As a film critic, I’ve always considered the “theatrical experience” overrated.
Over the past 20 years I’ve been doing this job professionally, I’ve never bought into the idea that certain movies need to be seen on the big screen. Now, is Mad Max: Fury Road more fun when you’re watching it with a big group of strangers in the dark? Sure, I’ll give you that. But the idea that watching that same movie alone at home somehow changes its cinematic DNA is not an idea I’ll ever subscribe to.
Once, at a press screening a few years ago for one of the Transformers sequels, a studio representative asked me as I was leaving the theater if I liked the movie. I told her I didn’t, then I gave her a couple of quick reasons why the movie would be receiving a negative review from me. After writing them down in her report, she invited me to another screening of the film the following night, this time at the IMAX, saying I might like it better if I experienced it on a bigger screen.
All movie critics are different. Maybe some would have accepted the offer and had a better experience watching the Autobots and Decepticons roll around a city street on a 72-foot theater screen. I think most professional critics, however, understand that the content of a film isn’t going to be altered in any way just because you watched it on a cell phone instead of a massive screen. It’s the same exact movie.
Once, a fellow film critic scoffed when I told him that I saw director Sam Mendes’ 2019 war film 1917 on my modest, 50-inch TV at home. The studio sent me a DVD screener during awards season. Still, the critic asked, how was it fair to the film if I didn’t watch it in the way Mendes intended: on the biggest screen possible. For the record, 1917 ended up No. 5 on my Top 10 Movies of 2019 list. It was an incredible cinematic experience — from my couch.
The way we watch movies has never been tested so much as it was over the past year. Chalk that up to the pandemic. It’s been over a year since I’ve stepped into a movie theater, yet I’ve seen hundreds of new movies during that time. In 2020, many studios decided to reschedule big “event” movies such as Halloween Kills, In the Heights and Top Gun: Maverick until this year in hopes they could premiere them in theaters and cash in. Other studios, however, made the film industry’s collective jaw drop recently by choosing to do a hybrid release of their films.
When Warner Bros. announced last December that it would release all its 2021 movies simultaneously at theaters and on HBO Max, people started wondering if this was the end of movie theaters as we’ve come to know them.
“We’re living in unprecedented times, which call for creative solutions,” Warner Bros. CEO Ann Sarnoff said at the time. “No one wants films back on the big screen more than we do. We know new content is the lifeblood of theatrical exhibition, but we have to balance this with the reality that most theaters in the U.S. will likely operate at reduced capacity throughout 2021.”
The new Warner Bros. business model is already underway. Films including The Little Things, Judas and the Black Messiah and Tom & Jerry already premiered this year at theaters and on HBO Max on the same day. However, the big test began last week with the debut of Godzilla vs. Kong. Would average movie watchers take Warner Bros. up on the offer and see the monster movie in the comfort of their own homes? Or is Godzilla vs. Kong one of those movies that demands a theatrical audience?
While some fans will obviously opt to watch the probable blockbuster at the theater, I chose to experience the big gorilla and lizard heavyweight fight a few weeks ago from a front row seat in my living room. Overall, the movie was OK. There’s little in the way of character development and the script is beyond repair, but the scenes where the title monsters pummel each other are entertaining enough, and those are probably the reason most audiences are tuning in anyway.
If I had seen Godzilla vs. Kong at the theater, I guarantee I would have come away with the same opinion. No amount of extra screen height or surround sound decibels or applause from fellow moviegoers or tubs of movie popcorn would have changed what I ultimately thought of the final product. Bottom line: Jaws is still a masterpiece when I watch it on my iPhone and Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice was garbage when I watched it in a packed theater.
I don’t know about you, but I can’t wait to get back to the theater sometime this year. It’s been my second home for the past two decades, and I miss it. But if it turns out that the theater industry just isn’t going to hold the same kind of power it did before the pandemic, I’ll be just fine adapting to the change. I’m sure that in the future Fast and Furious 22: Electric Boogaloo will be an equally mind-numbing experience no matter where any of us sees it.
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