Spring 2006


M. Night Shyamalan says the power of cinema to captivate an audience is being threatened by businessmen who want to release DVDs on the same day. He advises directors to consider the following.


M Night ShyamalanAt the Nuremberg trials in the fall of 1945, the highest-ranking Nazi officials were on trial for crimes against humanity. There was only one moment during the year this trial took place, in that courtroom full of world leaders and world reporters, that the Nazis moved from their unshakeable beliefs that they were right and correct in their position. This was a moment when a film was projected in the room.

The room of strangers and enemies went silent as the lights were lowered. A film documenting the atrocities of the concentration camps lit up the room. The images showed bodies like discarded toys being mangled and piled, and buried and abused in every way an inhuman imagination let run wild could think of.

The courtroom was silent when the film finished and the lights came up. The room of the three or four hundred people had changed. Those who had nothing to do with the film or the contents of it were in shock for they had realized what man is capable of when filled with hatred, what they themselves could be capable of if convinced of a point of view. They had looked through the eyes of Nazis and saw the cold and detached view that could make humans act like monsters.

There was one other reaction when the lights came up. It was from the twenty-four Nazis who were responsible for the film, the ones who had seen and paid for those images. For the first and only time in that trial some of them were crying. They had seen the film through the eyes of the strangers in the room. They could feel and see through other’s eyes for the first time. They saw from another perspective. It was in that moment the Nazis knew, without a shadow of a doubt, they were going to hang.

The power of cinema lies in its audience of strangers and their ability to subtly change each other’s points of view. We sit in a room of hundreds of strangers and something happens. We hear a child laugh at a place in the story where we wouldn’t have laughed and we change. We sense a quiet at a moment of drama and we feel it deeper than we would have. A room full of points of view so different than ours makes us grow. For those few hours in the dark we are in some ways sharing a soul.

This is the secret of cinema; we are telling stories to a moving, living, breathing, collective-soul. The success of our movies is judged by its resonance with this soul. And this is why cinema is the highest standard of the visual storytelling art form.

There is only one art form when we say “The Movies”: the in-theater cinema experience. Everything else is a lesser art form.

Now, there are businessmen led by Mark Cuban and Bob Iger and as far as I know one prominent director (Mark Cuban’s business partner) who want to release DVDs, videos, and all media exploitations at the same time a movie opens in the theaters. They are trying to say these are all various forms of the same experience: this is false. They are trying to say this is the inevitable wave of the future: this is also false. They are saying it will be more profitable: this is the most bizarre falsehood of all.

Currently, a movie that resonates with the audience of strangers has connected in some way we as filmmakers don’t even understand most of the time. It is some message or archetype that resonates with this larger soul. And this most coveted resonance can come from a broad comedy about two guys crashing weddings, or a movie about penguins, or a movie about a serial killer who eats people with Chianti, or an opera in space, or a no budget movie about kids lost in a woods hunting a witch. The movies that work for us, in this room of strangers, stay with us more. We are able to carry it with us longer and share our feelings more powerfully when we talk about it because we had a deeper experience. We own it more. We are surprised by what we have learned about ourselves and the film. It is more real to us. This translates into a tangible commitment in word of mouth, ticket buying, video watching and DVD purchasing. The deeper the experience the more powerful the repercussions; and directly, tangibly this means almost unending profits. It has a bigger head of steam. It is a more revered product, a more substantial experience. A movie that is allowed to be seen in its deepest form can be exploited in a lesser form at the appropriate time, but only once the majority of the audience who would have seen it in its intended form have done so and spread their reaction. That is a film’s primary life–in the hands of the collective-soul of strangers.

Let us consider an alternate world; a world led by DVDs.

Wal-Mart sells more than 40 percent of all DVDs. The United States sells more DVDs than the rest of the world combined. This makes Wal-Mart the dominant influence of the DVD market. Wal-Mart currently decides to a great extent the artwork of all DVDs. Details as small as where the title goes are dictated by them so it can be seen appropriately on their shelves. Wal-Mart decided that extras on DVDs aren’t that valuable to them and now 85 percent of all DVDs sold do not have any extras. The store actually dictated the content of the DVDs and the studios had to listen because Wal-Mart is the biggest seller of discs in the world. Wal-Mart, to a larger and larger extent, influences the studios by telling them which films they are truly “excited” about and will push in their stores. This causes more films that will be “Wal-Mart friendly” to be made.

If we release DVDs on the same day as films, the number of theaters will get halved or quartered. The majority of our film’s audience will see it at home on DVD. This will result in two things: the first result will be that the experience of seeing movies will be less powerful–more junk food. It will slide off our skin more easily, thus our reactions, our word of mouth our commitment to them as an audience will wane faster. The second result will be that the studios will not be looking to please the audience any longer. They will be looking to Wal-Mart. They will be looking at what sells DVDs. Exploitation material sells DVDs. Movies that have more gratuitous sex, more gratuitous violence, more gratuitous action sell better. These elements can be wonderful tools to help tell a story, but these should not be forefront on our minds when we think of why we tell a story.

Exploitative elements, Wal-Marts–these are the influences of DVDs. They are not the influences of cinema. We have at this point in time in the United States been led by our desire to tell stories that will succeed with the soul of strangers when they gather in a darkened room together. This is the art form that has been bestowed upon us by filmmakers before us. It is pure and it is by far the most powerful way to tell a story.

Almost every theater owner, to a man, in this country and around the world, has vowed never to release a film in his theaters that is being released at the same time in other lesser media. All but one studio has contacted the theater owners and given their support to their stance. It is time for the storytellers to step forward. The media and the world think that our silence is a sign of our ambiguity. As filmmakers, it is our duty to defend the movie theater experience, to defend the communal experience of the audience of strangers.

It is not the job of businessmen to defend our art. It is our job. This balance between art and business works best when the businessmen are inspired by the artist, not the other way around.

I am so very lucky to do this for a living. I am allowed to participate in one of the most powerful art forms ever created. The communal experience of watching a film can bring tears to the heart of a Nazi. It can change points of view. That’s what someone’s talking about when they say, “the magic of movies.”

In My Opinion

Members share their strong opinions on industry issues in this occasional column.

More from this issue