I got something in the mail the other day from a cable company offering "movies on demand". Budgetary considerations convinced me to turn this offer down, but it got me thinking about how often movies, theatrical movies, are used as a come-on, an enticement, to watch something outside of a theater, in our own living rooms, on TV.
When I was growing up in the 1970s, whenever one of the three networks showed a theatrical movie, it was often promoted as being "the first time on TV!" Not just blockbusters like Jaws or The Exorcist, but even something like The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean. I actually watched Bean for that very reason. It was OK, but I found out later that when it was first shown in theaters, rather than living rooms, the movie came and went pretty much unnoticed. Still, I did get to see it for the first time on TV!
Not long after I graduated high school came cable. Then, as now, it was divided between basic and the more pricey premium channels like HBO and Cinemax. Though these premiums also offered sporting events and even original programming, the big come-on was theatrical movies. These premiered much earlier then they would have on network TV, sometimes mere days after they had closed in theaters. Also unlike the networks, these movies were shown (wink, wink) uncut.
A few years after cable came the VCR, and video stores suddenly sprung up everywhere. Some of the product sold in these stores were written, directed, and produced solely for the VCR, such as Jane Fonda's exercise and Tim Conway's Dorf videos, but those were a distinct minority. It what was written, directed and produced solely--well, maybe not solely but initially--for the big screen that brought in customers. During the heyday of the VCR, Saturday night at the movies meant you first stopped off at Blockbusters.
The VCR had a good decade and a half run, but with a new century came a new means of communication: the DVD player. The means were new but what was being communicated was actually quite familiar: theatrical movies. OK, you can also get TV shows on DVD. But I don't see season 3 of Xena: Warrior Princess in any of those red rent-a-DVD boxes that you now see everywhere.
No matter what the technological advance in home entertainment, movies remain the main selling point. So, for me, that poses the question: what exactly is a movie, anyway?
Is a movie a "motion picture"? Well, if you're going to take that term literally, everything on TV, whether it's a movie or not, is still a picture in motion. A commercial is a motion picture. So is Dancing With the Stars . Even a video game can be considered a motion picture (maybe too much motion; the last time I tried to play one I broke out in a sweat while watching my race car go off a cliff.)
Is a movie "film"? To be specific, celluloid? Last year's big hit, Avatar , was shot on digital tape. Yet people persist in calling it a movie (when they're not calling it a film!)
I've used the term "theatrical movie" throughout this piece. So is a movie something you see in a theater? Well, at first, yeah, but not for long. I want you to do something. Write down all the movies you've seen in your life. Then divide them up between the ones you saw in a theater and the ones on you saw on a TV set. If you actually do this, my bet is that TV will win in a landslide. TV--network, cable, VCR, whatever--is how most people see most movies most of the time. Some of the biggest box office hits of the last 40 years--Star Wars, ET: The Extra-Terrestrial, Titanic--nevertheless got their biggest audiences when it came time to debut, in whatever form, on TV. And the box office take sometimes doesn't even matter. The Big Lebowski tanked in theaters in 1998, yet it's gone on to become phenomenally successful on video and DVD.
Is a movie a visual story told in two hours or more? Well, then that should include made-for-TV movies. Sure, why not? Except I never see any of those in the red boxes either. And if they're really movies, shouldn't they be recognized by the Academy Awards? I don't just mean they should get a statue. You know how on Oscar night they always show a montage of famous movie scenes, such as King King on the Empire State Building or Cary Grant running from a crop duster? Why not show scenes from famous made-for-TV movies, like Billy Dee Williams as Gale Sayers standing over the bedside of a dying Brian Piccolo played by James Caan, or, um, er, hmm....
So why is the nearly 40-year old Brian's Song the only made-for-TV movie I seem to remember?
One traditional difference between movies and television (at least since 1968, when the Hays Code was scrapped and the current ratings system debuted) is that movies have more explicit sex, explicit violence, and explicit language. Thus the appeal of "uncut" movies. What did you think "uncut" meant, no commercials? But if a premium cable channel can show all that explicit stuff in a movie, then they should be allowed to do so with original programming as well, and in fact have with such shows as The Sopranos and Oz. But theatrical movies are still the main attraction. And what about the explicitless G-rated movie? Two of the biggest grossing movies this year have been Toy Story 3 and Shrek Forever After. They'll gross even more once they're repackaged as DVDs.
I think I've found the answer to my question. What is a movie? A movie is a conceit. Movies have been conceits since roughly 1950. Movies are special only because we expect them to be special. But why do we expect them to be so?
Two reasons, both having to do with theaters. I said earlier that most of us watch movies on TV. But we know somebody watches them in the theater. So, when we're standing at the red DVD box in the supermarket foyer, trying to decide whether to rent The Invention of Lying for the night, on some subconscious level we're saying to ourselves, "If someone was willing plunk down $7.50 to watch this at the multiplex, least I could do is spend $2.00 to watch it in my basement. With what's left over I'll buy a hamburger." So much depends on the relatively small portion of the population willing to go to a movie theater on a regular basis. If they ever decide to either stay home or go bowling instead, the entire home entertainment industry will collapse.
For the second reason, we have to go back to the first half of the twentieth century, when moving pictures were much less ubiquitous than they are today. You HAD to see them in a theater. Think about that. If you weren't in a theater, pictures simply didn't move. Eerie, huh? Because of that rarity, movies exerted a powerful hold on people back then. I've read interviews with that old cynic Woody Allen where he positively waxes poetic about his movie going experiences as boy in the 1940s. A mystique grew up around movies. And that mystique was passed down to, and completely accepted by, later generations who probably couldn't tell you how that mystique came to be in the first place.
So, is this mystique/conceit such a bad thing? Not as long as Hollywood lives up to its' end of the conceit and provides movies that are better than, or, at the very least, different enough from, fare specifically intended for the TV screen (or the computer screen, cell phone screen, etc.)
Now, I wonder if there's any other means of communication out there that's technically outdated, but because it has its' own mystique, will nonetheless survive, even thrive, in the future.
Hmm. Can't think of any right off hand.
But if I ever do, maybe I'll write a book about it.