I bought Empire magazine this month. This is something I have not done in probably 4 years. Empire is shit. Has been for a long time. The journalism is horribly compromised and anyone with an ounce of insight can see that they’ll happily trade five star film reviews for interviews with big Hollywood plebs.
The kind of people who buy Empire are those most docile of film fans – movie fans, really – who will uncritically (or more annoyingly nominally critically) consume whatever multiplex excrement is shovelled infront of them whilst scarfing down their lips-and-sphincter cinema hotdog and bucket o’ coke. They will then sit smugly in the pub and offer that most bollocks of critical insights ‘it was alright‘.
Anyway, I bought Empire for two reasons – it was the 20th anniversary edition, edited by Steven Spielberg (those two actually combine into the first reason) and it contained a ‘Goonies reunion’. These two, arguably three, facts combined into an inner swell of nostalgia that got me right in the wallet. I remember when Empire launched, as a 13 year old film fanatic, it was monumentally exciting. Film magazines before it were boring and conservative, this was punchy and funny (the ones that followed it – Neon and Hotdog – were far funnier and punchier and BETTER. I heard Empire bought them both out and shut them both down). Obviously, as a film geek of the 80’s, I’ll always adore Spielberg and – hey – The Goonies is still one of my favourite films of all time.
So I bought Empire. This is a long preamble to getting to my point, sorry. Although, before I make the point, I feel I should snort derisively at the fact that in the article that covers the JAMESON WHISKEY Empire Awards 2009, they reveal Guy Ritchie’s Rocknrolla as best British film (!) and Viggo Mortenson (bottle of JAMESON WHISKEY firmly in hand and correctly rotated for the cameras) as this year’s ‘Icon’. Hopefully next year, trading standards will intervene and rebran the event ‘JAMESON WHISKEY’S Empire 2010 These People Turned Up and Held A Bottle Of Whiskey Correctly Awards’. Honestly, anybody who presents Guy Ritchie with an award labelled anything but ‘Twat of British Cinema’…. anyway..
In the magazine, Spielberg sends a questionnaire out to all his director buddies. It’s fun, all questions like ‘what do you most often say on set’, ‘what was the first film you saw’, ‘who is the most important person on a film set’. But the final question is the one that intrigued me the most – ‘Are you going 3-D?’. The fact that it is the last question on the list strikes me as incredibly pertinent. This seems to be the biggest question that will face directors within the next 18 months or so. With James Cameron ensconced in New Zealand for the past few years making his fully 3-D cutting edge sci-fi Avatar and George Lucas currrently converting the original Star Wars trilogy into the same format, the general buzz ia that 3-D is the next technological step for cinema.
The responses on the questionairres vary wildly and, in many ways reveal more about the filmmakers than any of the preceding questions. Danny Boyle sensibly states ‘Digital First. One revolution at a time’. JJ Abrams draws a 3-d ‘YES!’ as his response. Jim Cameron, ever the technofetishist ‘I’m already 3-D. The question is ‘what’s next”. Japanese animation genius Miyazaki ‘I do not think so’. Sam Mendes ‘I have. It’s called the theatre’.
3-D is, to many, the one thing that might save cinema.
‘But what does cinema need saving from?’ you yelp. ‘Everyone loves films! They’re not going to stop making them!’
Well… they might! The film industry is in a mess. I started to notice how bad it’s got about 18 months ago in my priviliged position as a video shop dude, it will become increasingly more apparent over the next year or two. In case you haven’t noticed, the quality of films, or movies, being released has nosedived. You might have noticed yourself saying ‘It’s alright’ more often than ‘it’s good’. Why has this happened? In a nutshell – DVD.
DVD was the stupidest choice the industry could have made. It was a greedy choice that has come back and bitten them on the arse.
Remember video? Come on, yes you do. Big black clunky things with tape on the inside and films on them? From about 1980 to about 2002 we loved them. We could watch films on them at home.
Then a shiny round high quality format emerged with the capability of consigning video to the dustbin, But we ignored it. Laserdiscs were about for years, the quality was far better than VHS and they contained special features and multiple commentaries. But we never went for it.
DVD was launched big. it took a couple of years to catch on but it was always going to. The studios pushed the format very hard. To them, it was a cash cow. Every week, they could release moribund old films – which had long sat ignored in the back catalogue on budget £5.99 VHS labels – as flashy £20 SPECIAL EDITIONS. It revitalised their entire output and made them a lot of money.
The problem was that by embracing a digital format, they opened themselves up to piracy on a mass scale. Do you remember video piracy in the 80s and 90s? You’d occasionally get given a VHS which was a copy of a copy of a copy of a bloke sat in a cinema with a camcorder filming off the screen. It was rubbish. And as exciting as it was to have a home-watchable version of a current cinema smash, if you liked it you were always going to buy it when it got officially released because the pirate copies were crap.
pirate DVDs have no loss of quality – not even one generation. So the second a digital copy of a film is made, say the workprint of Wolverine that was recently put on the internet, it is available to millions of people in perfect quality for free. Piracy is destroying the industry. The second a film is commercially available (or increasingly BEFORE), it is available full quality for free to anyone with a little bit of internet savvy. They can burn it to DVD, give it to their mates who can also burn it to DVD for their mates or upload it to the internet for everyone. Consequently even DVDs themselves are worthless. Supermarkets sell them for about a tenner brand new, six quid within 3 months and then about three quid apiece.
This means the studios are making less money. Far less money. Their back catalogue is worthless (I saw Casablanca on sale for £2.99, a film that has held it’s value for decades!) and far less people are going to the cinema, knowing that they can see the film for free online or from pirate dvds from their friends. Even if they stay on the right side of the law, it’s cheaper to wait 3 months and buy the film from Tesco for a tenner than take the whole family to the cinema and spend double that (quadruple if you want popcorn).
So the studios are making less films and the films they are making are generally tailored to the market of film-goers that WILL go to the cinema in the first weekend. Teenagers. There are a lot more horror films (torture porn and gorenography becoming a huge trend) and dumb comedies. Far less risks are being taken. Filmmakers of the likes of Lynch, Burton, Loach, even Kevin Smith would never have flourished in this kind of regime.
So, cinema is looking for a way to get people back in and deny them the chance to experience it at home for free.
3-D is back.
This has happened in every decade since the 50s. The same problem, the same solution. ‘People aren’t going to the cinema!’ ‘3-D WILL SAVE US!!!’ In the 80s, you might remember that those eternal horror franchises (Friday 13th, Nightmare on Elm Street, Jaws…) would eventually issue an installment in 3D just at the point we were starting to say ‘they’re just making the same film over and over’.
I’ve actually had a lifelong fascination with 3D films. I love them. The first one I ever saw was some Robin Hood film around ’83. The Radio Times gave away a free pair of 3d specs and showed it on BBC1 one sunday afternoon. My sister and I fought over the single pair they gave you. It was the old red and blue technology where if you weren’t wearing the glasses, the screen was just a hazy mess of red and blue images printed all over one another but if you were wearing the glasses the whole thing was kind of purple, a bit clearer and occasionally you got a vague sense of depth of field. It was crap, really. 3D did get a bit better. In 1987, on my first trip to the USA, my whole family went to Disneyland where we saw the bizarre George Lucas/Francis Ford Coppola/Michael Jackson atrocity Captain EO
which utilised that kind of polarised 3-D technology, allowing you to watchi n clear, full colour and experience really amazing 3-D. The little fuzzy thing flies right out of the screen and around your face. The polarized technolog never really made it out of the theme parks – maybe the glasses were too expensive.
A home version of 3-D was marketed in America, it was known as eclipse or field-sequential technology. You wore LCD glasses which were connected to a viewing box, connected to your dvd player. 12 times a second, each of your eyes would be digitally blocked. giving full colour home 3d viewing. I bought this system a few years ago. Within 3 minutes it gives any viewer a headache that stays for about a day. I imagine it could kill an epileptic in 3 seconds.
3-D is fun. It’s a distraction. It’s a gimmick. Watching a whole film in 3-D – even with the best technology and no trace of Michael Jackson is a rather draining experience. The glasses become uncomfortable, the 3D is often overawing and the concessions the filmmaker must make to the gimmickery can be grating. Trying to integrate story points to showcase the technology can be hugely compromising.
3-D is a very old concept that has failed to draw crowds over and over and over again. It’s a gimmick. Even if Cameron’s Avatar is an amazing film, which I’m sure it will be, it is built on a gimmick -as are his last few films – which will quickly date and nullify it. I think the studios are entirely wrong in thinking that this is firstly what the audience wants and secondly what will destroy piracy. There is a very narrow stream of films which 3-D compliments (action, sci-fi, horror). I don’t want to see Mike Leigh films in 3-D or romcoms or drama or comedy or much else, really.
Secondly, and ludicrously, as this is being developed, they are consecutively developing HOME FORMAT 3D technology. With people only just realising that HD was a bit of a swindle (and Blu Ray failing fast as a consequence because it’s expensive and not piratable), do you really think they’re going to suddenly reinvest in a new flashy technology? Especially now the credit years are behind us.
There is one way to get people back into the cinemas, it is a tried and tested formula and it has worked for almost a century….
MAKE REALLY GOOD FILMS.
If people hear that a film is REALLY GOOD, they will want to see it immediately and on the big screen with a large audience as everyone knows that is how films are best seen.
If you want to end piracy, unite as an industry not behind a gimmicky techology but behind prosecution. Piracy is copyright theft. Sue the fuckers. Sue the internet providers who make it easy for these plebs to download films for free, sue the hell out of the people who upload these films. Enforce the laws that protect you.
I love a 3-D film, but the idea of having to have my synapses BLASTED everytime I go to the cinema or having to have the cast of Eastenders actually moping around my living room fils me with dread and contempt.