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Why movie theaters should be more like rock concerts

Christopher Nolan is pretty good at spectacle.
Christopher Nolan is pretty good at spectacle.

The Wall Street Journal continued its series of interesting people writing op-eds about their industries with an essay from Christopher Nolan about the future of movies last night. More specifically, it's about the future of movie theaters: Nolan, the director of Inception and the massively successful Dark Knight Batman films, thinks they have a bright future. "The theaters of the future will be bigger and more beautiful than ever before," he writes. "And they will still enjoy exclusivity, as studios relearn the tremendous economic value of the staggered release of their products."

On its face, this tracks right alongside Taylor Swift's WSJ piece arguing that people will still pay for albums instead of streaming music: a superstar predicting that the medium that made them famous should and will survive in the face of massive technological change. The difference is that while Swift basically ignored the tectonic shifts that have rocked the music industry for the past decade to argue that people will pay for music, Nolan's piece is about how similar shifts will actually force Hollywood and theater owners to create better physical experiences.

The switch from film prints to digital distribution will change what movies are shown in theaters

It's hard to believe, but a significant number of movie theaters today still rely on huge reels of film to project movies. There are lots of reasons for this: digital projectors haven't been as bright as film projectors, it's expensive to constantly upgrade equipment as technical standards change, and Hollywood traditionalists are loathe to switch away from 35mm film. Nolan notes that Quentin Tarantino thinks that digital projection will be the "death of cinema," with movies reduced to mere "content" that can be shown instantly on any screen at any time. "'Content' can be ported across phones, watches, gas-station pumps or any other screen," writes Nolan. "The idea would be that movie theaters should acknowledge their place as just another of these 'platforms,' albeit with bigger screens and cupholders." This is basically what anyone in the tech industry would say; this lack of respect for the art of cinema is one of the many reasons Hollywood and Silicon Valley don't really get along.

But the shift to digital makes fundamental economic sense, as it'll virtually eliminate the costs of processing, storing, and shipping all those huge film reels around the world. And since theater owners who invest in digital projection won't have to manage their investments in physical movie reels, they'll be able to instantly change what movies are showing based on demand. "A movie's Friday matinees would determine whether it even gets an evening screen, or whether the projector switches back to last week's blockbuster," says Nolan. "The process could even be automated based on ticket sales in the interests of 'fairness.'" This is the movie theater as giant on-demand screen; Nolan notes that Quentin Tarantino calls it "television in public."

This is actually a pretty radical idea, and it's rooted in the most important change of the digital media age: the decoupling of content from physical media. If you were a theater owner 20 years ago, you had to make a series of risky investments every weekend that were entirely governed by the fact that movies and the film reels they came on were essentially the same thing. You had to predict how many people would want to come see the movies you were showing. You had to pay to lease and ship the reels from the studios. And you had to dedicate screens to showing those reels. If Pulp Fiction sold out on one screen but your showing of Natural Born Killers was empty, you were screwed that night: you only had one set of Pulp Fiction reels, so you had no way to serve any more customers.

Switch that over to digital, and suddenly, the inherent scarcity of film reels goes away. The theater owner can just grab another copy of Pulp Fiction, switch over the other theater to that film, and make everyone happy. The most popular movies win, since they'll make the most money.

This sounds great for moviegoers and theater owners, since hot movies will be less apt to sell out, but it's terrible for filmmakers who aren't blowing up robots. "Instant reactivity always favors the familiar," says Nolan. "Smaller, more unusual films would be shut out." People will still venture to theaters for blockbusters, but they'll watch everything else at home. That's why romantic comedies are basically dead.

But this is where Nolan does something pretty amazing for a major Hollywood filmmaker: he says this is a good thing.

Movie theaters are already innovating like crazy

After laying out this "bleak future" for movies, Nolan argues that Hollywood and theater owners will have to create a better and more innovative theater experience in order to meet the consumer demand for shared experiences. "We moan about intrusive moviegoers, but most of us feel a pang of disappointment when we find ourselves in an empty theater," he writes. "The public will lay down their money to those studios, theaters, and filmmakers who value the theatrical experience and create a new distinction from home entertainment that will enthrall — just as movies fought back with widescreen and multitrack sound when television first nipped at its heels."

What Nolan is arguing for is the creation of scarcity in the form of experiences. "The theatrical window is to the movie business what live concerts are to the music business," he says. "No one goes to a concert to be played an MP3 on a bare stage."

That means theaters have to create experiences you simply couldn't have at home, and Hollywood has to make movies that are obviously superior when you watch them in a theater. What's interesting is that Nolan doesn't point out that it's already happening: 3DTV was a failure, but 3D movies are enormously popular. Gigantic IMAX-style screens are proliferating across the industry. AMC is ripping out seats in favor of full-on recliners. And theaters around the world are now showing "4DX" versions of movies like Iron Man 3 augmented with moving seats, water jets, fog machines, and strobe lights. The first 4DX theater in the US just opened last month in LA; more are sure to follow.

All this will require new talent from Hollywood, says Nolan. "The cinema of the future will depend not just on grander presentation, but on the emergence of filmmakers inventive enough to command the focused attention of a crowd for hours." This, too, is happening: Gravity is a great movie, but there's something sad about watching it at home on a flat screen instead of in a theater in IMAX 3D. Transformers 4 might have the world's most incoherent plot, but Michael Bay is a master at commanding his audience's attention, which is why his robots had the biggest opening weekend in 2014 and the biggest opening weekend in China ever.

But TV is getting better than ever

The one thing Nolan misses in his piece is television — he glazes over it as a negative by predicting the demise of theaters will push storytelling innovation into the home, but he doesn't point out that it's already resulted in TV shows that can easily stand alongside the best feature films. Breaking Bad is essentially a 50-hour movie; it would never work in theaters. True Detective featured two major movie stars in what was essentially an eight-hour art flick about the unknowable mystery of narrative. Game of Thrones is just so much obviously better as a lengthy TV series than as a collection of movies that it's startling. And Netflix series like Orange is the New Black and House of Cards are designed from the outset to be experienced from start to finish in a binge, so they're constructed like long movies; House of Cards, in particular, seems to have opening credits for each episode mostly so viewers can go to the bathroom.

That sense of entitlement — Nolan saying "cinema's rightful place [is] at the head of popular culture" — is both the opportunity and the danger for the movie industry. There's more entertainment available to people than ever before, and it's both better and easier to access than ever. If Hollywood is going to save the theater experience and create the spectacle and celebrity people love, it had better take all of its competition seriously.