Features & Columns

FIGHTING FOR VIEWERS: The popularity of shows like Netflix's 'Orange is the New Black' backed HBO and Showtime up against the ropes. Both premium cable services are unveiling their own standalone streaming services.

Will the new, omnivorous,
non-linear viewing make it difficult to watch an entire film in the usual way we define a film—three acts, 90 to 120 minutes, credits at both ends?

Mike Mosher, the Silicon Valley recording artist formerly known as "Mike Mayonnaise," is now a professor at Saginaw Valley State in Michigan. He says he's not seeing a limit in the attention span among his students in the heartland.

"We use YouTube in classes, including TEDTalks, and chafe when our university network chokes," Mosher says. "But personally, we don't watch streaming movies, except YouTube songs. We pop in a DVD or VHS downstairs in front of the big couch.

Elliot Lavine, the film noir expert who is a teacher for Stanford's Continuing Studies program, finds his students are still up to the task of watching entire films. "They consider themselves serious movie-watchers and are more apt to sit through an entire film very easily," he says. "Since the students in my classes tend to be older than your average college student, it doesn't seem to be an issue at all."

Chipping away at the difference between movies and television is a subgenre of films released simultaneously on the digital screen and the theater. On Jan. 27, 2006, Steven Soderberg's film Bubble became the first movie released in the theater and on TV on the same day, with a DVD release following four days later.

At the time, Soderberg famously said of downloadable cinema: "I don't think it's going to destroy the movie-going experience any more than the ability to get takeout has destroyed the restaurant business." One wonders if exhibitors share his optimism eight years later—2014 was a terrible year for business. Even George Lucas admitted in a lecture at USC last year, "What used to be the movie business, in which I include television and movies, will be Internet television."

I asked Netflixed author Keating whether streaming will make cinema extinct, and she suggests it's possible. "Because VOD [video on demand] is so cheap and programming is getting better and better, consumers are demanding a premium experience for the high cost of theater admission. If theater owners and content makers supply that, I think people will keep going to the movies."

Lavine is more pessimistic. "It already is killing cinema and has been for some time," he says. "Whenever 'ease and comfort' enter the equation, trouble cannot be far behind. Going out to the movies will eventually be a thing of the past, at least as far as modestly produced films are concerned. It won't be long before only huge films will find their way into theaters. Everything else will be streamed into your home. You don't need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows."

As for the numbers of actual viewers these small movies will get when they're relegated to Internet television, that's an open question. As noted film journalist Scott Tobias wrote on TheDissolve.com: "We know nothing. Figuring out what's successful or unsuccessful on VOD—or the overall viability of the format, period—is like being lost in a wilderness within a wilderness. And the powers-that-be aren't passing out flashlights."

That's what makes Roku's April 30 announcement interesting: the Nielsen organization, famed for its television ratings, is partnering with Roku to quantify who is out there watching. The numbers matter to filmmakers; if they know how popular their work is, they have more leverage when selling their small handmade films to Netflix or another provider. It also matters to producers, who need to be able to prove a track record when it comes time to finance the kind of little film that will eventually only be viable on Internet television.

One wonders at the fate of the DVD, with sales dropping as the quality of high-def streaming increases. Cinephiles still buy Blu-Ray from specialty distributors to get the best out of their home theater. After the epic fail of Netflix trying to split itself into separate on-line and DVD rental, it's still red-enveloping DVDs. But this post-office driven market is declining. Bloomberg News reports that Netflix had 58 mail order outlets at their peak. There were 39 such centers as of fall 2013. Netflix declined to show me around one of the remaining distribution centers, or to speculate on when it forecasts getting out of the physical DVD market.

Keating says that the company is likely to be mailing out DVDs years from now. "(Netflix founder) Reed Hastings joked, before the Qwikster debacle, that he would deliver the last DVD personally around 2030. I thought that seemed like a very long window but he based his calculations on the projected lifespan of CDs and how iTunes had affected that growth curve."

If CDs eventually vanish, and there is no semi-permanent copy of a film (it's an open secret that the lifespan of a DVD is nothing like permanent), YouTube will be a last refuge for orphan films, public domain or public domain-ish work. YouTube won't say what percentage of its content is feature films, posted legally or otherwise. What they promote is the homebrewed video, the celebrity housecat, the person who becomes a star while cooking drunk. What credits YouTube more is less wacky work: the marvelous array of instructional videos, music lessons and technical patches available for free.

Whatever happens, cinema is bound to undergo a change. And such a bounty of moving images has its downside. Structurally, cinema first emulated the play. Technical sophistication allowed it to become something more. With sound and length and depth of field, cinema was able to emulate the interior reveries and the social importance of the novel. And sometimes it transcended even that.

For decades, cinema lovers saw the form perfected—the three-act, 90 minute format. This format will come under pressure from the wide return of an older format than the novel: the serial. Not counting the primetime work like Mad Men, The Sopranos, Breaking Bad, do we often have movies as good as Korean soap operas? Or melodramas as juicy as the ones in Latin America?

"Feature films can barely compete with TV nowadays, both in narrative structure and style," Lavine says. "Compelling filmed entertainment is now the property of the small screen. Film culture, as it was once known, will be forever gone. The motion picture industry is slowly and painfully committing suicide right before our eyes."

It's hard to see the end of what seemed like a perfect form into something that seems formless, open ended. And it's a little poignant seeing the event of a television show at a given time displaced by on-demand, a la carte viewing. It'll be strange to explain to future generations what it was like to have a regular appointment Sunday at 8 for The Simpsons. A la carte television is one more element of decentralization in a land where the center long ago lost its hold.

And some are restless at the way a la carte TV becomes a Hometown Table buffet. Writer Akiva Gottlieb's complaint in The Nation: "If anything, Netflix's frictionless all-you-can-eat access model has devalued the image. It's turned the act of viewing into an endless game of whack-a-mole. I can think of few digital innovations more annoying than the pop-up bombarding you with related programming the very instant a movie cuts to black."

The ultimate multimedia transformation of the moving image, predicted long ago, has finally come to pass. We've made our own hypertexts, combining a handheld device and a TV screen. With a television in front of our faces, and a smartphone in the palm, we cross reference clothes and items. We comment on what we're watching to an audience of Tweeters. What was that obscure song they just did the outro with on Mad Men? Where exactly is that location in New York? Where have I seen that actress before? These distractions combine with the old incoming tasks familiar since the 1950s, when audiences first deserted the theater for television.

In his farewell to his 30-year career, San Francisco art critic Kenneth Baker paraphrased the poet John Ciardi: "'We are what we do with our attention.' Immersion in digital media has the peculiar effect of making it inordinately difficult to know what we are doing with our attention at the time."

Now that so much is available for us, where will we turn our gaze?

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