The New Yorker has been on a roll lately. Only a couple of weeks after Anthony Lane's fascinating, where-did-this-come-from essay, in which he laid out an argument for the reassessment of Walt Disney's importance to film history, the other critic at the House of Kael, David Denby, has delivered a multi-faceted 8,300 word piece that sums up the state of the film industry at the start of 2007. The essay is a Candide-like stroll through a landscape both in decline and on the cusp of possible renewal, beginning with a caustic slap at the video iPod, with its pretensions of delivering cinema in the palm of your hand, and then delving into a treatise on the big subject of distribution, and how studios will manage (or mismanage) it going forward. Denby slaps away the "content when you want it, where you want it, how you want it" blather that studio chiefs are now trumpeting with the salient point that young people who watch Citizen Kane on a tiny screen are getting a bad experience "even if they never know it."
He points out that nothing can bridge the disconnect between sound and picture when you're watching a film on a hand-held device and listening to it on head-phones. "In Brokeback Mountain, as a storm breaks, the lightning flashed on-screen, but the thunder roared in my head." For a counterpoint, Denby also evaluates the ultimate in home theater entertainment -- a $200,000 set-up with strategically positioned speakers and the very best HD DVD available -- and acknowledges the awesomeness of the experience. He generously concedes that there are wonders that only digital can do, but also explores what it lacks and what it can't recreate, like the rich, painterly bleed of color and shadow that exists in a film like Taxi Driver. His complaint that human flesh looks synthetic in digital film is answered by a digital technician: "You want pores, we'll give you pores." Denby concludes that, like it or not, digital will create a "radical break with the many ways of watching movies that have given us pleasure in the past."
Turning to the state of the film studios, Denby, surprisingly, expresses nostalgia for Hollywood's studio system, when a studio executive could order a great director and a great star and a great writer to sit down and dream up a great picture. The studio system, he complains, "made good use" of actors' talents. He bemoans today's system, where Warner Bros. is all but forced to make a sequel to a "boring" film like Superman Returns, because of standing orders from the parent company to feed subsidiary divisions like D.C. Comics. He expresses horror at now-standard industry jargon like "non-repeatable event" which is used to describe a film like Inside Man. The term means that the studio bosses have no idea why it was successful, and since it's not a massive, worldwide smash, it's not terribly important. A film like X-Men: The Last Stand is classified as "audience dependent," which means the audience will show up whether it's good or not. By contrast, The Devil Wears Prada is an "execution dependent" property, meaning it made money only because it was made well.
Denby explores how hard it's getting even for successful small films to turn a profit -- Little Children is considered a financial failure, for example. He takes a look at the state of the specialty divisions such as Fox Searchlight, Sony Classics and Paramount Vantage. He examines the success and failure, respectively, of the independent features Little Miss Sunshine and Bee Season. This leads to a discussion of marketing tactics and the following depressing conclusion: "The studios have given up the old dream of movies as an art form for everyone." He speculates that audiences have simply become too diverse to be practically served by the same kind of film entertainment and points out that each picture now comes front-loaded with a painstaking marketing plan. The Constant Gardener, for example, was heavily reliant on marketing done on friendly political blogs. Peter Bart pipes in on this topic, claiming that studios no longer rely on any kind of guidance from audiences: "Today the conglomerates are saying, 'We have the resources to tell the public what it wants to see.'"
The final focus is on brick-and-mortar theaters and their non-future. A film theater lobbyist speculates that film itself won't last ten years. Theaters that eschew digital transformation will die a quick death. Another frightening possibility is explored -- that movie theaters will soon realize that they can attract similar-sized crowds on Friday night by showing concerts and television shows on their giant screens instead of movies. Even still, Denby predicts "the number of screens will probably diminish -- perhaps by as much as thirty of forty percent in ten years." Warner chairman Barry Meyer echoes that, predicting that many small Warner Bros. releases may soon go direct to video. Near the conclusion of his piece, Denby describes the ArcLight, a well-attended, upscale movie theater at Sunset and Vine. It has an adjacent restaurant, gift shop stocked with film biographies and yuppie-friendly concessions. This may be the best we can hope for in the future -- a few sparse, well-appointed theaters designed to attract an ever-diminishing audience of real movie fans. Happy New Year.