Commentary

Watching Movies On TV

The enormous popularity of superhero, "Star Wars," and other franchise movies has pushed more and more adults to abandon the cinema altogether and watch movies on television instead.

I’m a little sad about that.  There’s something special about going into a dark theater and watching a story unfold on the big screen — but many people have gotten out of the habit because of the expense, inconvenience, and lack of good adult movies.

The business narrative of the movie industry is that there are two kinds of contemporary movies: blockbusters that appeal to teens and pull in hundreds of millions of dollars, and small-budget, sometimes-arty films aimed at adults that usually don’t stay in the theaters too long before being moved onto TV.  

And then there’s the reality that Netflix and Amazon are slowly taking over the movie content business.  According to the New Yorker, Netflix is set to release more original movies this year than Sony, Disney and Warner Bros. combined.

Of course movies have been on TV for a long time. When I was growing up, you could see prestige films on “NBC Saturday Night at the Movies,” which ran from 1961 through 1978. And the original premise of Home Box Office was that you could watch uncut, unedited, commercial-free movies on cable.

To be honest, it’s been hard to keep up with technologically induced changes in at-home movie-watching.  I remember walking into Blockbuster for the first time and marveling at the wide range of movies that I could rent for my Betamax.  But then I had to buy a VHS player when the Beta format withered, only to have to abandon my videocassette recorder for a DVD player.

But as much as I prefer to watch movies in the theater, I did love walking up and down the Blockbuster aisles to mull over which movie I’d bring home for the weekend.  The anticipation of watching the movie was almost as great as watching it.

Alas, my local Blockbuster is now an auto parts store, thanks in large part to Netflix.  And for a while Netflix was fun, too.  I had a great time assembling my “queue” of unseen movies that would be delivered right to my door.

Lately, though, my home movie viewing has fallen into a state of entropy.  I’m still paying Netflix $12 a month to have two discs at a time, but the two red envelopes currently sitting on our living room desk have been gathering dust for months.  Like everything else in my queue now, they are not must-see movies, so they can sit unwatched for months and months while I subsidize my indecision with a monthly check to Netflix.

I’d cancel the CD-mailing service, but unfortunately, the Netflix steaming service has an inadequate library of theatrical movies.  I’ve been keeping the CD service in case I have an urgent need to watch a classic movie that I can’t get anywhere else now that Blockbuster has closed.

And yet, I did recently discover that iTunes, Amazon and other streaming services have a vast array of movies available for rent.   If I were an economic rationalist, I would cancel my Netflix DVD service and just pay $3.99 to rent a movie whenever I want to.  Who knows?  Maybe I’ll eventually pull the trigger on that.

The availability of movies doesn’t really address the main drawback of watching movies at home: the aesthetics of watching a movie designed for the big screen on the little screen.  Watching in the living room, we’re likely to be talking, texting, Googling the names of the actors to see what else they were in, putting the movie on pause to get a snack, etc.  

Recently, I glimpsed a possible future where even the home cinema experience might not be a drawback, when I watched a movie on a friend’s 72-inch flat-screen TV.  In a darkened room, this was surprisingly like being in a real theater — and no one talked or looked at his phone.  Alas, my wife immediately shot down the idea of installing a giant screen in OUR living room.   There’s the expense, of course, but also she doesn’t want us to be known as the kind of people who would have a 72-inch TV screen on display for all the world to judge.

Yet for all the convenience of watching movies at home, I hope the big-screen experience doesn’t die out.  Movie-going is fundamentally a social event.  When you decide to do something together with friends or family and it works well, you have a mind meld with the rest of the audience, with everyone laughing, gasping or crying together.  That’s a lot more satisfying then sitting alone on your couch with one eye on the movie and the other eye on Twitter.  Long life the 40-foot screen.

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