It’s true, Hollywood movies are getting bigger and bigger. They play on IMAX screens, with amped-up speakers, in 500-seat auditoriums. They’re sourced from TV shows or young-adult books; they’re frequently cultural events first and narratives second. You see something like “Iron Man 3,” and you barely even recognize the movie in it. It’s fan-service, it’s an ad for action figures, it’s a 3-D theme park ride, but it’s hardly cinema.
Yet, it’s dominating. One recent Saturday evening, “Iron Man 3” was on 12 of the 32 screens that make up Boston’s two multiplexes. And over at the Kendall Square “art house,” scheduled screenings of well-reviewed independent films like “Renoir” or “The Angel’s Share” were canceled so that “The Great Gatsby,” a studio film, could play on multiple screens simultaneously. The rest of the auditoriums may as well have been labeled “leftovers.”
More and more, a key question facing moviegoers is: Where did all the movies go?
In many cases, they’ve gone to your cable box. Or to your computer, or to your Xbox, or to your iPhone. Movie theaters now represent but a small part of the rollout for most independent films; just one cabinet in a quickly expanding arcade. It’s called VOD — video-on-demand — and many filmmakers, distributors, and viewers seem to think that it’s the future. For independent cinema, though, the future appears to be here.
The movies that debut in the digital realm — sometimes on the same day as a limited theatrical release (also known as “day-and-date”), sometimes a week after, and sometimes as many as 30 days before — play at independent and smaller chain theaters, preserving the illusion of a normal theatrical release. But the corporate giants like AMC won’t exhibit anything that hits “home video” in such close proximity to its premiere, no matter its star power or potential for success. (Some of our biggest stars — Ryan Gosling, Ben Affleck, Kirsten Dunst — have featured or will feature in films that “debut” on VOD.)
It’s true that every so often you still see an artist sneak his work into the multiplexes — an outlier like Harmony Korine’s “Spring Breakers,” a film that gleefully smashes the rote standards of entertainment that support the building exhibiting it. But those films are rapidly migrating to the small screen. Independent distributors like Magnolia, IFC, and Weinstein’s Radius label are all premiering their films on-demand concurrently with theatrical release, finding an audience on televisions, laptops, and smartphones. And they’ve brought some of the world’s great filmmakers with them.
Terrence Malick followed up his Oscar-nominated “The Tree of Life” with the day-and-date released “To the Wonder,” a polarizing and experimental foray into an almost entirely visual cinema. After the zeitgeist-stomping success of “Drive,” Nicolas Winding Refn ventured to Thailand to make what Gosling says is “the strangest thing” he’s ever been a part of, “Only God Forgives.” It’ll open in July — both theatrically and on-demand through the Radius label. The great Olivier Assayas recently released his “Something in the Air,” but in Boston it only played at the Kendall, and only for a week. And yet, thanks to VOD, it remains in the “cloud,” waiting for viewers lucky enough to find it. This is no longer a dumping ground for soapy melodramas and Jean-Claude Van Damme actioners; it’s home to some of the best cinema happening in the world today.
“It’s very different than direct-to-video,” says Matt Cowal, senior VP of marketing and publicity at Magnolia. “It’s not a ghetto for films that don’t deserve a theatrical release.”
In the past, more movie fans might have lamented the loss of the theatrical experience and the fact that our greatest filmmakers sometimes can’t even get their work exhibited widely. But today’s chain multiplexes don’t exactly inspire sentimentality. Ticket prices have gone up while projection quality has dropped, as the theaters saved money by switching from crystal clear 35mm projectors to smeary, pixelated digital presentations. (This also means, in many cases, that the difference in resolution quality between a VOD presentation and one at the local theater is a relatively narrow gap.) Concession prices are steeper than ever. The advertisements seem never ending.
Jesse Hassinger, program manager at the Coolidge Corner Theatre, sees a rosier future where he works. “Movie theaters will always exist,” he says. “VOD is only going to be hurting the larger theater chains. . . . The further and further away from customer service and proper presentation that the major chains get, the more they will lose their audience.”
Still, even independent filmmaking has outgrown the 10-city-release model and moved past the days when it was stuck in the smallest room of independently owned theaters. It’s evolved to a form where anyone with an Internet connection or a cable box now has an affordable, wide-ranging multiplex, filled with inviting new release movies, ready to screen at any time.
Independent maven Shane Carruth’s “Upstream Color” recently opened at the Brattle and the Coolidge, but it also hit VOD within 30 days of that opening. He believes in the theatrical experience, but he also believes in practicality.
“I saw ‘The Master’ twice in a couple days, at the best screens I could find. But that’s not the way it is for everything,” Carruth notes, with a hint of melancholy. “I would say 90 percent of what I consume is on my laptop, in bed.”
“A screen is a screen is a screen,” adds Tom Quinn, co-president of Radius-TWC. He cites “Bachelorette” as an example of success by way of VOD: That film raked in $5.5 million in on-demand sales and only $448,000 at theaters. Quinn is confident that the VOD release plans for Refn and Gosling’s “Only God Forgives” won’t have any negative impact on the movie’s mainstream viability.
VOD is admittedly still an infant, its possibilities incalculable. Sooner or later, another game-changing independent film is going to hit our screens; the next “Easy Rider,” the next “She’s Gotta Have It,” the next “Pulp Fiction.” We don’t know who is going to make it or who is going to release it. But we know that the first time we see it won’t be in a movie theater.
Jake Mulligan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.