Christopher Nolan Plays Nostradamus About the Future of Film

Christopher Nolan believes in movie theaters, you guys. He believes that they'll adapt and stay vibrant and important. But before that, he predicts a period of absolute suckitude. All tied to the end of using film for distribution.

In the Wall Street Journal, Nolan opines that real reason studios want to ditch film and start distributing movies via satellite isn't to save money, but because of how flexible that form is:

As streams of data, movies would be thrown in with other endeavors under the reductive term "content," jargon that pretends to elevate the creative, but actually trivializes differences of form that have been important to creators and audiences alike. "Content" can be ported across phones, watches, gas-station pumps or any other screen, and the idea would be that movie theaters should acknowledge their place as just another of these "platforms," albeit with bigger screens and cupholders.

This is a future in which the theater becomes what Tarantino pinpointed as "television in public." The channel-changing part is key. The distributor or theater owner (depending on the vital question of who controls the remote) would be able to change the content being played, instantly. A movie's Friday matinees would determine whether it even gets an evening screening, or whether the projector switches back to last week's blockbuster. This process could even be automated based on ticket sales in the interests of "fairness."

Nolan's use of Tarantino's derivative term "television in public" is a mistake. First, it assumes the supremacy of film as an art form, which is contestable. And it's on purpose, because he later says that cinema has a "rightful place at the head of popular culture." Second, if anything, the last decade has shown that television and digital content has been very innovative and enabled series that broke all the molds. Third, it seems that his real concern is the control studios and movie theaters would have over what plays when. In television, the audience chooses to change the channel. In the model Nolan fears, smaller films can't grow an audience because, if they do poorly, theaters can easily show something else instead. So it's not really "channel-changing" that's the problem, so much as it is the ability of theater owners to "cancel" a film the way a poorly doing series can be. And it's not like theater chains don't already reduce screenings for those kinds of films already.

And Nolan seems to recognize that himself, since he says that this model shifts innovation into "home-based entertainment, with the remaining theaters serving exclusively as gathering places for fan-based or branded-event titles." So, for Nolan, the period immediately following the death of 35 mm film will be a sad one for moviegoers.

Yet, Nolan also has faith that this will spur both technology and filmmakers to new heights, rather than just conceding innovation to home entertainment sphere:

The audience experience is distinct from home entertainment, but not so much that people seek it out for its own sake. The experience must distinguish itself in other ways. And it will. The public will lay down their money to those studios, theaters and filmmakers who value the theatrical experience and create a new distinction from home entertainment that will enthrall—just as movies fought back with widescreen and multitrack sound when television first nipped at its heels.

These developments will require innovation, experimentation and expense, not cost-cutting exercises disguised as digital "upgrades" or gimmickry aimed at justifying variable ticket pricing. The theatrical window is to the movie business what live concerts are to the music business—and no one goes to a concert to be played an MP3 on a bare stage.

I'll buy that. It's kind of what we're seeing with 3D, IMAX, et cetera — the prioritization of promoting experiences we can't find on our televisions. He is presuming that home entertainment won't catch up to theaters or that they won't start offering experiences that audiences like better than the ones offered by theaters. I'm not saying that will happen, but it's no more unlikely than his belief in theaters.

Nolan ends his article by getting downright exultant in his imagination for the future:

The theaters of the future will be bigger and more beautiful than ever before. They will employ expensive presentation formats that cannot be accessed or reproduced in the home (such as, ironically, film prints). And they will still enjoy exclusivity, as studios relearn the tremendous economic value of the staggered release of their products.

... It's unthinkable that extraordinary new work won't emerge from such an open structure. That's the part I can't wait for.

It's interesting that Nolan is very specific about the problems that film will face in the short-term, but very vague about how they will overcome them. His faith in film is based on fact that it has always triumphed over stagnation in the past — he specifically points to Tarantino saving film in the 90s from "years of bad multiplexing." It's almost like he's viewing cinema history through the lens of the Hegelian dialectic: Bad trends take over theaters, leading to a reactionary creative force (which is, to Nolan, Tarantino and the other 90s filmmakers he namechecks, Dogme 95), which will merge with the theaters to save them.

So, I guess we'll see if Nolan's turn as a prognosticator is fruitful for him. His upcoming Interstellar was partially filmed in IMAX, so he's taking care to present it in a way non-replicable in home theaters. If he is right, I do hope we don't have to wait too long for the "bigger and more beautiful" theaters of the future.

[via Variety]