To understand what the last ten years of cinema have been about, one has to start at the turn of the last century – the year 2000 – when Hollywood decided that it was time to get rid of film itself, and make the shift entirely to digital. With incredible rapidity, 35mm production and projection became obsolete, as did film itself, forcing Eastman Kodak into bankruptcy (from which they have since emerged) – something unthinkable only a decade earlier. Everything about the business changed seemingly overnight. Where before the end product of a feature film was a 35mm print, a poster, a trailer, some lobby cards and the usual press junket for journalists, now films were shot and edited entirely using digital technology, and the theatrical experience began to fall away. Films were no longer located in one place only – movie theatres – then shown much later on television, cut to ribbons and interspersed with commercials. Movies in the 21st century became available on laptops, cellphones, as streaming video replaced conventional distribution patterns. Movies were now everywhere, all the time, endlessly and effortlessly available.
Needless to say, there was much lost in the shift to digital, which was the most momentous retooling of the cinematic apparatus since the invention of the medium itself. When all movies were shot, edited, and screened in 35mm, theatrical presentation was a necessity, and every film, no matter how high or low the budget, had to open in a theater to make its money back. Thus, exploitation films from American International Pictures shot in 6 days on budgets of $100,000 or less competed on the same playing field with Hollywood blockbusters from the major studios. Foreign films, subtitled or dubbed, also had to find theater space to recoup their investment, creating an informal chain of art house theaters not only in the United States, but also around the world. The movie business was in a way more egalitarian during the filmic era; everyone was angling for theatrical play dates, because it was the only place one could see a film when it first opened.
Those days are gone forever. Now, only the most expensive films get theatrical screenings – the franchise films, the DC and Marvel Universe films, the Bond films, Harry Potter, Star Wars and their ilk – while the rest are relegated to the relative limbo of unpublicised streaming releases, since DVDs have become an obsolete format, just as CDs have been replaced by streaming services for music. It makes perfect sense; the most expensive films are the biggest bets, so the studios throw all their ad dollars behind them, because they simply have to make their money back. With budgets now routinely hovering in the $200 to 300 million dollar range, this simply makes economic sense; why throw advertising dollars behind an interesting indie film, or a foreign import, when the latest Marvel film needs all the exposure it can get to recoup its cost?
But there’s another factor; without the theatrical “real estate” of a wide-break release, how can a film gain traction with an audience? Literally thousands of remarkable films are made each year on a worldwide basis that never get a theatrical release, and now, in the age of streaming, there’s no longer a video store where the clerk can suggest titles, and you can browse through various genres – it’s all online. One could argue that one can browse just as well on Amazon or Netflix, but it’s not the same; both services rely on rather clumsy algorithms to guess what you might be interested in next based in your last choice. These algorithms assume that if you like one horror film, then you’re going to like nothing but other horror films; stream a foreign film, and you’ll be inundated with more of the same.
There’s an upside to all of this, of course; it’s now cheaper than ever to make an independent film, and special effects that required a visit to an optical house can now be executed with the push of a button. Independent distribution platforms, such as YouTube, Mubi, Hulu, Kanopy, and others too numerous to mention offer instantaneous access to thousands of titles, and if you know what you’re looking for, you can probably find it online, legally or illegally. Sites like Vimeo specialise in making HD video distribution accessible to even the most impoverished cineaste; as a viewer, you can watch nearly all of the films on Vimeo for free, without even logging in. As a filmmaker, you can join Vimeo (at the lowest level) for free, and thus reach a wider audience than most experimental or independent films ever experience.
But the downside to all of this is the ineluctable march towards the teen and pre-teen market, as serious films become the province of micro cinemas, and adults are more or less marginalised in mainstream cinema. While there are some exceptions, the vast majority of what is either seen in theaters or on streaming services are either franchise films or comic book movies, with everything else pushed to the side. Teen cinema dominates. As I write this, for example, the box office is dominated by such films as Spider-Man: Far From Home, Toy Story 4, Yesterday, Aladdin, Annabelle Comes Home, John Wick 3: Parabellum – all remakes, sequels, or franchise films. Yet also available for screening right now, but not in mainstream theaters, are such interesting films as The Biggest Little Farm, Her Smell, High Life, Non-Fiction, Red Joan, The Wind, The Souvenir, The Fall of The American Empire, The Last Black Man in San Francisco, Wild Rose, Echo in the Canyon – films that will never reach more than a few viewers because they have no advertising campaign behind them, and only the most dedicated viewers will ever even learn of their existence and seek them out.
Then, too, the relentless march of franchise and comic book films has dumbed down audiences to a remarkable degree; as someone who has taught university film courses for many years, I’ve witnessed the radical shift from earnest discussions of more difficult films in class, to the overwhelming influence of Comic-Con fandom, as cosplay replaces thoughtful analysis. There isn’t enough room here to go into the deleterious consequences of this shift, but as Quentin Tarantino becomes an “old school master” and Blumhouse keeps cranking out one horror movie after another in seemingly endless succession, it’s clear that the entire cinematic landscape has shifted into a new paradigm of pure escapist cinema, rather than offering mainstream films that provoke a more informed response.
The shift to digital has made filmmaking cheaper and more available, but at the same time, even though streaming channels proliferate, getting noticed on them is more and more difficult, as the pace of film production hits a record level, and new players, such as Amazon Studios and Netflix, join the majors as significant production entities. Then, too, corporate consolidations, such as Disney’s recent acquisition of 21st Century Fox (another addition to the Disney empire, which now embraces everything from amusement parks to television networks) will drive the mass media mentality of contemporary cinema even further towards the safe, the formulaic, with a plethora of remakes in the wings, rather than creating original content. Corporations only care about the bottom line, not individual visions.
And it isn’t over yet – not by a long shot. As the coming decades roll by, I predict that the comic book / franchise cinema juggernaut will show no signs of slowing down, driven both by economic circumstances (bigger budgets, saturation bookings on worldwide basis to recoup investments, with more interference from producers and focus groups and less input from directors) and the increasing audience need to escape a world that is more costly, more fragmented, and more inequitable than ever. Mainstream movies have become like Big Macs, seemingly filling but actually lacking in nutrition or cultural value. For the rest of us, the more thoughtful films will continue to be flung into the void. And mainstream audiences will never know, or care, that they even exist.
So, what happened? Digital took over, film is dead (except as a production medium for a handful of directors who still insist upon it), but everything winds up either as a DCP (Digital Cinema Package) for theatres, or goes straight to streaming. Audiences now, in a very fractured world, want safety, assurance, more of the same. They don’t want surprises. The new movie trailers spell out nearly every plot twist of the films they advertise, and audiences like it that way. They want to be led. They want to see something that’s just like what they just saw, only different. And clearly, from the box office numbers, the strategy seems to be working. The technology is not the problem – it offers great promise.
But instead, it has been used by the studios to reach out to the widest possible audience with the most carefully engineered and pretested product, designed to offend no one, and appeal to the greatest number of viewers. In short, I would argue that the cinema we knew has been replaced by a new sort of synthetic cinema, driven by CGI visual effects, simplistic plots, razor thin characters, and endless repetition of successful formulas. As the films of the 20th century recede into the past, they will largely be forgotten – indeed, this is already happening – and we will be left with a perfect, flawless, digital world in which little that is human remains.