The Dwindling Magic of the Movies

A tear rolled down my face. My heart was heavy. And my brain was reliving the last 11 years in a flashback. The pitch dark auditorium smelling of warm, buttered popcorn was brimming with sadness. Iron man was taking his last breath on the screen

His last words echoed, “Love you 3000” and everyone mirrored my emotions of loss.

The hero who introduced me to the Marvel cinematic universe was gone. An era came to an end. With swollen red eyes, I got up from my seat and walked towards the exit.

On the other side, bright lights and chatter of the everyday world welcomed me. I was out of the Marvel Cinematic Universe and into the real universe. One where Robert Downey Jr was alive and kicking for other roles!

That is the magic of films as experienced in the theatre. You are taken into a world far away from reality, transported to a different space and time. Films elicit emotional responses without much conscious effort. They appeal to our sense of sight and sound, stimulating emotions and giving our brains a break from the mundane.

Watching a film in a theatre stops time in the real world and allows me to be transported to places far, far, away. Call Me By Your Name took me to Italy’s idyllic town, living a summer romance, while Avatar took me to an imagined world on another planet!

The art of motion pictures is like a religion to me, and theatres the sacred place of worship.

But since the birth of films 125 years ago, on December 28, 1895, when the Lumiere brothers hosted the first public screening in Paris, there have been tremendous changes. Motion pictures have evolved their medium from cinema halls to TV to on-demand services on our tiny phone screens! Netflix revolutionized how films are consumed, and the pandemic has accelerated it. 

The hyper-convenience and competition are a boon, but we no longer appreciate the art and take it for granted. We watch content after content without any of it reaching our soul. It is a result of us living in what David Perell refers to as microwave economy– “that prizes function over form and calls human nature “irrational”—one that over-applies rationality and undervalues the needs of the soul.”

My sacred relationship is changing. The sacred place of theatre is hanging by a loose thread under stress by the explosion of content on streaming services coupled with convenience and cost-effectiveness.

Magic @ Theatre

Going to the theatre is like a date for me. I always dress up in my best clothes, reach a little before showtime, grab an exorbitantly expensive tub of popcorn and a drink. Then venture into the hall, settle myself into the reclining seats, and wait for the hall to go dark. I silence my phone, and my eyes twinkle as the opening rolls start.

Big-screen technology and surround sound transcend reality. Screens like IMAX make you forget your surroundings. You become part of another’s life, which is how I was taken into the world of La La Land with the opening scene on a congested flyover in LA!

And theatres enable sharing of emotions between hundreds of strangers, reacting to what’s on-screen. When Captain America could wield Thor’s Mjolnir in Avengers End Game, my adrenaline and pride were amplified because of all the hoots and whistles around!

Theatre experience’s magic for me is created out of technology, ritualistic behavior, and the social community.

Dwindling Magic

Streaming services have changed the rules of motion picture consumption. Unlike theatres, there is no fixed time; you can watch even at 2 AM. And for just $15 to $20 a month, you get an unlimited number of films in the comfort of your home. Global streaming services are like a never-ending international buffet. You get served everything from Japanese animes to Spanish thrillers to Polish erotica. And the infinite algorithmic choices has become addictive.

It has made art more democratized as well. Small-budget films are being made and watched all over. But the magic of theatre does not follow here. The emotional high and empathy with characters that I have formed in a theatre, I cannot feel in the bubble of my house.

The camera and sound quality are compressed on streaming services. Unless you live in a palatial house and can afford a home theatre with 4K TV and Dolby Atmos, the experience cannot be replicated. And the convenience makes many of us watch it on our smartphones. In India, Netflix has a mobile-only plan as mobile watching is dominant. The small black screens and speakers are no match to theatres. Truthfully, I am guilty of the same as well. I saw the recently released Wanda Vision on my 6-inch phone. Not even a TV! All because I just wanted to watch it and not face the fear of missing out. 

I have a subscription to all the major streaming platforms in India- Netflix, Disney Plus, Apple, Voot, Zee5. And have spent hours watching films and series from different parts of the world. Most often, a result of a random search and play on my laptop while simultaneously running Google docs, Whatsapp, Twitter on other tabs and being distracted.

The Future

Of course, watching films in a theatre is not as convenient and cost-effective as streaming at home. You need to follow a strict schedule, beat the traffic on the streets, and sit through many minutes of ads before the films. And many people do not like emotive crowds. And these shifts of consumption patterns to convenience have been manifested during COVID. In 2020, the theatre industry witnessed unprecedented closures, and global revenue tumbled 70%. Warner Bros., Universal, and Disney took some drastic decisions to release solely on streaming or have a simultaneous release.

The population was moving to streaming even before the pandemic; now, the impetus to go to a theatre is even less. But there are a few passionate like me. An acquaintance from Canada skipped all Christmas celebrations as a precaution to COVID but was there in a theatre hall with a mask to watch Tenet! 

Theatre experience is bound to change. We will have only blockbuster releases, expensive tickets, fewer locations, less than full occupancy, and a mask. The art of eating popcorn while managing a mask will have to be mastered! We might even have virtual reality bring the theatre experience at home. I could be watching the next Avengers wearing VR gear in a simulated world with my friends. 

The path to these new immersive mediums is still unclear. Until then, I will continue chasing the soul-touching experience of motion pictures in a theatre. 

Wandering into the jungles with Mowgli and Baloo singing Bare Necessities.

Losing myself in the battleground with the Avengers, heart racing, then breaking with Iron Man’s last rites!

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