The changing face of cinema
In the early days of the 20th Century cinema was regarded as little more than a carnival side show. Basic hand-cranked projectors screened miraculous scenes of far away lands, trains entering stations, ships at sea, royalty at the races – anything that would elicit a response from a paying audience.
It was all about spectacle. Story wasn’t required, Some cinema commentators are currently lamenting that today’s summer blockbusters are rapidly returning to that level of basic entertainment.
Indeed I have referred to some 3-D movies being little more than a firework display of special effects which are barely held together by a coherent narrative. But, if you take a step back and look at the world of filmed entertainment as a whole, it becomes clear that there is something of a quiet revolution going on.
Just as pop music has steadily fragmented into a bewildering array of niche markets since the 1980s, so film is starting to undergo a similar process and like music it is being driven by technology.
It is about shoehorning leisure time into an increasingly busy and time-pressured existence. It is about providing the type of movie you want to see when you want to see it. It is also about providing the right audience for the right film. Digital technology has removed the expense of duplicating 35mm film and sadly removed the technological need for screening movies in a cinema. What it hasn’t done is remove the emotional and the aesthetic need. Watching a film with a group of like-minded individuals provides a collective experience that cannot be matched. To laugh, cry and gasp together heightens the power of a visit to the cinema. Sitting in a darkened auditorium helps the bonding process and removes the distraction of the outside world.
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Television doesn’t transport you in the same way.
Cinema still delivers the best film-going experience but many people are opting to view films or filmed drama in a variety of new ways. Audiences are starting to fracture. The rise of You Tube and clip shows on television has prompted a desire for short five or six minute mini-movies. It’s like going back to the 1930s and 40s when they had shorts before the main feature – except many of today’s young audience have no desire to see the main feature. They would just want more shorts and instead of watching them in a movie theatre they will hoover them up on their smart-phone.
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Watching films on a miniature screen seems perverse to me – particularly when it is the sheer scale of a cinema screen which provides a lot of its power.
But big screen entertainment still has its place and summer blockbusters still have the ability to pull in the crowds but increasingly it is the special effects and spectacle which is being used to sell films rather than the story or the stars.
As the Far East becomes increasingly important to Hollywood revenues, it is not surprising that they are concerned with keeping the level of dialogue to a minimum. Car chases, explosions and flying spacecraft require no dubbing or sub-titles. It is almost returning to the days of silent cinema.
But, it is not just the young driving change. Older people are also finding alternates to visiting the cinema. Indeed it could be argued that they are being driven towards home-viewing by the very distributors and film companies that once spent ridiculous sums of money trying to lure them out of the house.
Longer working hours and expensive childcare costs have contributed towards older audiences seeking their filmed entertainment via the television. Technology now means of course that TVs linked with computers can download and live-stream events and movies that would previously only be available in a movie-house.
Indeed some specialist distributors like Artificial Eye are now releasing films in cinemas and making them available for download on the same day. Meanwhile, while the big Hollywood studios are chasing the blockbuster dollar, smaller independent companies are choosing to divert their attention to television and the internet.
Netflix started off as a DVD hire company before transforming itself into an internet streaming channel earlier this year and has commissioned original programming in the form of the re-launch of comedy series Arrested Development and the re-make with Kevin Spacey of the political drama House of Cards.
Netflix and American specialist cable companies like HBO have filled the slot previously occupied by independent film companies like Miramax who made films targeted at older audiences and young professionals – frequently adapting novels and plays or tackling issues.
These mid-budget movies have moved to television taking actors like Dustin Hoffman, Al Pacino, Tom Hanks and Michael Douglas with them. Fifteen years ago Game of Thrones, Empire Boardwalk or Mad Men would have been mid-scale movies. Today they are a staple of television and are adapting to take full advantage of a long-form format which allows for more character development while cinema seems content to merely revel in more explosions and car chases.
Nevertheless some smaller movies do make it on to the cinema screen – films like The King’s Speech, Made In Dagenham, Tamara Drew, Summer In February – and audiences do respond. Without doubt, the times are a’ changin’, technology is changing the cinema landscape, but it’s good to be reminded that even a widescreen television is no match for the full majesty of the big screen in the company of a like-minded audience.