How do you like to watch a movie? Studios may offer fewer options


Imagine a future in which only big-budget, effects-driven spectacle movies play in movie theaters, and you have to track down smaller human-scale stories on the Internet for viewing.

Imagine a future in which seeing a movie in a theater on a big screen with an audience is viewed as a quaint vestige of the past.

Imagine a movieconsuming public that wants to choose from thousands of options and have their choice instantly delivered for viewing whenever and wherever it wants.

A new book by Wheeler Winston Dixon, a film professor at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, makes the case that the future is here.

Digital streaming is changing the movie industry forever. Whether that's good depends on your point of view.

Dixon's book “Streaming: Movies, Media and Instant Access” was released this spring by University Press of Kentucky. In it he describes how digital platforms — laptops, smart phones, flatscreens, personal electronic devices — have become the preferred way to see a movie.

The implications for industry and social change, he argues, are enormous.

Video rental stores are almost entirely a thing of the past. So is shooting a movie on film. And so, in just the past year, is seeing a 35mm film print projected at a theater, rather than a DCP (digital cinema package). A classic title at Film Streams is about your only chance to see a movie on film in the metro area.

In many cases, both audiences and movie distributors skip the theater altogether. Consider, for example, last month's “Sharknado” phenomenon.

“It went straight to cable streaming,” Dixon said in an interview last week. “The producers make their money back, it's all very neat, and it never opens in a theater. That's going to happen more and more.”

Young people, Dixon says, want convenience. They are platform-agnostic, he says — meaning they don't care if they see it on a big screen or not. They didn't grow up seeing movies that way, they don't really prize the experience, and they don't miss the sense of community that comes from seeing and reacting to a movie with others in a theater.

Nor do they miss discussing the movie afterward with a bunch of people who just saw it together. They're giving the movie an instant personal review, while it's still playing in front of them, through Twitter, Facebook and email postings.

You may be thinking, like me, what a shame. They don't know what they're missing.

Doesn't matter, Dixon says. The shift is already here, and there's no stopping it.

For movie studios, the advantages of the digital age are enormous. Shipping film prints to theaters in large metal canisters was expensive. Making and shipping a DCP costs far less — $150 versus $1,500.

And when that DCP arrives at the theater, the studios now have complete control over when it gets played. The studio provides a digital keycode for each screening. The theater can't show the movie without the distributor's OK.

Theater owners, Dixon says, are more and more at the mercy of the studios and movie distributors, which already demand 90 percent of the box office take on the opening weekend of a new film.

If the studios can find a way to do without the theaters entirely, they will.

This all started before computers and digital, Dixon says. The trend's roots go back at least to the 1950s when television first threatened theaters. People could stay home. Granted, they had to watch what was available at a certain time, a certain day of the week.

The movie industry responded with 3-D, Cinerama and other gimmicks to get people back to the theaters, just as it's doing again now with IMAX and Xbox. And to counter instant reviewing as best it can, new big-budget movies now open in 3,000 or more theaters simultaneously. The studios hope to make maximum box office quickly, in case word of mouth is not good.

Streaming is even affecting how movies are shot, Dixon says. To accommodate small-screen viewing, many movies now rely more heavily on extreme close-ups and minimize wide-screen shots. David Lean (“Doctor Zhivago,” “Lawrence of Arabia”) doesn't really work on hand-held devices.

How does this affect audience response to storytelling? It's not as visceral, Dixon says. The movie loses impact, becoming part of the surrounding distractions, rather than enveloping you in a darkened room. You can stop it, start it, fast-forward and back. You don't have to see it all in one sitting. A sense of communal experience is lost.

Miniseries are the hot new thing. Binge viewing of entire seasons or series is all the rage. Reverse engineering — in which the viewing mechanism keeps track of how you watch, when you turn away, when you fast-forward — means moviemakers can tailor their storytelling to reach the widest audience and turn off as few viewers as possible.

Imagine what that does to the artistic process, or how it affects what movies get made. Safer, simpler movies with a familiar hook — and style over substance — could be the new norm. Creative license could be the new luxury few moviemakers can afford.

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