storytelling change (good or bad), will the craft of screenwriting itself weaken, how might the demise of movies impact other mediums of writing?

In an age of brand driven film projects, reboots, re-imaginings, and blockbusters of the week it’s difficult to predict where all of this is ultimately going but lets hope that the power of films to connect, inspire, and entertain us is not lost as an industry tires to reinvent itself for the 21st century.