As a cinematheque programmer, I value the opportunity to bring lesser known films to a wider audience. To better understand what people are seeking from a cinema experience, I spend a lot of time thinking about how the environment for watching films keeps changing. Greater access to film through technologies such as BluRay, DVD, and streaming media should create viewers who are more informed and inclined to seek out less conventional work. While these ideas comfort me as I sort through piles of advance screening copies of the latest independent and international films in pursuit of quality programming, deep down I know that the more options people are presented with, the more likely they are to settle for less.
Film critic Sam Adams notes how streaming video services such as Netflix have created what he describes as “the convenience trap.” Netflix is available on a multitude of user-friendly platforms (I count six in my household) that are easily navigated and, thus, easily abandoned. Adams writes, “How much more likely are you to bail on, say, Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, when with a few clicks of your remote you can be watching a favorite episode of Friday Night Lights?” The simplicity of devices such as iPads ideally give more viewers access to the formal complexity of Weerasthekul’s spectral visions. But this ideal becomes compromised by the potential distractions afforded not only by less challenging, more immediately gratifying viewing experiences, but also by any number of multitasking opportunities at which these gadgets are designed to excel.
Building on the dominance of its home-delivery service, Netflix achieved great success thanks to the variety of offerings they made available via the company’s streaming services. Its deep inventory briefly included gems such as the early television films of British director Mike Leigh and the sporadically available-on-DVD original version of Elaine May’s The Heartbreak Kid. Consumers defiantly cut the cord with cable providers and embraced the benefits of true on-demand entertainment. In profit-seeking turn, movie studios pulled scores of titles off of Netflix’s streaming service until a more favorable revenue stream could be negotiated. Concurrently, Netflix imposed a drastic price increase on its consumers by offering separate plans for its streaming and home-delivery services (the ill-fated “Qwikster”). An angry nation revolted and Netflix CEO Reed Hastings became a cautionary tale for countless marketing strategy seminars.
Netflix was transparent in admitting that the purpose of the price increase was to curtail home delivery service because it simply was not profitable to run a network of warehouses across the country while absorbing increasing postal service costs. Consumers were thus forced to choose between paying nearly twice as much for a service whose perceived value they had already come to accept, or to continue paying the same rate for a streaming service limited only to a now-gutted selection of films and television shows. The consumer outcry against Netflix was fueled by the belief that it set a low market value for its product which it ultimately could not sustain. As a result, consumers have either rejected the service because they assume it has lost value or reluctantly embraced the limited offerings it currently provides.
Netflix’s home-delivery and streaming success had made relics of most video stores. No longer did you have to make late-night trips to return overdue rentals in order to avoid paying exorbitant late fees—Netflix brought the movies directly to you. I live in a community where video stores are still operational and thriving. When I peruse the aisles of these establishments today, I am underwhelmed by the homogeneity of selection. Store clerks have never heard of the Criterion Collection. Acclaimed HBO series are nowhere to be found. Instead, shelves are clogged with multiple copies of dunderheaded Matthew McConaughey vehicles and direct-to-video sequels of Disney’s self-proclaimed animated classics. But not only is the selection limited; the costs have dropped dramatically. In an effort to be competitive with subscriber-based services such as Netflix and cable television, the last remaining video stores charge a nominal preferred member fee which gives patrons access to discounts and coupons too numerous and tedious to itemize. As a result, it is not uncommon to walk out of these establishments on any given day with an armful of films and pay next to nothing.
Cable companies have employed a different tactic in this ever-evolving technological landscape of entertainment access by creating package pricing which gives their programming greater value for a limited time. Once consumers become complacent with their service, monthly fees increase. But the greater concern is that the content offered by cable companies has become greatly compromised. What were once the most venerated outlets for access to classic and alternative cinema have essentially thrown in the towel—first AMC, which gave up on its all-movie format in 2002 in favor of more contemporary Hollywood films and original programming, and then IFC and Sundance Channel, which used to offer the cinema of Cassavetes and Bergman, but now settle for rehashed network television programs such as Malcolm in the Middle and My So-Called Life replete with pop-up advertisements and commercial interruptions. Recent reports have noted a decline in cable subscriptions believed to be caused by the economic downturn and a preference for cheaper web-based entertainment, but perhaps this has as much to do with catering too strongly to a mass audience and losing focus on the presentation of quality content.
At the cinematheque, we present live broadcasts of the Metropolitan Opera and the National Theatre, a profitable enterprise since admission fees are significantly higher than what we charge for a typical film screening. Devoted followers of these broadcasts don’t blink an eye at the expense of attending. On the contrary, we often get enthusiastic responses from patrons who praise us for bringing big city performing arts experiences to small-town America. But is what we present merely a televised presentation of the opera blown up to a larger screen with a THX sound system? The Met has gone through some growing pains in terms of the formal presentation of the opera and has found a way to present that is both true to the art form while remaining accessible to cinema audiences. Rather than rely on long static proscenium shots—which though faithful to an audience perspective at Lincoln Center could prove trying over the course of a four-hour performance—the Met broadcasts employ a dynamic mix of angles and camera positions. A recent broadcast of a Broadway theatre production, on the other hand, was far less successful, drawing too heavily on close-up shots of the actors (including a title sequence straight out of a 1980s sitcom) rather than longer shots which allow for a more complete stage view.
While more audiences are experiencing the Met and the National thanks to larger format presentations in cinemas and advancements in HD technology, viewers are increasingly content to settle for smaller platforms. In a parody of the then-nascent iPhone, filmmaker David Lynch railed against the notion that one could ever approximate a cinematic experience on one’s “fucking telephone.” But it’s not merely screens that have diminished; it is also the image quality of the sources themselves. Netflix continues to offer low resolution pan-and-scan transfers of many studio-era classics. I recently attempted to screen The Pajama Game and had to stop watching after the first five minutes due to poor picture quality. YouTube provides access to hundreds of classic films broken into chapters and, in some instances, transferred from video sources recorded off of standard definition television screens. The experience is akin to looking at the world through scratched glasses. If you never bother to update your prescription, the perspective of damaged lenses becomes the norm.
One of the boons of YouTube is that it has provided an avenue for many films out of legitimate circulation to be seen by a wider audience. I previously worked in a film archive where I had the opportunity to see historically significant films such as Ed Pincus’ Diaries and Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s Berlin Alexanderplatz from VHS sources which, in a best case scenario, were recorded from a film chain (a device used to create low-resolution video transfers from 16mm projection sources) but at worst, shot off a wall with picture quality comparable to an advance copy of any Hollywood blockbuster one might purchase on the streets of Manhattan prior to its theatrical release. Both Diaries and Berlin Alexanderplatz were unavailable through commercial home video sources at the time I screened them. The low-resolution transfers gave me access to these and many other rare, historically significant films but was I merely seeing them through dirty lenses?
Ned Thanhouser strongly supports the use of new technologies for giving access to heretofore unrecognized work. In his essay, “Reconstructing Thanhouser: The Twenty-Five Year Journey of a Citizen Archivist,” he chronicles the history of his family’s film production company and its prodigious output during the silent era. He also documents the next chapter of this history in which he went to great lengths to collect hundreds of films many thought lost as well as his efforts to make them accessible first via VHS tape, then DVD, and now via the video-sharing website, Vimeo. Thanhouser praises these newer forms of access for the boon of scholarly research they have provided for Thanhouser Films.
Thanhouser also recognizes that the drive to (re)discover his family’s film collection is often nostalgic. These films provide a document of a bygone era in a manner which gives them a vivid new reality. As access deludes us into a sense of greater variety, we seem to keep turning toward what we already know. Simon Reynolds argues about the creative limitations of nostalgia which is “now thoroughly entwined with the consumer entertainment complex: we feel pangs for the products of yesteryear, the novelties and distractions that filled up our youth.” I recently (re)discovered television ads for Mr. Microphone from the early 1980s and was surprised that I could recite the ads’ script verbatim. While my appetite for pop culture connoisseurship was as sated as it is when I successfully complete a Sporcle quiz on one-hit wonders, I am simply stuck in the past. Thanhouser’s work poses a compelling challenge to these tendencies as it encourages viewers to explore a fascinating body of work that is remarkably underresearched.
And so…like Netflix’s selection, my once expansive ideals are severely limited. All of these avenues which I hoped would push people toward the new have simply sent them back in time, to a place where they can either relive the comfort of the familiar or have a new experience which is more or less determined by what they already know. It doesn’t matter that I have the good fortune to screen an eclectic selection of films—old and new—in a state-of-the-art facility specifically designed to create an immersive cinematic experience. Two rows behind me, someone is watching YouTube clips on their iPhone and giggling at ads for Mr. Microphone.
Ted Barron, a contributing editor, is the Senior Associate Director of the DeBartolo Performing Arts Center at the University of Notre Dame where he programs the Browning Cinema. He previously programmed film series for the Harvard Film Archive and the Coolidge Corner Theatre Foundation. He has also served as a lecturer in film studies at Harvard University, Montclair State University, and Boston University.