The Digital Revolution and the End of the Film World as We Knew It

The film industry takes another hit. 

Are more theater chains and studios ready to fall into the large pockets of FB, Google, and Twitter?

By Roger Paradiso

The news that Amazon is acquiring MGM-UA is not surprising if you believe that the big fish eats the little fish to survive in this Darwinian and Amazonian view of life. The question to come next is: which industry giant or theater chain giant topples in the near future?

At the MGM lot in Culver City, California, in 1986, after we completed Moonstruck, there was talk of another movie being offered to me. What I remember of that day is that MGM was sold to corporate raider Kirk Kerkorian of Las Vegas. Many of the longtime workers at the lot were in mourning. Things would never be the same, they said. And they were right. Kerkorian and others made a killing filleting MGM into many saleable parts. Ted Turner of CNN fame got a library of films for his Turner Classic Movie Cable channel. The recent Japanese buyers of Columbia Pictures bought the physical lot and got a much better location on the trendy west side of L.A., as opposed to the site in the valley of Burbank (which was formerly a desert). The frugal studio folks moved out there for the cheaper land back in the 1920s. Other assets were sold to the delight of Kirk the corporate raider. MGM-UA was left with a few trinkets, the biggest of which was the James Bond series which kept them profitable to this day. Now it will keep Amazon profitable.

Amazon buys MGM-UA, and James Bond will be streaming on a TV or phone near you. Photo: courtesy of MGM.

So, don’t cry for me America. There will still be films. Things will just be different.

Digital streaming has taken over movie projection booths. The 50-to-75-inch TV has taken over movie screens. The theatrical experience is now happening in your living room, bedroom, or kitchen, or on your outdoor deck. Not so much anymore in those multiplexes and marquee theaters. As we all know, the family-owned movie palaces of yesteryear are now performance spaces for the arts or have been knocked down for condos or glass-box offices. The business of America is big business, they say.

And this is happening when you, the consumer, want it to happen. No more waiting on lines or rushing to analog clocks telling you the movie starts at 7:00 p.m. sharp. The movie show time happens when you want it to happen. No more lines at overpriced concessions where a popcorn and soda could cost you $6-12 per person. You can buy all the treats you want for your family for that price. Or better yet, eat whatever you want to eat at home.

Will there still be movie theaters? Yes, but not as many. We will go to them like we go to baseball games or the theater or a concert. Once in a while, the studies say. Yes, there is nothing like sitting in a dark theater or an outdoor baseball game with thousands of fellow humans, except on a cold snowy day or during flu season or a pandemic. So, going out to a movie as a steady diet like in the old days is long gone? It died on our watch. 

Nowadays, it is so much easier and more comfortable to stream your favorite movies that you pick from a library of thousands of films. Will you only get museum films made dozens of years ago? No, you will get streaming premieres of many films. And the big blockbusters? They will get to you soon enough. Maybe even the same day. Or in just a few weeks. Meanwhile, watch a film classic, or an opera, or even a baseball game. Amazon has contracted with the Yankees to stream several games. 

So, what’s not to like? I haven’t even mentioned that many people watch movies outside of their houses—on laptops and phones. 

But there are theaters that will survive. The grand and new movie palaces split up into 8-24 small movie theaters with 100-300 seats each may survive if they serve better food and glitz up the lobby with video games and other teenage wasteland activities. These new palaces of fashion will stream the tent-pole movies, the blockbusters, and the big studio movies. The boxy and square multiplexes will be bulldozed down for another corporate park or, even worse, another strip mall.

The biggest winners of this deconstruction of filmgoing will be the little art house theaters which will show modern independent films and some old classics. There will be a select audience for these spaces, which are small and funky. This is where the film intelligentsia will go, along with the high school and college film students. It will be the home to underground films, noncommercial indie films, and larger Studio material that thrill the art house crowd. I can see these theaters renting their downtime, like mornings and afternoons on Monday through Thursday, to community groups that will show a local documentary or a rock video series. I can even see young children having a video game playground.

These art houses will lead the way to the next New Wave of Film.

I’ll talk about that next month. Write us a letter, or should I say email your thoughts, to the publisher.

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