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The Poppies of Terra #32 - Cinemaxtrapolation

By Alvaro Zinos-Amaro

2024-06-19 09:00:24

Like last year, in 2024 I’ve been averaging about two visits to the movie theater per week. 

On certain days it feels like living through the end times. 

On the whole, showings are emptier than ever. There’s a surge once in a while, as there was last year–The Super Mario Bros. Movie and “Barbenheimer” event, for instance, generated long lines at the concession stands of my multiplex, as did more recently Dune: Part Two, while presently Inside Out 2 is getting good traction–but on average, I feel more accompanied by the ghosts of previous patrons than I do new audiences rabid for the latest release.

The cost of the theatrical experience seems to have outpaced its perceived value, perhaps terminally. And when I say “cost” I don’t just mean ticket and snack fees. There have always been other embedded prices, some of them difficult to quantify: transportation to and from the movie theater, working with set schedules, agreeing to uphold certain rules of etiquette when the lights go down and negotiating lapses in the compliance of such rules from others, and so on. 

The six-episode nonfiction series Voir, visual essays about cinema executive produced by David Fincher, made some astute observations back in 2021 that seem specially relevant today. I’m thinking particularly of the fifth entry, “Film vs Television,” which pointed out that during the first half of the twentieth century, when “film was the dominant form of entertainment in the US,” theatrical exhibition offered a quantitatively different type of experience from television, which in its early form was “radio with pictures.” 

As the appetite for, and production value of, television increased, film theaters successfully innovated new technologies to continue to differentiate what they offered. Eventually, though, with premium cable shows like The Sopranos, television started to adopt a more unrestrained and cinematic language. Then, too, television transmission shifted from airwaves to digital signals, improving resolution, while movies went from being shot on film to being recorded digitally. Both the aesthetics and the visual quality became harder to tell apart. Returning to the notion of cost, the episode points out that “movies ask for a lot upfront,” and in the theater demand “undivided attention,”–which we now know to be an increasingly precious commodity. In exchange, Voir observed, films typically promise a streamlined story, a heightened experience, and a well-defined ending. Television shows, meanwhile, require less upfront investment and may yield greater compound interest, but often lack satisfying conclusions. 

Today, it’s become apparent that another way in which the lines are blurring is cinema’s assignation of more and more of its big-budget offerings to franchise or IP installments rather than truly standalone stories. Again, more like television. And theaters are continuing to try and fill seats with whatever might work, including more special anniversary event engagements, limited re-releases, Fathom events, opera livestreams, concert movies, and so on. Want to catch NBC’s live coverage of the 2024 Paris Olympics on a larger screen? AMC has you covered. TV, communally. As short-term measures, I understand the economic drive behind these decisions, but ultimately I think they’re self-defeating, in that they blunt the magic of cinema.

Whatever cultural currency the theatrical experience was once felt to impart on viewers seems to have been largely swept aside by other forms of entertainment and interaction. I’d wager that if you offered most demographics under, say, 45, a multiple-choice of options for how to spend a block of several free hours–1) social media 2) gaming 3) looking up film showings, driving to a public building, paying premium prices to sit through half an hour of advertisements and trailers and eventually get to watch a movie in the dark with strangers 4) on-demand binge-watching/streaming at home 5) hanging out with friends, and so forth–for most, option 3) would come in dead last. Theater closures continue to be reported on with regularity, and the number of wide studio releases, and ticket sales, both on downward trends even before the pandemic, continue generally to decline.  

I think a phenomenon underlying some of these shifts, beyond logistics, dollars, and options, may be more about current trends of psychological identity affirmation and suspicions of unfair power dynamics. Watching a film in a movie theater places us, the audience, in a maximally submissive position: the start time is non-negotiable, the ambient conditions are fixed, the seats (these days) pre-assigned, the ability to multi-task is zero, and the runtime (unless one decides to forfeit the experience altogether and simply leave) is totally inelastic. We have to meet the film on its own terms, and, for the duration, engage with nothing but the film. The form is dominant; we are subservient.

A film shown any other way allows for a rebalancing of power. Streaming permits starts and stops, along with occasional or constant multi-tasking. Runtimes can be compressed by watching at 1.25x or other speeds; editing can be leapfrogged over by simply skipping certain scenes; narrative arcs can be rearranged based on mood or disposition; and so on. 

By redefining the terms of engagement in these ways, spectators raise their own “volume,” while proportionally quieting that of creators.  

Films, in this regard, simply become another form of content feeding infinity pools of endlessly renewing spectacle. They become wavelets, rather than making waves.

Not the biggest fan of that TikTok movie clip with the ironic overlaid text? Just refresh. That director or actor said something we don’t like? Refresh. The scene that spawned that witty meme is disappointing when we get to it? Refresh. A viral video starts out well but becomes boring after sixteen seconds? Refresh. Anxious about plot developments you might be exposed to? Want sixteen hot and nine cold takes on a new release you haven't seen because it's the center of conversation? Read up, and sit back–and then refresh, or not. 

In the movie theater, infinity pools exist purely within the internal creative capacities of our own minds, and can be renewed only through an effort of will. In other content models, that labor has been seemingly displaced to an external tap or click. The illusion of betterability leads to the certainty of perpetual, designed unfulfillment. The promise of freshness becomes its own stagnation.

Another unstated factor at play may well be the decision-making process that eventuates in watching, or not watching, a film, in the first place, and how that process may have shifted in the face of new technologies. Traditionally, word-of-mouth, feedback from trusted social circles, and “authoritative” critical evaluations informed someone’s propensity to watch a movie, and whether or not to make the effort of seeing it during its theatrical run or waiting for home media. Evaluation directly informed valuation. Today, algorithmic divination reigns supreme. Predictive analytics and engagement maximization are paramount; whether a film is consumed with rapt enjoyment or as background noise while folding laundry is irrelevant to the automated recommendation engines. Reproduction eclipses refinement, and rank, reputation.

Here’s a metric I’d love to see. For each major streaming platform, take as your numerator the number of users who actively use the search box to type in a title and watch it, then divide that figure by the total number of the platform’s subscribers. This would give us a sense of “volitional viewers,” in contrast to “passive viewers” who default to the next dollop of suggested content served up by the genie in the machine. I’d make an educated guess that the percentage of volitional viewers has declined over time, along with the intensity of viewer’s memories regarding things they’ve watched. 

I envision a future in which recommendation algorithms, married with AI, will access health and wellness devices to take a snapshot of your biochemistry and, marrying that information with other knowledge about your day, fine-tune recommendations to the point of almost guaranteed success. “It’s Tuesday–you had that big meeting this afternoon, which I’m sure was draining–your sleep was irregular last night, elevating your cortisol levels today–and I see your serotonin is a little below baseline. Here’s a nice pick-me-up romcom with a lead actor that tends to make you smile. I’ll start playing it in five minutes, unless you object.” No click needed. 

In this landscape, going against the grain may become its own art, and eventually those who rediscover the beauty of a volitional, deeply focused engagement with art may come to be seen as possessing some arcane, mysterious ability. 

Remember that classic short story by Isaac Asimov, “The Feeling of Power,” in which a human in a distant computer-reliant future rediscovers the ability to multiply numbers mentally? “Nine times seven, thought Shuman with deep satisfaction, is sixty-three, and I don't need a computer to tell me so,” wrote Asimov sixty-six years ago. “The computer is in my own head. And it was amazing the feeling of power that gave him.”


Alvaro Zinos-Amaro is a Hugo- and Locus-award finalist who has published over fifty stories and one hundred essays, reviews, and interviews in professional markets. These include Analog, Lightspeed, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Galaxy's Edge, Nature, The Los Angeles Review of Books, Locus,, Strange Horizons, Clarkesworld, The Year's Best Science Fiction & Fantasy, Cyber World, Nox Pareidolia, Multiverses: An Anthology of Alternate Realities, and many others. Traveler of Worlds: Conversations with Robert Silverberg was published in 2016. Alvaro’s debut novel, Equimedian, and his book of interviews, Being Michael Swanwick, are both forthcoming in 2023.

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