We’re Somehow Talking About Texting at Movies and New Releases On Demand Again

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James Cameron took the stage of the annual film studio/exhibitor/press circle jerk CinemaCon Thursday afternoon, and the big story from that event was his announcement that somehow he was now going to make four goddamn sequels to Avatar. If you’re keeping track at home, that’s up from the original 2010 announcement of two sequels, initially slated for 2014 and 2015, which then became a 2013 announcement of three sequels for 2016, 2017, and 2018, which is now four sequels, slated for release between 2018 and 2023. Frankly, he can continue to do this every three years, announcing another sequel and pushing them all back, as long as it means he never gets around to actually making and releasing them. You do you, King of the World.

The more interesting story, for this industry observer, is Cameron’s unsurprisingly well-received (considering the exhibitors in the crowd) thumbs-down to Screening Room, the latest attempt to collapse the window between theatrical release and home viewing altogether. “We’re going to continue to make this industry the biggest show on earth,” Cameron told the crowd, according to Variety. “It’s essential for movies to be offered exclusively in theaters on their initial release,” he added. “So boom.”

Boom indeed. Screening Room has become a hot topic this year at CinemaCon, understandably. The service, which is the brainchild of Napster mastermind Sean Parker, would offer up rentals of new theatrical releases to the home viewer, for the comparatively hefty price of $50 a title. Of course, if you get a group of friends together and get everybody to chip in, that evens out pretty easily. And if your night at the movies involves a babysitter, parking, and concessions, you’ll probably come out ahead on the deal.

But, as Cameron and fellow Screening Room naysayers like, um, Todd Phillips and M. Night Shyamalan (and, OK, Christopher Nolan) insist, the movies are our shared religion, and they can only be properly worshipped in the cathedral of the multiplex. Or, per Variety:

He praised theater owners for making investments to improve picture and sound quality, and thanked them for all they did to keep the cinema experience “sacred.”

There it is, there’s that magic word: “sacred.” You can set your clock to it; every time this debate about extending the now-standard indie distribution practice of simultaneous day-and-date release to theater and home into the realm of major studio pictures, an army of Hollywood assholes will march forward to get flowery about that special magic of going to the cinema. And here’s one thing you can also be certain of: these are the poetic musings of a group of human beings who never, ever actually go to the movies.

I mean, sure, they go to the movies — they go to ritzy premieres and private showings in cozy screening rooms. And many of them even have an expensive system that allows them to watch the latest major releases in their homes, a perk that sounds an awful lot like that Screening Room business so many of them are railing against. But they don’t actually go to the movies, y’know, like the normals do. Plunking down a hefty chunk of change for tickets, plus a surcharge for 3D and/or IMAX and/or water getting splashed into their bucking bucket seat or whatever new bullshit bell/whistle they’ve added on this week. Spending more at the concession stand than they did on the dinner they ate beforehand, since that’s where exhibitors make most of their coin. And then walking into a theater where a dim bulb lights a barely-better-than-Blu-ray-quality DCP, which is egregious since if you did manage to dodge the 3D surcharge, they didn’t bother to change the 3D lens, which knocks down the brightness on a 2D image. And that barely perceptible screen of rainy Gotham cityscapes looks particularly terrible thanks to all the tiny lights filling the theater from all the jagoffs on their phones.

Oh yes, the phones. See, there’s another long-running debate making its way through movie-watching circles this week (seriously, we’ve talked about both of these so many times before): Adam Aron, recently appointed head of theatrical giant AMC, has been making noise about formally relaxing the chain’s already lax policies w/r/t texting and tweeting and sexting and whatever the hell else you wanna do with your smartphone while a movie is showing. And who’s to blame? Youths.

“We need to reshape our product in some concrete ways so that millennials go to movie theaters with the same degree of intensity as baby boomers went to movie theaters throughout their lives,” Aron told Variety, because “when you tell a 22-year-old to turn off the phone, don’t ruin the movie, they hear please cut off your left arm above the elbow. You can’t tell a 22-year-old to turn off their cellphone. That’s not how they live their life.” Heyyyyy, how’s that for a little condescension, millennials? You kids, with your ADHD and your hippity-hop music — all of you — just can’t function for two hours without your phones. Are you checking your email about one of those jobs we promised you if you went to college?

But Aron also knows the olds (who, as we all know, aren’t at all attached to their smartph – excuse me, gotta check my Twitter mentions real quick) might not like this either: “At the same time, though, we’re going to have to figure out a way to do it that doesn’t disturb today’s audiences. There’s a reason there are ads up there saying turn off your phone, because today’s moviegoer doesn’t want somebody sitting next to them texting or having their phone on.” This is actually true, even if the phrasing here makes it sound like “today’s audiences” is code for “yesterday’s news.”

Aron hasn’t made any promises yet, or laid out any concrete solutions (though he’s hinted at such previously discussed options as texting sections or designated texting screenings, which would absolutely not be a clusterfuck, no way). But with the less-than-shocking exception of Alamo Drafthouse’s Tim League, none of the other theater-chain muckety-mucks have stepped forward to object to this notion, because, again, they’re already informally practicing it.

But what’s most puzzling is how the chains seem to see no correlation between these two (reheated) controversies — how they seem incapable of grasping that lax attitudes about the moviegoing experience are why so many are eager to relocate that experience to an environment they control themselves. Those of us who like to focus our attention on something other than our depressing newsfeed and our relatives’ ignorant Facebook rants and our increasingly unstable “online personas” stopped going to the movies (the aforementioned, real-person version of going to the movies) years ago; this fight is long lost. Were I not lucky enough to write about movies (and thus afforded the luxury of media screenings), I sure as hell wouldn’t go to the multiplex – I’d wait out the three months until Blu-ray, and rent new indies on demand. What the filmmakers and theatrical exhibitors who are kicking and screaming about Screening Room (and credit where due, Aron is not one of them) don’t understand is, the moviegoers who’ll use that service haven’t been in their theaters for a long time. All they’re seeing in those auditoriums are our ghosts. It’s easy to understand; all those tiny lights in darkened rooms can cause your eyes to play tricks on you.