Multiplexes are Being Left Behind

I’ve been intrigued by the discussion of the most recent installment of the Left Behind film series (this one starring Louis Gossett, Jr. as the President and Gordon Currie as the Antichrist), based on Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins’ bestselling novels that narrate one of the competing narratives regarding the “end times” anticipated in Christian eschatology. I’m not really that interested in seeing the film, but the articles reporting on the film’s distribution have attracted my curiosity. The Hartford Courant offers the basics: rather than relesing the film directly to theaters, which has often led to disappointing box office, Sony has decided to release the film directly to churches, with over 3,000 churches planning “opening night” screenings.

I’m not willing to come to any conclusions about how these screenings will function for the people who attend them. Like most church activities I’d imagine that the screenings will serve different functions for different audience memebers, and the “evangelical” or conversion function addressed in this New York Times article is only one of many functions the film will serve. In addition, while I may not share any of the film’s theological underpinnings, Waxman’s dismissal of the film’s “unfamiliar and even strange universe” offers only a superficial gloss of why certain audiences might find these films valuable or important.

In this sense, at the risk of completely missing the mark, I want to compare these Left Behind screenings to the house party screenings for Robert Greenwald’s grassroots documentaries. Obviously the films are quite different in terms of content or subject matter, but I think it’s worth noting that both sets of films are making truth claims about the world, whether in documentary form or in a fictional pre-enactment of what the end times will be like. The grassroots distribution is also significant and relatively similar, of course. I do want to caution against seeing the two cinematic subcultures as precise opposites. While the Left Behind films are certainly “political” (asserting that the Antichrist will come from Russia is certainly a “political” claim), they are also doing other things.

I’m unwilling to further line the pockets of LaHaye and Jenkins, so I probably won’t see these films anytime soon, if at all, but the similarities between these two modes of distribution is striking. It’s certainly significant that Sony is backing the Left Behind films while Greenwald has been forced to seek financing independently, but the decision to bypass the multiplexes is an interesting one. I want to map these distribution strategies back onto Ivan Askwith’s argument that consumers have been willing to pay for iTunes-style TV downloads and that this approach could produce programming independent of the constraints of advertisers’ demands for strong ratings. Such independence, argues Askwith, could allow TV producers to create more innovative and rewarding programming. This third term isn’t mapping quite as nealy as I would like, other than to note that all three approaches illustrate the ways in which we are finding our media in new places and that the effects of those changes still need to be mapped carefully and thoughtfully.

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