Destroy All Monsters: Kneel Before VOD

Contributor; Toronto, Canada (@tederick)
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Destroy All Monsters: Kneel Before VOD

About two weeks have passed since George Lucas and Steven Spielberg announced their considered opinion that the Hollywood film industry as we know it is about to implode. We've been arguing the same thing on my podcast for years, so it was nice to see the whiz kids catch up. No one lost their job or melted down as a result of anything Lucas and Spielberg said, because George and Stevie are, after all, a couple of old dudes waxing philosophical about a film industry they are no longer in charge of. But it was fun to consider their dystopic (?) vision, regardless.

(A brief outline of the argument, the longer version of which can be found here:

  • Hollywood is narrowing the content focus of their output towards increasingly expensive blockbusters (Lucas)
  • There will be an implosion after four or six of these mega-budget films tank in a row (Spielberg)
  • Post-meltdown, theatrical filmgoing will become an expensive niche built around event films and top-quality theatrical environments (Lucas)
  • Smaller, "quirkier" content, along with all of what we call television, will migrate to video-on-demand (VOD) presentation in the home (Lucas)
  • Controller-free, immersive video games will also dominate (Spielberg)
  • And there will be... uh... programmable dreams. (Lucas)

OK, the programmable dreams thing is nonsense, or at least I have to believe it is, given how completely Strange Days wigged me out in '95. But I grew up believing that the PADDs from Star Trek would arrive in the 24th century, so what do I know.

There's something nice about the idea of Lucas, purported to have railed against the notion of becoming a corporate fat cat, finally slipping his self-imposed shackles, selling his company to Disney (to Disney!), and vanishing into the hills with his new bride -- who he married on the weekend -- as the film industry itself collapses around him. There's a gleeful spirit of unaccountability to everything the two 800-pound gorillas are saying, in that they don't have to be around to deal with the consequences, right or wrong.

They are, of course, right.

Over in South Korea, Disney and Sony are testing a day-and-date VOD system for new releases that gives consumers the choice between going to the theatres to see Brave or just sitting at home and watching it with the kids. (Canny move, in the case of family movies especially -- because if you think your two-year-old is in any way precious about the experience of Mom and Dad taking the whole gang to the multiplex at a total cost of $100+, you're fooling yourself.)

Back here in North America, shortly after Lincoln scarcely escaped a straight-to-HBO fate (as reported by Spielberg), one of the most significant American directors of the past 20 years delivered his filmmaking valedictory by way of a straight-to-HBO, never-in-theatres feature film: Steven Soderbergh's Behind the Candelabra.

Soderbergh, like Spielberg, is an interesting case, in that he is essentially quitting the film industry out of a confessed frustration with the narrative limitations of the art form, mere (proverbial) seconds before that art form might be liberally unchained from its current concept of narrative, by dint of its new delivery mechanism. (Or to put it another way, I want to see more films by the director of Che Part Two and Ocean's Twelve in this new, weird landscape, not less.)

Whatever else one thinks of Arrested Development's recently-arrived fourth season, its relationship between the delivery mechanism (Netflix) and the content (narratively independent, yet narratively overlapped, episodes) is a bellwether for larger, more fascinating experiments to come. Netflix dumping an entire season's worth of television episodes onto their servers at once seems like a strategic failure for a show like House of Cards, in that it deprives the saga of every other television show's ability to build momentum, buzz, and therefore audience, over time. (Similarly, dumping theatrical motion pictures to VOD day-and-date will deprive those movies of the massive shitstorm of publicity that box office number reporting actually generates, for no reason anyone can explain to me.)

But if one liberates cinematic storytelling from the functionally serial requirements of weekly television -- imagine Lost's time-traveling, narratively-ingenious fifth season, if you didn't have to watch it in a straight line -- by dumping all of the content onto a server in a single day, sooner or later a clever filmmaker, television producer, or other storyteller is going to come up with a way to use form to express content in a new, defining way. It didn't happen with Arrested, although it's a good first kick at the can; it probably won't happen in a significant case for half a decade or so. But that green space is out there to be conquered, and if America proved anything in the 20th century, it's that sooner or later, every bit of green space gets conquered.

Ironically, a Choose Your Own Adventure movie was announced right in the middle of all of this. Let us hope -- strenuously -- that CYOA is not the new model for narrative storytelling in the VOD world; although arguably, it could be. Sooner or later, to build on Lucas and Spielberg's comments, all of this digital media is going to bleed together like paint: if your "TV," and your "movies," and your "video games" are all beaming at you through the same big black box (quotes added to imply that even these media definitions are going to undergo massive revision over the course of the next 10 years), how long will it be before TV is a movie is a video game?

An argument will break out about whether or not this is a "good thing," which I'll preempt only by saying: I don't care. Cinephiles of various stripes will be aghast at the notion of their beloved art form transforming into something else, and it will be entertaining to watch them enter support groups with fans of opera and the ballet. Regardless of our subjective feelings on what may or may not happen, however, one thing is certain: a living art form grows, and growth means change.

Destroy All Monsters is a weekly column on Hollywood and pop culture.

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Todd BrownJune 26, 2013 10:08 AM

Okay, the headline alone is brilliant and then I read the article which is even more bang on. By which I mean that I completely agree.

White Rose BrianJune 26, 2013 10:44 AM

I have contemplated a sort "interactive cinema" in which viewers could, at certain appropriate points within the narrative, be given the choice of which way the characters take the story--again, much like Choose Your Own Adventure. Still, these "interactive films" could emphasize cinematography where videogames could emphasize gameplay and direct interaction and comics (a field where I am most likely to go) could read like pages of novels pairing images and texts. Do I make sense?

Your Mom Goes to Film SchoolJune 26, 2013 11:35 AM

Change is inevitable. And this article is right and I don't want to relate myself to the same conservatives who were scared that cinema would kill literature and theatre and that VHS would kill cinema. But I don't want all entertainment and art to be interactive and designed for the viewer/customer to manipulate. This only fuels the general climate of self entitled narcissism. Just take the the comments section of any website as an example. I hate that websites have to even have a comment section. And yes, I see the Irony that I'm writing on one right now. But really, it's now essential for some unpaid/barely paid writer to potentially spend a great deal of time on a piece of writing only to have anonymous fuck faces show up to cyber bully him. Is it now sad that every website has to bow down and provide a forum for the public to show their ugly side. I say, Fuck the public, the public is generally stupid. But in order to not only be commercially viable but even remotely relevant, we all have to pander to and patronize these sheet heel sacks of week old dried up cum so that they can manipulate the artistic landscape towards their own self centered tastes? Masterful storytellers no longer crafting masterful stories so that Dorito eating, instagram taking, monster energy drinking, misogynistic, homophobic, snide, cynically ironic jerk offs can eventually make Apocalypse Now into an Adventure Time Little Big Planet meets Call of Duty. Ugh.

Sean KellyJune 26, 2013 11:53 AM

There is a growing habit of releasing independent films on VOD about a month before their theatrical release. However, in many cases, these theatrical releases are so limited, that they are practically non-existent.

My biggest disappointment so far this year was the fact that the film THE BRASS TEAPOT never received a theatrical release in Toronto, despite the fact that the film played at last year's film festival.

The film was released on VOD in late February, but I opted to wait until its scheduled theatrical release of April 5. That date came and went and the film never surfaced, despite the fact that Toronto is usually pretty good at screening independent films.

My hope of seeing THE BRASS TEAPOT theatrically has been dwindling with each passing week and it's a real shame.

Let's just say I'm not looking forward to this VOD model expanding.

The Taxi DriverJune 26, 2013 4:30 PM

You know, at a certain point, I just stop giving a fuck. There have been so many great movies come out over the past 100 years that really, if they just stopped making them tomorrow it wouldn't have much of an effect on me at all. Things are going to change no matter what. Soon critics will be obsolete, theaters will be obsolete, and one day even the internet will be obsolete. Oh well.

KurtJune 26, 2013 4:55 PM

And on the DVD/BLU side of things, there is this:

Pa Kent Says MaybeJune 26, 2013 9:48 PM

A living art form grows (until it gets sold to Disney and turned into crap for kiddies off from school, by which point it's been dead for a decade or three already, anyway.)

"Smaller, quirkier..." the arrogance of self-entitled narcissists, indeed.

Change can suck my dick. Change has given me nothing worth getting excited about.

Now, go ahead --- call me names and tell me that I'm old, conservative, and your future requires brighter shades. I'll be over there, yawning.

benuJune 26, 2013 10:49 PM

That last sentence is a beautiful thing.

Now as much as I'll go out of my way to go to the theater, it isn't an option for everyone who'd like to see say Holy Motors or Post Tenebras Lux, or... you get my drift. I've talked to countless folks who just can't afford to drive 100+ miles round trip to their nearest large city for those types of films. They want to see them ASAP, and if VOD is the way, than well, it means a healthier, more proactive and curious audience all around. And that is a very good thing.

KJune 27, 2013 2:50 AM

Your idea isn't new. Basically, you're describing visual novels.