The Death of Cinema

There was a day, within the lifetimes of those among us, when there were no video games, no Internets, no Blue Ray, no DVRs, no FIOS, no Satellite TV, no DVD's, no VCR's, no cable, no broadcast TV, no Cd's, no MTV, no cassette tapes, no 8-tracks, no LP's no 45's, no 78's, no XM radio, no FM radio, no radio, period. 

In that day, the upright piano was the state-of-the-art in home entertainment technology.  In 1909, over 350,000 pianos were manufactured in the United States.  That's almost six times as many as in 2007, in a country with one-third the population.  The age of the piano came and went.  It, along with its partners the sheet music industry and the professional piano tuner, succumbed to the radio the gramophone, television, etc. 

Such a demise faces all memes.  We now find ourselves in the twilight of the age of cinema.

The institution of cinema can be defined by the form of the media itself: the length (between 80 and 180 minutes), the talent, the story and the technology required to produce it; and the form of its presentation (a public auditorium, ticket-buyers and concessions).  It was born of the convergence of live theater, vaudeville and the science of photography.  Cinema has proved itself to be remarkably durable.  The first dedicated movie theater was built in 1896.  It became the cultural activity for the nation.  Movie stars became the modern-day pantheon.  The cinema survived the rise of TV in the post war era.  It morphed from the era of the movie palace into the crumbling multiplex of the 1970's and then into the new movie palace era of the 1980's. The latter were built with the realization that cinema was selling an experience, not just a movie and popcorn. 

We have seen the rise and fall of a related meme.  In 1933, a chemical mogul from Camden, NJ, patented the drive-in.  The first drive-in theatre was opened in 1933.  In their peak, there were over 4,000 nationwide.  Today, there are fewer than 400.  That story has run its course.  This one will also.

Episode I: Television

ABC's Sunday Night Movie began showing Hollywood-made feature films in 1962.  The first made-for-TV movie was aired in 1965 on NBC.  A year later, $2 million was paid to broadcast The Bridge Over the River Kwai.  It was a faustian bargain between the big and the small screens.  Prior to television, cinema was the only place Americans could see life reproduced, moving in front of our eyes.  We even got our news in movie theaters.  We had to leave our homes to do so.  Television changed everything.  Not only did you not have to put on your pants to see a movie on television, through the advent of the commercial break, you could empty your bladder without missing any of it.

Previously Recorded

A second bargain was struck when home video technology arrived on the scene in the form of a bulky--sometimes balky--magnetic tape that allowed you to watch movies NOT edited for TV as well as record them.  It presented both an opportunity and a challenge to the industry.  The opportunity was the chance to market movies directly to consumers without the TV broadcast industry.  The challenge was piracy.  The Motion Picture Industry had already tried unsuccessfully to have VCR's declared illegal.  Now, a billion Chinese people watch current-release movies on DVD's. 

Death by a Thousand Gigabytes

A quick survey of the torrents available online reveal all top ten movies last weekend available for unauthorized download.  Hollywood has been unable to devise a system whereby they can spread their product via the World Wide Web without losing revenue to piracy.  There was the worthless DVD region code system, which did little more than prevent you from watching foreign films in the early Aughts.  Today, the genie is out of the bottle.  Filmmakers (and television networks) are simply going to have to find a new way to make money off their products.

If Only People Could be Put on Vibrate

The invasion of the cellphone into every public and private space in our lives has combined with the disappearance of courtesy to make theater-going impossible to enjoy.  Things have become so bad, that police accused a man of shooting a father on Christmas day because he and his family would not shut up during a screening of The Curious Case of Benjamin Buttons.

Talking during a film was only a minor problem for decades.  Somehow, once cell phone usage became what it is today, it became alright, not only for people to take and make calls during a movie, but alright for them to make conversation no matter the disturbance it caused.  More and more movie goers simply won't see a particular film at a particular time.

Episode II: Revenge of The Home Box Office

Add reality television to the list of villains.  As broadcast networks moved away from scripted drama, premium channels, like HBO, saw an opening and moved in.  What they created was the cinematic television series.  The Sopranos, Deadwood, Rome, and Six Feet Under combined the artistic qualities and content previously reserved for the big screen with the convenience and intimacy of the small screen.  They are also free of the time constraints of a theater screening.  By telling stories over multiple episodes, the liberated creators of this new genre of motion pictures are able to spend much more time developing characters and exploring their worlds.  Rome, which tells the story of Caesar's rise to power, his assassination, and the civil war between Marc Antony and Octavian that ensued, was 24 hours long--8 times as long as Cleopatra.  The Sopranos was nearly 80 hours long. 

The physical limitations placed on the creators of the great works of the 20th century make those achievements even more impressive.  But remove the time constraint, and imagine what a screenplay based on a great novel of typical length could encompass.  So often, decisions to delete parts of a story were not made based on artistic considerations, but simple time constraints.  These decisions made film adaptations pale in comparison.  There are countless tales of our world that need more than 90 minutes to tell them.  The small screen in the home and the Internet promise more freedom to take as much time as needed to tell (and to enjoy) them.

It is only natural that the talent that once gravitated toward the movie industry will begin to gravitate toward this new, less constrained meme. 


The cinema as Broadway will be one form in which movie-going will persist.  Avatar heralds a new era of 3D, IMAX films located in major cities and near tourist destinations.  They will charge much more for tickets, and will be as much theme park ride as cinema.  This could be described as movie-going-as-event.  The story telling of these works hold little promise.  This meme is born of Jurassic Park, Terminator II, Twister, Star Wars and Cleopatra. While quality story-telling finds it's way into these works, it is the rare exception.

The art house will continue to exist in the bohemian parts of American cities.  They will offer movie-going as nostalgia.  They will show less foreign and independent films and more movies from the "golden age."  Already, independent and foreign films are being released for on-demand viewing at home simultaneously with their release in art houses.  Surviving movie palaces will become revival halls.  They'll show the James Bond series, Woody Allen festivals and double-features by Kubrick, Fellini, Eastwood, Cassavetes, and Sellers.  They'll be a kind of motion picture museum.

The mall multiplex may or may not be able to persist.  Will it be the Gap or Tower Records?  As more and more people watch movies at home, who will be their clientele?  How many people are willing to see a romantic comedy in a noisy, public place for an ever escalating price of admission?  More and more entertainment options are finding their way to middle and rural America and the industry may not have an answer for that trend.  As it is, the numbers do not look good. 

The number of indoor movie screens in the US has almost doubled since 1987 from 20,000 to 38,000 (as have ticket prices). Most of that growth, however, occurred between 1987 and 1998 (34,000).  Since 1995, the number of actual movie theaters in America has gone down from 7,700 to 5,900.  In an even more ominous sign, total admissions have remained essentially flat for the last 20 years. 

Cinema will remain.  Movies will be shown.  Tubs of popcorn will be salted and buttered.  Giant Dr. Peppers will be slurped.  However, movie-going will likely never return to its place as the cultural and artistic centerpiece of American society.  It will simply be one part, of a multi-faceted world of visual arts: "the movie format."  Like a haiku, It will be set apart as much by its length, as by any other feature. 

A length, it should be noted, that was born in part by the limits of the human bladder. 

Comments to Joe Hubris.