Not Being There

"You slide down in your seat and make yourself comfortable. On the screen in front of you, the movie image appears—enormous and overwhelming. If the movie is a good one, you allow yourself to be absorbed in its fantasy, and its dreams become part of your memories"

Like most other people whose tastes began to form before television became the dominant entertainment medium, I have a simple idea of what it means to go to the movies. You buy your ticket and take a seat in a large dark room with hundreds of strangers. You slide down in your seat and make yourself comfortable. On the screen in front of you, the movie image appears—enormous and overwhelming. If the movie is a good one, you allow yourself to be absorbed in its fantasy, and its dreams become part of your memories.

Television is not a substitute for that experience, and I have never had a TV-watching experience of emotional intensity comparable to my great movie-going experiences. Television is just not first class. The screen is too small. The image is technically inferior. The sound is disgracefully bad. As the viewer I can contain television—but the movies are so large they can contain me. I can't lose myself in a television image, and neither, I suspect, can most other people. That is why people are forever recreating movie memories in great detail, but hardly ever reminisce about old TV programs.

I believe, then, that to experience a movie fully you have to go to the movies. I enjoy television for other purposes, and my favorite TV programs are the live ones (sports, news, elections, talk shows), where immediacy helps compensate for the loss in intensity. Unlike a lot of movie buffs, I am not a fan of The Late Show. If a movie is good enough to stay up late for, it's too good to be watched through the dilution of television. I'll catch it later at a revival theater or a film society, or, if I never catch it again at least I'll think of it as a movie and not as late-night programming.

Maybe it's no wonder, then, that, with these personal biases, I was disturbed by some of the things I heard last March during a conference I went to in Colorado. The American Film Institute had taken over the Aspen Institute for three days, and invited forty-five people to gather for a discussion of the future of the feature film. By "feature film," they meant both theatrical and made-for-TV features, the latter including docudramas and TV miniseries.

The conference was weighted toward the TV people, among them executives of various pay-cable companies, and although several of us professed an interest in a discussion of content (that is, what movies are about these days), most of the talk was about "delivery" (how to sell television programming at a profit). What actually went out on the airwaves or cable systems would presumably take care of itself.

Many panelists' remarks were couched in a technological Newspeak that I had trouble understanding at first. Software, for example, was the word for TV programming—software to feed the hardware of our new home video entertainment centers. ("Software," they said. "You know. That's a word for product." "Product?" I asked. "Yeah. Like a movie.") Television consuming units was another expression that gave me trouble until I realized it was a reference to human beings. Windows was a very interesting word. It referred to the various markets that a new movie could be sold to (or "shown through") once it was made. First there would be the theatrical window, a traditional booking in a movie theater. Then came the network window—sale to commercial television. After that the windows came thick and fast: the pay-cable window, video cassette window, video disc window, airline in-flight window, and so on. In the hierarchy of these windows, the traditional practice of showing the movie in a theater seemed furthest from everybody's mind; the theatrical run was sort of a preliminary before the other markets could be carved up.

One of the enticing things about all the windows, I learned, was that a new movie could now be in the position of turning a profit before it was made. The pre-sales of subsidiary viewing rights would take the risk out of the initial investment.

The chilling thought occurred to me that, if a movie was already in profit, actually showing it in theaters could be risky because promotion, advertising, and overhead would be seen as liabilities instead of (in the traditional view) as an investment risk with a hope of profitable return. But no, I was assured, that was wrong. Movies would still have to play in theaters because the theatrical run "legitimatized" them: they thus became "real" movies in the eyes of people buying them on cassettes or over pay cable.

Wonderful, I thought. The theatrical feature film, the most all-encompassing art form of the twentieth century, has been reduced to a necessary marketing preliminary for software.

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