Spring 2018

What is Cinema?

As streaming services proliferate and court A-list filmmakers, the DGA Quarterly asked feature directors and industry leaders how directors intend for their films to be exhibited and what defines a theatrical film experience in 2018


Illustration by Edel Rodriguez

It's easy to see why we're being told that we're in the Era of Disruption. Just search the term "disruptor" on the Internet and you're faced with millions of results.

Disruption pops up in almost any discussion about where culture is and where it's headed. This applies especially to the movie business, where a deceptively simple question is being raised again and again: What's a movie, anyway?

The term used to be shorthand for "moving image," but that definition could be applied much more broadly today: from virtual reality to video games, from YouTube content to computer-generated animation, from work delivered on streaming platforms to features shown in the theater, whether it be digitally or on film reels (yes, they're still around) run through projectors.

For some, the crucial what-is-a-movie question came to a head in 2017, when Showtime broadcast David Lynch's Twin Peaks: The Return. As the recent marathon cinema screening at the Museum of Modern Art suggested, Lynch and co-creator Mark Frost had made a movie. Variety reporter Will Tizard quoted Lynch in November, before the MOMA screening, that the new Twin Peaks edition is "an 18-hour movie. Television and cinema to me are exactly the same thing. Telling a story with motion, pictures and sound."

But for many other directors, the crux of "what is cinema" is based entirely upon the shared theatrical experience.

Countering Lynch's sentiment, director Christopher Nolan—known for such widescreen extravaganzas as Dunkirk and Inception—argues that the definition of cinema cannot be separated from the platform for which it was intended.

"Because many people have been talking about this notion of what makes a movie nowadays, and because people know how firmly I believe in the film-going experience in the cinema," says Nolan, "I've been asked about this. Cinema is a medium. You shift away from that, and it becomes something else.

"The audience experience gives movies a completely unique position as with no other art form," Nolan adds. "The audience engages in a visceral, subjective experience and shared empathy maximized with the largest possible screens. In movies and in the movie theater—and nowhere else—you have people look at the image and sound from the same point of view, and audiences sharing the same point of view together. This is unique to the movies, and it can't be overstated enough. Which, incidentally, is why I don't shoot in 3D, since that creates the illusion of a subjective point of view and ruins the common view you share with an entire audience."

The importance of a true theatrical run on a large screen in a communal environment is a serious issue, not just for Nolan. James Cameron, for one, has made his position on the matter quite clear. "The sanctity of the theater-going experience is something I never really want to see go away," he told the Toronto Sun last summer. "People shouldn't be denied the option of seeing a film on the big screen," further distinguishing movie-going from TV viewing as "an experience you can't control."

In a recent interview with ITV News, Steven Spielberg acknowledged that "television is really thriving with quality and art" but that it "poses a clear and present danger to film-goers.

"I'll still make The Post for audiences," Spielberg adds, "asking them, 'please go out to the movies to see The Post.'"

Given these opposing views, what does it mean when major film festivals are previewing television series on the big screen and films made for theatrical release are limited to being shown on streaming services? Where can one fix the movie-going landscape and experience? Is that even possible now?

(Top to Bottom) Directors Dee Rees (Mudbound), Bong Joon-ho (Okja) and Nicole Holofcener (The Land of Steady Habits) have taken the Netflix route to getting their films seen, which also eliminates downstream revenue (Photos: (Top) Steve Dietl/Netflix; (Middle) Jae Hyuk Lee/Netflix; (Bottom) Everett)

The Disruptive Influence of SVODs

In the background of the current discussion looms subscription video-on-demand (SVOD) platforms like Netflix, which are making a dizzying flurry of deals with high-profile filmmakers. Recently, the Duplass brothers announced a multi-picture Netflix deal that will effectively make them one of the company's several house directors for years to come, much like studios during the Golden Age of Hollywood, when directors were employed under long-term contracts, or in recent decades, when filmmakers like Steven Spielberg and Clint Eastwood formed partnerships with Universal and Warner Bros., respectively.

The director of Mudbound, Dee Rees, sees Netflix as the savior of her well-reviewed period drama about black and white sharecroppers in the Mississippi Delta: "Mudbound would not be seen by the public were it not for Netflix," she says. "I look at Netflix as a renaissance for independent, edgy material that other studios are afraid to approach. They're disrupting the system in that way."

But what happens when a director makes a movie intended for exhibition with audiences, but never gets a bona fide theatrical release? And can a film made exclusively for a SVOD platform have the same impact? Would Jordan Peele's Get Out have had the societal relevance and financial success it had without the opportunities for audiences to revel in the horror together? "When a bunch of strangers go into a theater to laugh, cry, scream together, something cathartic happens," Peele said at the DGA Awards in February, "something important happens. After a great film, that audience leaves with a sense of community."

The complexity of the issue can further be seen with the highly rated Berlin festival competitor Dovlatov, directed by Russia's Alexei German Jr. Netflix bought it for English-speaking territories, virtually ensuring that a filmmaker who makes some of the most visually spectacular pictures coming out of Russia will have his new work viewed on television, while in most of Europe, it'll be seen first in cinemas. Some would say that U.S. audiences will be deprived of the opportunity to see this work on the big screen as the director intended, while others would say having a potentially much larger audience for his film Stateside is more important.

"Of course, it's sad that now we're all watching TV instead of going to the movies," says director Nicole Holofcener, who recently wrapped production on The Land of Steady Habits, an original Netflix production. But Holofcener has been in the business long enough to know how hard it is to get an independent film off the ground—and how quickly they disappear from theaters.

That SVOD companies are now funding original feature-length movies, particularly the types of films the studios are making less of, is seen as a welcome opportunity by some directors. When Netflix expressed interest in Charlie McDowell's second feature, The Discovery, early in the production process, McDowell says it was an offer he couldn't refuse. "Initially, I saw this as a theatrical release. But reality kicked in, and there's a certain amount of money that you need to pull off this type of independent film. I feel like I was able to make the movie I wanted to make, and ultimately, that's the most important thing to me."

Spielberg agrees that more and more filmmakers who would normally take the Sundance route to hook up with specialty labels to get their films released theatrically are looking to SVOD businesses to finance their films, "maybe with the promise of a slight, one-week theatrical window to qualify them for awards as a movie. But in fact, once you commit to a television format, you're a TV movie. If it's a good show, you deserve an Emmy but not an Oscar."

There's no doubt SVOD original features, like television itself, are becoming increasingly cinematic—moving in the direction paved by companies like HBO and Showtime in decades past. But some directors feel theatrical films created for home viewing represent a separate art form.

Or, as Christopher Nolan puts it: "Cinema grammar, mise-en-scéne and everything with it changes when it shows on TV. Extrapolate from this by watching something made for TV and then throw it up on a cinema screen—that's the real test. TV or movie? You'll know the format immediately within a few shots."

For the DGA's senior advisor, Jay Roth, the filmmaker's vision is everything. "What was the original intent?" he asks rhetorically. "Was it intended for the big screen or not?"

Film festivals around the world are wrestling with this issue of filmmaker intent and defining what is a feature film. Controversy over news that Netflix would release exclusively on its platform both Bong Joon-ho's Okja and Noah Baumbach's The Meyerowitz Stories after their Cannes Film Festival competition premieres spurred the festival to announce a new requirement that, in the future, producers of all titles in the festival's official selection would ensure that their movies' French premieres be theatrical and not on an ancillary platform.

"We understand that the [law] in France—we call it media chronology—is a huge problem because [it prohibits] a film from showing on a VOD (or other) platform [within] 36 months of its theatrical run," says Christophe Tardieu, director of France's Centre National du Cinéma (CNC), which is a member of the Cannes Festival Association. "But for all of us (involved in French cinema), the theater is the first and irreplaceable place for presenting films." Negotiations between Cannes and Netflix before the start of the festival's 2017 edition—which included an offer for day-and-date alongside the festival screening—broke down, leading to the festival's decision.

(Top) Christopher Nolan (Dunkirk) views the big-screen experience as sacred; (Bottom) Jon Favreau (The Jungle Book) says "movies work best as a communal experience." (Photo: (Top) Melinda Sue Gordon/Warner Bros.; (Bottom) Glen Wilson/Disney Enterprises)

While Netflix and Amazon, the other dominant streaming service (with competitors Hulu, YouTube Red, Facebook and Apple trailing far behind at this point), are frequently mentioned together as the juggernaut disruptors of the movie business, the two companies approach movies differently even as they share a subscription-based model.

While the rare Netflix movie, as Spielberg points out, receives a brief theatrical release mostly for awards qualification, such as director Rees' Mudbound, Amazon Studios' own movies are regularly released first theatrically, then via streaming. This is, in fact, a prominent selling point that Amazon pitches to potential filmmaking partners interested in guaranteeing their movies have at least a brief theatrical life. Netflix relies on a massive stock of titles but is increasingly developing work by name filmmakers like Martin Scorsese and Errol Morris. Amazon has become a home for, among other directors, Jim Jarmusch, Richard Linklater and Luca Guadagnino, whose Suspiria is being produced at Amazon.

One of the concerns filmmakers have for movies intended for SVOD that don't have a theatrical window is that a director's work can't be seen by anyone other than that streaming platform's subscribers. As Roth puts it, these movies sit in "a walled garden," adding, "if there is no opportunity for the film to ever be experienced by the rest of the world on ancillary platforms—isn't that a concern for filmmakers?"

Director Jon Favreau, whose The Jungle Book raised the bar in VFX technology and is further pushing the envelope with his upcoming live-action remake of The Lion King, is clear on how he'd like such films to be seen.

"The best way to see it is with a crowd in extended dynamic range like Dolby Vision or IMAX laser projection," he tells the Quarterly. "I am aware, however, that it will live on a 16x9 [TV] screen and most people will see it that way. I embrace that format as well. Home-theater quality is improving constantly. That being said, sitting in a full house with high-quality projection and sound is my favorite. Movies work best as a communal experience."

Favreau also concedes that "that the vast majority of the audience hasn't seen my movies in theaters but further down the pipe in different platforms. The secondary formats keep the theatrical movie going, certainly in the independent sphere. Where home video used to support theatrical, now streaming does. I view it as an ecosystem rather than a zero-sum game."

Part of the debate about films made for theatrical are the challenges faced by theater owners to enhance the big-screen experience and cultivate future audiences. Albert Berger, a member of the Motion Picture Academy's Board of Governors and head of the organization's "Future of Film" committee, observes that "younger people embrace the new ways that films are seen on streaming and nontheatrical platforms. Older members are more enamored of the theatrical experience. There's the view that holds that theatrical as the superior option is an elitist view, and that diverse voices have been kept out of the majors and theatrical, and that we should embrace the opportunities opened up by such distributors as Netflix."

But beware of simplifying the matter by age, Berger adds. "That isn't to say that young people don't want to see movies in movie theaters. They do. Movie theaters align with what millennials value for a feeling of community and not owning things."

Young audiences are becoming the core patrons at cinematheques, confounding doom-and-gloom predictions of just a decade ago. "We have the audience," says American Cinematheque programmer Gwen Deglise. "We're packed, and with a lot of young people," she says. "I see it every day when audiences come and experience a movie on the big screen and they're getting something for what they pay for.

This general pattern is confirmed by David Schwartz, chief curator of the Astoria, N.Y.-based Museum of the Moving Image, whose large portfolio comprises exhibitions of the whole range of moving-image media and theatrical screenings and programs, such as their hot-selling "See It Big!" series that emphasizes movies that can be fully appreciated only in a cinema, such as Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger's Black Narcissus.

"We're getting a younger audience than before, and it's not a nostalgia thing," says Schwartz. "They often want to see movies that they first saw on television or home video," repeating an old pattern of past generations first encountering classics on TV and then rediscovering them again on the big screen.

(Top) Ryan Coogler has boosted theatrical business during the usually low-performing first quarter with Black Panther; (Bottom) The Museum of the Moving Image in Astoria, NY, features a "See It Big!" series. (Photo: (Top) Photofest; (Bottom) Peter Aaron)

Luring Audiences Back Into Theaters

These distinctions can't be made without considering the threats to the complex system that sustains the theatrical experience. Academy president John Bailey is both a strong defender of big-screen audience engagement and a strong critic of the current state of theatrical exhibition, describing the quality of movie houses as "atrocious" and citing the unruly quality of theater-going. Bailey notes that he's observing the current public exhibition situation from the standpoint of a working filmmaker when he says that "we're all compromised by bad projection and presentation."

Soon after he became Academy president, Bailey met with NATO officials. "I think they got it," he says. "They're going through their own internal review of quality and standards, but we need to continue the discussion."

National Association of Theatre Owners president John Fithian confirms such a review, saying, "We in the cinema business are extremely aware that we have to do our best to offer the best experience."

Where the exhibitors and industry leaders and filmmakers can likely find common ground is a menu of items that could theoretically foster the pleasures of the big screen in our streaming era.

One is currently happening—the box office in the most recent 12 months, boosted by the worldwide, billion-dollar-plus B.O. in the traditionally low-performing period of February and March for Disney/Marvel's Black Panther, directed by Ryan Coogler. Theatrical slate diversity is a widely cited necessity, casting a light on the importance of smaller, independent distributors such as A24 and Bleecker Street. Industry parties ranging from directors to exhibitors could concur on another item: Exclusive theatrical windows. "The simultaneous model is crippling our business," Fithian notes. "We're working with those in the industry who want exclusive windows in cinemas."

The big disruptors, like Netflix, also affect cinematheque curators like Deglise and Schwartz, but such home services haven't had a demonstrable impact on box office. MoMI screening attendance is up, according to Schwartz, a similar pattern across specialized cinema box office in New York, where such newbies as the Metrograph and the reinvigorated Quad Cinema are thriving along with Film Society of Lincoln Center's Elinor Bunin Munroe Film Center and venerable venues like the Anthology Film Archives and Film Forum.

"The discussion isn't what is cinema," says Deglise. "The big question is how to convince audiences to come to the big screen."

Even with all the challenges facing the theatrical experience, director Nolan—like one of his Dunkirk admirals—exudes calm during the current storm: "The fact remains that movie-going remains the best deal in town," the filmmaker asserts. "I blanch to tell you what I paid to take my family to see Hamilton, but it could have bought many rounds of going to the cinema. To say that people will stop going to the movies is like saying that people will stop going to restaurants."

Paula Bernstein contributed to this story.

The Industry / Technology

Articles on creative issues and new technology in features, television and new media.

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