With the coming of COVID, movie theaters were forced to close their doors, and their revenue streams were further devastated by the concomitant effort to use films meant for theatrical release to sell subscriptions to streaming services instead. Many predicted that they would never recover. Nor have they, at least not yet: Polls taken in mid-October 2021, 21 months into the pandemic, reported that only 51 percent of adult Americans “feel comfortable going to a movie theater right now” and that just 16 percent of Americans were “currently going to the movies.”
This development is of great concern to, among others, Martin Scorsese and Steven Spielberg, both of whom have made or are making films specifically intended for release via streaming video—but who agree that (in Spielberg’s words) “the greatest contributions we can make as filmmakers [are] to give audiences the motion-picture theatrical experience.” Spielberg adds, “I’m a firm believer that movie theaters need to be around forever.” For them, the communal ritual of seeing a film in a darkened theater in the company of strangers is an indispensable part of moviegoing, and they believe that it is now at risk, put there by a combination of COVID and, just as important, the sheer convenience of streaming.
Are they right? Yes and no. For while seeing great movies in theaters is certainly a unique and irreplaceable experience, it is in no way indispensable. Indeed, it has been superseded to a considerable degree by other movie-watching technologies—and not recently, either, but for a very long time.
MOVIES always made up a significant part of TV programming. At first, most of them were older films, but starting in 1961, NBC’s Saturday Night at the Movies aired recent feature films weekly, and the other TV networks followed suit. The cultural significance of these telecasts cannot be understated—it was on network TV that I first saw Roman Polanski’s Chinatown, Sidney Lumet’s Fail-Safe, and Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo—but for much of America, network TV imposed limits on the public’s interests. The networks never showed “arty” films, and they steered clear of golden-age black-and-white Hollywood fare.
For those who lived in cities with multiple television channels, the story was a bit different. Local independent stations often competed during the day and late at night by running classic Hollywood films. Scorsese, who grew up in New York City, surely got his early education in cinema, watching the “Million Dollar Movie” on Channel 9, the “Late Show” on Channel 2, and “The 4:30 Movie” on Channel 7.
As for me, I grew up in a small Missouri town that had two single-screen theaters. The only “arty” films I saw there were Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey and Franco Zeffirelli’s screen version of Romeo and Juliet. Moreover, the nearest public TV station was in St. Louis, just beyond the range of our family’s rooftop antenna (this was well before cable TV). It was not until I left home that I saw any pre-1950 movies other than The Wizard of Oz. That was in 1975, when I enrolled in a small college located in a suburb of Kansas City. I had a tiny TV set in my dorm room but was too busy to watch it more than occasionally, and my school had no film series.
At that time, Kansas City was home to just two art houses, one of which showed first-run foreign films and the other revivals of popular golden-age Hollywood fare like Casablanca and Gone with the Wind. I saw no more than a handful of “classic” films in the second of those theaters, none of them more than once, and I wholly failed as a result to absorb the concept of Film as Art. For me, a classic film was a one-time event, like a fireworks display, rather than something to be experienced repeatedly, like a painting or a symphony.
What changed my point of view? The VHS videocassette recorder, which was introduced to the U.S. by JVC in 1977. Like many other Americans, I bought my first VCR six years later, right around the time that prices were coming down, and Orson Welles’s Citizen Kane and Jean Renoir’s Grand Illusion were the first ambitious films of which I owned VHS copies. I’d never seen either film, and it was thrilling to be able to view them repeatedly and at will.
Today’s Millennials cannot begin to imagine the overwhelming power of the cultural transformation wrought by the VCR. To be sure, innumerable full-fledged art films were released prior to 1983, and there was a considerable amount of good film criticism as well, but scarcely anyone could get to know a great film in anything more than a superficial way. The resulting situation was not unlike that of the proverbial tree falling in the forest: I “knew” that Kane was a great film, but I didn’t know it for myself. For me as for most people, the film canon was all about critical reputation, not first-hand experience.
Starting in the early ’80s, you could own a film in the same way that you owned a book, making it possible for anyone to study it closely and write about it with the same specificity and intimacy that we take for granted in other forms of criticism. Just as the invention of the phonograph enabled the dissemination and preservation of jazz, so did the invention of the VCR give to film what literary scholars call a “usable past.”
By 1994, the VCR had made it possible for most Americans to view movies in their living rooms, but few video stores outside the major cities carried a wide-ranging inventory of older films, nor were they shown other than sporadically on TV. If you wanted to see or study the great films of the past, you had to buy your own copies. Following in the footsteps of the early cable channel American Movie Classics (AMC), Turner Classic Movies changed that.
Launched in 1994, TCM shows old and oldish movies around the clock. Some are familiar, others obscure, but all are uncut, uncolorized, uninterrupted by commercials, and otherwise unaltered. No other enterprise has done more to make such films accessible to the general public, especially after the introduction in 1999 of the programmable DVR, which made it possible to harvest TCM’s offerings for viewing at will. The same was true of the introduction of the DVD player, whose cinematic offerings were priced for sale and whose multiple tracks (featuring commentary and deleted scenes and the like) turned a generation of movie-watchers into amateur cinematic Straussian analysts.
The last link in the chain was forged by streaming video services like Amazon Prime and Netflix in the past decade, which make films of all kinds—including their own studio-quality productions, among them Scorsese’s The Irishman and Joel and Ethan Coen’s The Ballad of Buster Scruggs—available on demand. These services, which had already become popular prior to the COVID lockdown, came decisively into their own when it was no longer possible to see films in theaters. Unable to do so, large numbers of moviegoers discovered that home viewing on a reasonably large screen was a surprisingly satisfying and infinitely more convenient substitute for what Spielberg calls “the motion-picture theatrical experience.” To date, few of them seem at all inclined to venture out to see new films in theaters: As I write these words, box-office receipts for 2021 are down 70 percent from 2019.
What, if anything, are the stay-at-homes missing? To some extent, it depends on the film in question. All things being equal, it is obviously better to see a screen comedy in the presence of a responsive audience. And a wide-screen Technicolor Western like John Ford’s The Searchers, many of whose exteriors were shot in view of the towering sandstone buttes of Arizona’s Monument Valley, gains in a different way from being viewed on a screen big enough to suggest the immense physical scale of the place where it was filmed.
So, too, do smaller-scaled films such as Kane and William Wyler’s The Best Years of Our Lives that make use of deep-focus cinematography (in both cases by Gregg Toland), which facilitates shots composed in a complex way that is easier to appreciate when viewed on a large screen.
But does this mean that it is impossible to fully appreciate a great film without having seen it on a large screen? For all the self-evident advantages of doing so, I incline to think otherwise. Of the 32 films mentioned in the seven Sight & Sound critics’ polls of the greatest films of all time that have been conducted at decade-long intervals since 1952, I have seen only seven in a theater: Kane, The Searchers, 2001, Vertigo, Buster Keaton’s The General, Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather, and Jean Renoir’s The Rules of the Game. Yet while my experience of classic film, as this list suggests, derives mainly from home viewing, I still regard myself as a knowledgeable and cultivated film buff, and I suspect that most people would agree.
True or not, I still believe it to be likely that even after the pandemic has finally run its course, streaming video will remain central to, perhaps even dominant in, the U.S. film industry, and that it will soon evolve into the principal way in which American moviegoers discover and experience older films of all kinds. In addition to Amazon Prime and Netflix, both TCM and the Criterion Collection, which reissues deluxe editions of classic films on DVD, now make films available via streaming. So while there will doubtless always be a theatrical audience for blockbuster “franchise” movies made for and aimed at a youthful audience, the future of moviegoing by adults clearly belongs to streaming. Whatever they miss by not seeing classic films in theaters, they will at least be able to see them whenever and as often as they like—and that is what matters most.
We want to hear your thoughts about this article. Click here to send a letter to the editor.