Moving Pictures: Lost and Found
It's pretty fairly established at this point that I love movies, and I have since early childhood. Of course, most everyone would say the same; at least, very few would say they hate movies. But most people don't make them a central part of their lives--to the point of, for example, buying and operating their own movie theater for a few years, as I did from late 2007 through mid-2009. (I'm not bragging--I was simply in the right place at the right time and had the resources to seize an opportunity to do something I loved. I wish everyone could be so lucky.)
The odyssey of how Chandler Cinemas began and ended is a tale unto itself, which I may share at another time. I only bring it up now because it points to the topic of this month's column.
In that all too brief time, I got to indulge in something I'd long wanted to do: show movies I and others loved, and provide a home, and forum, for others who loved movies as much as I did. A place for people to come together, interact, discuss, and experience the thrill, the rush, the excitement of seeing something on the big screen--an experience that I'd hardly be the first in pointing out has been largely lost in this era of constant content and instant everything.
"The death of the cinematic moviegoing experience in the video age" is hardly a new a topic; it's been discussed to death since the advent of home video and cable TV in the late 70s. And of course, there is more than one way to look at it.
On the one hand, it's absurd to say that the cinematic experience is gone: movies make more (and cost more) money than they ever have. Millions of people line up every week, especially during the summer and holiday tentpole seasons, to join with fellow moviegoers and experience that week's big rush on the big screen. Studios are now planning their release schedules years in advance, and are doing more "market research" and "focus group" testing than ever. So in that sense, the movie business is healthier than it's ever been (even though George Lucas and Steven Spielberg have recently predicted the implosion of Hollywood's current model--based on pumping out a constant stream of big-budget, front-loaded popcorn blockbusters--and expressed their belief that an age of $50 movie tickets and content skipping theatres entirely is not far off. Time will tell.)
Regardless, it's come at a price: disposability. There are still great movies being made, even some that could be called "special", but there's very little to set any of them apart as being special, because--no matter how highly anticipated a movie may be, no matter how well or poorly it does at the box office--they are all marketed the same way, and after the opening weekend, they are forgotten--it's on to what's coming out next week. (And this applies to me as much as to anyone else; I'm one of those who's in line at the movies, every single week--often more than once a week---with friends and strangers, waiting for that thrill-ride-rush, and then waiting for next week's releases.)
Again, this is nothing new. Filmmaking is a business, and as I've pointed out before, for better or worse, Hollywood filmmaking is largely an assembly line cranking out product. And people are buying that product. But it would be nice if once in a while there were more than commercial considerations involved--and if all the attention didn't just go to the big boys. But that's a secondary point.
You see, while I don't like aging myself, I'm just old enough to remember a time before home video and cable TV were commonplace, and the concept of streaming content online was not even a gleam in Al Gore's eye. As a lover of content--movies, TV shows, music, books--I've embraced those things as they've come along. I love that I can go into my DVD library (or even reach back to my VHS tapes and laserdiscs) and watch virtually any movie I want, often with the option of tons of nifty bonus content. I love the fact that if I don't have something, it's usually just a few clicks away. I wouldn't trade that for anything. It's great. But it's not the same. Something has been lost, and it's not just attention spans.
And this is especially true for purveyors of more offbeat, unusual films--local, indie, art-y and foreign films, or weird little culty things like Cannibal--The Musical, Repo! The Genetic Opera, Hobo With A Shotgun, The Room, or FDR: American Badass. Nowadays, of course, you can go to Netflix, or Amazon, or iTunes, and cue up any one of those movies, right in between Bridesmaids and episodes of The Big Bang Theory, and watch them in your living room or on your laptop. You can even read and respond to other viewers' comments and reviews.
But once upon a time, you had to seek out stuff like that, be it Eraserhead, Reefer Madness, Todd Browning's Freaks, Night of the Living Dead, Heavy Metal, Pink Floyd's The Wall, or even the ubiquitous Rocky Horror Picture Show. If you made the effort, you would find them at sometimes seedy and rundown, single screen theatres or duplexes, in older parts of town, often near colleges. But you knew that the other people there were kindred spirits--they weren't there because of the Hollywood PR machine; they were there because, like you, they wanted something a little different. And the inherent community of such an experience fostered real discussion-- I'm taking real-world, person-to-person discussion, not fanboys sniping at and trolling each other on geek movie sites.
That's what I tried to encourage at my theatre. And that's why I absolutely welcome any effort to create that forum now. Which is why I'm thrilled that even though my own theatre is gone, several others in the Phoenix area are carrying that torch. There's Victor Moreno's Cult Classics, who every month at Tempe Cinemas shows movies that may not be "culty" in that that they were mainstream hits when released (Ghostbusters, The Princess Bride) but have become "generational" classics. There's the Film Bar downtown, where the Midnite Movie Mamacita (aka Andrea Beesley, who worked with me at Chandler Cinemas) shows a mixture of generational classics and more obscure, "Grindhouse" style-films. And then there's the new kid on the block, Scott McDee's "Cinegeeks", set to debut in August with FDR: American Badass at the Silver Cinemas Super Saver theatre on Bell Road in Phoenix (see related article in this newspaper edition).
Personally, I think there's room for all of them, and then some. Moviegoing should be a shared experience--even a participatory one. That's why there are some movies that no matter how much I love them, I only watch when I have someone who's never seen them to share them with. I want to experience them through fresh eyes. And some movies just don't have the impact on a TV screen, however big, or even, gods forbid, a laptop. TV is TV. Movies are meant to be larger than life.
And who knows, maybe one of these days...I'll own another movie theater. Maybe I'll even be able to show movies that I've made. When that day comes, you're all invited to share the experience with me.