French director Jean-Luc Godard’s postulation that “the cinema is dead” was almost realised with the recent release of Ben Stiller’s new film Tower Heist. This is not to say that the film was so utterly terrible that the art of cinema was irreversibly damaged (although this is perhaps debatable), and that the medium of cinema has decided to pack it in. The scare was, in fact, the result of an ambitious plan by Universal Studios to release Tower Heist on demand for TV customers in a US test market within a month of its release in theatres. Although the plan never came to fruition, after obvious objections from the movie theatres, it does give an interesting insight into the future direction that studios are taking for the release of new films.
There is no doubt that this proposal will be revisited in the near future and this has allowed for a moment of consideration regarding the implications of such a decision by the studio on the future of movie theatres, film-going, and, more pointedly, the impact it will have on the characteristics of cinema. If releasing new films straight to the consumers’ homes is to be the future for the industry, does this mean that the change in viewing environment will greatly affect a viewers’ experience of a film, and even their relationship with its images and sound? Furthermore, if films are not being viewed in their natural environment – the cinema – does this mean that films will surrender the qualities we deem to be cinematic?
Movie theatres offer a unique cinematic experience that cannot be truly replicated in the domestic environment. The darkness of the theatre, the large screen and surround sound guarantees centred attention from the viewer, and allows a full immersion into the cinematic experience. Television, conversely, is generally viewed in normal lighting conditions, on a smaller screen and with an inferior sound system that consequently reduces the intensity of the experience. For instance, it is critical that a film like 2001: A Space Odyssey is viewed in a theatre environment for the viewer to be fully absorbed in its cinematic qualities, and it is perhaps no surprise that it is rarely (if ever) scheduled as the midweek movie on TV.
Moreover, when the television is on, it is frequently not the only event in the house. This leads to constant disruptions of spectator concentration and thus makes it is impossible to establish the necessary voyeuristic contract between the film and viewer. TV shows, on the other hand, are capable of maintaining our attention due, in part, to the differing roles image and sound play in establishing a relationship with the viewer.
While the image is the central reference in cinema it is, in fact, sound that anchors meaning in television and keeps the attention of the viewer. Sound is used as the principal carrier of information in television and consequently reduces the image to an illustrative role. In situation comedies and cop procedurals, for example, the dialogue soundtrack provides the details to propel the narrative. These types of shows effectively boil down to characters talking in a series of rooms leaving images to, only occasionally, add information not conveyed in the soundtrack.
Television images are straightforward, stripped of detail and without conscious technique. The images are only held on screen until the small amount of visual information is exhausted. This results in the rapid cutting characteristic of TV programs, and is the antithesis of the richness of detail within the cinematic images of 2001: A Space Odyssey and films of the same ilk. There is a current trend with 3D to encourage spectacle in films to attract patrons to cinemas, but if this new venture proves to be successful for the studios, there is a real possibility that films will be adapted to suit the TV-on-demand market.
This potential domestication of cinema also raises concerns for the element that lies at the core of cinema: the notion of the ‘cinematic’. But what defines ‘cinematic’ in the context of film? Not all films are cinematic merely because they are shown in a cinema. Rather, it is moments or films that can be uniquely expressed through the medium of cinema. If these are experienced outside of their intended environment or experienced through a different form, such as television, they cease to be cinematic. Filmmakers undoubtedly consider the theatre environment when crafting films, and if future films are to be released for TV there will be less incentive for them to produce essentially cinematic works.
There is no doubt that new technology, such as larger television screens with sharper images, will mean a smoother transition from the theatre to the home for some, but if this proposal becomes a reality it will mean, on the primal level, that cinema will be fundamentally altered through what Godard refers to as the “TV mutation”, and all that is cinema, and indeed cinematic, may become lost as just another channel on TV.