Respecting Cinema in the Digital Age

I’m definitely one of those guys you’d think of as a tech nerd. I spend all day jumping on and off different social networks, I’ve got tons of followers on Twitter, and I’ve been blogging here for almost a decade and a half.

But when it comes to film, despite all my gadget-wielding bonafides, I’ve been something of a purist. I’ve never had my phone on during a movie, let alone texted or talked. I’ve never even tried to watch a movie on my phone, and barely have done so with an iPad when on a plane. My Kickstarter history betrays a predilection for backing independent works that tend to be about artists or marginalized folks, like dream hampton’s recent TransParent. So I’m okay with technology being used to engage with film, but I’ve never personally been interested in mediating film through technology.

Recent days have brought a debate that’s forced us all to reckon with the fact that lots of people are bringing phones to public theaters, along with their concomitant light and noise issues, and the overall potential distraction of texting. As someone who’s never done it, it’s a bit inexplicable to me, but the reality is that millions of Americans are doing this every single day.

Amazingly, this behavior is going on despite the stern warnings before films, despite the rise of independent theatres like Alamo Drafthouse (which we should praise even though they try to distract movie patrons with food and alcohol), and despite the increasing number of other options for watching films at home.

In short, what we’ve done to encourage reverent, single-focus movie watching hasn’t worked.

So we should have the courage of our convictions. If we believe, truly, that a viewing experience without second screens or distracting sounds or lights, is vastly superior to any other way of experiencing this art form, then let’s bet on it. Let’s let people choose, and offer up screenings where people are allowed any manner of digital diversions during the show.

Unless we’re egregiously wrong, we’d only have to offer these alternate experiences for a few months, as people would come slinking back to the superior screenings almost immediately. A medium that’s weathered the arrival of smellovision and digital 3D is certainly robust and resilient enough to withstand a test of whether people want to give it their undivided attention.

Light and Sound

Cinema has never resisted technological innovation; It’s where people first discovered moving pictures and color images and stereo sound. And the stories we discover there, shared with a crowd of strangers all moved by the same dreamlike images, have withstood time and crossed cultures to knit together people all over the world, even with their different cultural standards and social norms.

The most important thing we can do for film, and for the film industry, is to make sure we’re accommodating new viewers, bringing them in to the magic of the movies, and making them fans for life. It might take them a little while to understand why we care so much about the experience, but surely if we can meet them halfway, they’ll eagerly make the rest of the leap by themselves.