Digital Projection and Visual Pleasure

Randall Stross of The New York Times is reporting on the motion picture industry’s plans to convert from film to digital projection, focusing specifically on Mark Cuban’s 2929 Entertainment and Landmark Theater chain (Cuban has been talking about this story at some length on his blog).

I don’t have as much time as I would like to work through the article, but there are a few points worth noting. First, Stross places emphasis on the differences in visual quality between film and digital. He writes,

People in the theater exhibition industry know what many outside it may not: that the transition from film to digital will not improve the visual experience for theater customers. Nothing yet invented can match the richness of film. When digital projection arrives, the best selling point that theater owners can offer may be, ‘Don’t worry about it; you probably won’t notice.’

I do think it’s worth holding onto film as a medium, and there are films that use celluloid in ways that are breathtaking. But Stross’ comments close down any discussion of the visual and narrative possibilities available to digital that may not be available to film (Steven Soderbergh’s recent comments about his latest film, Bubble, are but one example). This notion of “richness” is a constructed category and one that needs to be interrogated.

I think Stross is right to identify the ways in which moviegoing as a practice is changing, and Robert Sklar’s comments underline some of these changes, but the habit of merely pointing to declining theater attendance doesn’t address how these audiences are engaging with the movies they watch (or how they understand themselves as audiences). Cuban himself points this out in the Times article, noting “the virtues of enjoying a movie in a theater with fellow movie fans.” There are plenty of examples of audiences seeing themselves as a collective, ranging from Harry Potter fans who line up for the film’s permiere to churches who attended Chronicles of Narnia as a group to politcal activists who attend Robert Greenwald documentary house parties. Megaplex theaters sometimes work against this sense of collectivity, especially when you have half an hour of pre-preview advertising, but Stross’ model seems to view moviegoing as essentially solitary (“sitting quietly in the dark with a few dozen others”).

Ultimately, it’s the movie historian who gets this right (no surprise there). As Sklar points out, “Teenagers’ need to get out of the house will keep theaters alive.” Moviegoing as a practice will certainly change if digital distribution becomes dominant, but Stross’ skepticism overlooks some of what might be valuable about these changes.

Update: Just a quick pointer to A.O. Scott’s New York Times article, in which he asks whether some of Hollywood’s films aren’t bad enough. Scott’s point is that the studios are increasingly avoiding the risks that produced notorious “failures” such as Ishtar, Heaven’s Gate, and Showgirls, or even something like Apocalypse Now, which while achieving some success is remebered as much because of Coppola’s “visionary recklessness.”

I’m not sure this article is related to this entry, other than to note Scott’s observation that “the studios have delegated artistic ambition to their specialty divisions, which turn out modestly budgeted, sophisticated pictures, the best of which bear the stamp of a filmmaker’s uncompromised vision.” I may have more to say about Scott’s article later, but I need to do some non-blog writing today.

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