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The Future of Cinema

Wow, you guys!

The Kickstarter campaign is DONE. People contributed $2512, which is 136% of what I asked for.

And now, the real work begins.1 As promised, I’ll be interviewing people from all over the crew list. For my younger readers, you’ll get an overview of what each department is like. For my more experienced fans, I’m hoping you’ll gain a new appreciation for what your fellow crewmates do.

* * *

 This whole campaign got me thinking about the future of cinema.

I’m not so much worried about television. Some form of ad-supported video delivery system will continue to exist, at least until they figure out how to plug directly into the pleasure centers of our brains. ABC and NBC may not survive, but YouTube and Funny or Die will. Whether we watch on our computers or TV or whatever doesn’t really matter.

What I worry about is feature films. I’ve heard it said that, as long as teenagers need a place to get away from their parents and make out in a darkened room, there will always be movie theaters.2

I’m not so sure about that, and not because I’m concerned about the libido of young adults. I’m worried because of porn.

You’ve probably heard the stories about how porn appropriates technological innovation years or even decades before Hollywood does: they were the first to use digital cameras; the first to use VHS, then DVD; the first online.

That’s all well and good, until you realize–  porn is no longer in theaters.

Porn is entirely online, and largely free. Because of this, the budgets have gotten smaller and smaller. The cast is paid less, and the crew is minimal.

But if they’re getting paid less and less, why would anybody have sex on camera for strangers to watch?3 Because porn stars have found alternate revenue streams; specifically, live, personalized performances.4

The same thing happened with music, when songs suddenly became widely available and free online. Musicians figured out they don’t make a lot of money off iTunes, and even less on Spotify. But concerts? Man, oh man. They make a shit ton of money there.

Why? Because they’re live events, they’re entirely un-reproducible. Listening to a live album isn’t the same as actually being there. Even small bands make more money touring than selling Mp3s. Hell, some people give away their music just to promote themselves.

That’s great and all for bands and sex workers, but where does that leave movies?

One of the most compelling5 arguments for auteur theory is that, unlike a play director whose run is necessarily limited in time, a movie director’s work is permanently fixed in film (or hard drives or whatever). You can copy a movie any number of times, and it’s still, fundamentally, the same movie.

There’s no unique, un-reproducible event in movies. Yes, cinephiles will tell you the theatrical experience is different than watching it in your living room, but the movie doesn’t change.

So what are people really paying for? A bigger screen? Unless you’re sitting in the front row of the theater, that doesn’t matter so much. Better sound? Arguable. A crowd of people? Sure, but that can be as much a detriment as an advantage.

George Lucas famously predicted movie theaters would start raising their ticket prices to $50 or even $150. Excepting inflation, that seems unlikely to me. Quadrupling prices only works if 25% of your audience sticks around. Good luck with that.

Movies aren’t going to turn into legitimate theater– a high-class, special event kind of thing. More likely, movie theaters are going to go the same way as vaudeville, or more recently, video rental stores. There won’t be a huge, sudden crash. They’ll just gradually fade away, until the closing of the final movie theater is a human interest story on a slow news day.

But what about the movies themselves? Will we only have serialized dramas and sitcoms suitable for binge-watching?

No. Because Kickstarter exists.

The current system is basically this: studios and producers pay money up front, in the hopes that the film they make is something people will want to see. They then promote the movie, and hope the audience shows up. The reasons studios make a dozen movies a year is, there’s no sure bet. Any movie could be a loser, but if you make enough movies, the odds of making a profit are in your favor.

But as movie theaters go away, the prestige and uniqueness offered by the theatrical experience goes away. Soon, it’ll be hard to tell the difference between a movie and a single episode of television.6 This was part of the point of Kevin Spacey’s speech at the Edinburgh International TV Fest last year.

Losing that distinction, lots of studios will close down when they stick to the old business model. What will happen then? Well, I suspect we’re going to go back to an even older business model than what we have today: Patronage.

New media patronage, to be sure. Rather than a single wealthy land owner paying for the whole commission, a group of people will pay smaller amounts to find the project.

It’s reasonable to assume these funds will be more limited than what the studios were doling out, but there’s been a downward pressure on budgets for years now, anyway. I suspect crews will get smaller, too, if porn is once again a guide. Not as far as that, of course; those are practically student films. But still, movie crews will be smaller, leaner, cheaper.

Actors’ salaries will come down, too. The amount we pay the cast is unsustainable, from the day player who makes $875 for one line to the $20 million star. But like porn stars, they’ll find other ways to pay the bills, such as promoting products overseas.

None of this is going to happen for about 20 to 50 years, of course. My older readers won’t see this take over the industry, but some of the younger ones probably will. Some of you might yet make your fortune using the old system. Some of you might make it in the new. And some of you are going to lose your shirts in the transition. It sucks, but nobody sells buggy whips anymore.

In summary, don’t be surprised when I launch another Kickstarter campaign for TAPA: The Movie.

Footnotes    (↩ returns to text)

  1. Well, not really begins; we recorded 5 test episodes before the campaign concluded.
  2. Citation needed.
  3. Besides the fun of it, I mean?
  4. Stripping.
  5. But still not completely correct…
  6. Or, in the case of Sherlock, the television episodes will be vastly superior to the films.
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One Response

  1. Given that I’ve been boring all my friends for years now by prattling on about how movie theaters are a dying breed, I can’t argue with your logic. Yes, boutique theaters offering a vastly superior viewing experience (IMAX-style, among others) may survive, while other cinematic venues try to hold on to business by offering food and alcohol, but I think the days of the garden-variety suburban multiplex are numbered. Once market saturation has been reached by big-screen TVs and broadband (albeit much faster and more reliable than what we have today), there really won’t be any reason to head down to your local suburban movie theater. A few art houses might survive, showing films that Netflix and Amazon don’t (won’t) offer, but Adam Sandler’s epics will be coming in over the web.

    And when that day comes, everybody will be at home, glued to the big-screen Toob… most of them watching Reality (oops, I mean “alternative”) TV and/or porn.

    That will be a sad day for a lot of reasons — but by then I’ll probably be on a morphine drip with my brain hard-wired into one of those pleasure simu-stimulators you mentioned… and I won’t be the only one.

    The Brave New World awaits us all.

    But hey, I’m looking forward to TAPA: The Movie…

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