Not All Films Are Made For Theaters
Like many people who love movies, I’ll watch them on almost anything: a small tv, big tv, laptop, even an iPad. I do draw the line at watching them on phones. Today’s expanded selection of ways to watch has made this era the most accessible and convenient time to be a cinema fan. On the other hand, I was also lucky enough to go to a school that showed a lot of old movies on the big screen, and over the years, as more reels of old film wound through the projector, I began to notice something.
I think almost all movies from before the 1990s were shot with the purpose of being seen in a cinema, and when viewed on anything else they lose some magic. Further, it seems like a lot of the films of the past 30 years have not been specifically produced to be seen in a beautifully cool and dark space with the aroma of buttered popcorn wafting through the air.
This is not to say that a film not optimized for a theater is bad; it just seems noticeable that many of the filmmakers and producers of today create movies that they know will work well on any sized screen. And this made me think about the modern exceptions to this rule: the movies from the past 30 years which have indeed been crafted to take advantage of the unique visual and audio experience that only theaters can provide.
To make this argument work better, let's just exclude bad movies. There have been bad movies made specifically for the largest of screens and loudest of theaters (e.g. Fast and Furious Franchise, not counting the shockingly enjoyable Fast Five). This idea works better in a world free of bad movies, a place where we would all love to be. But when we got there, we’d quickly realize how lonely a world without Vin Diesel would be – because without family we are lost.
Now first let me break down what I mean by a movie that can be seen on any screen. This type of movie does not think too much about the composition of each shot, or how the sound mixing will come off in every scene. It's a film that was not crafted to be a piece of art, it was more so made to entertain. Which by no means is a negative thing. I think one of the very best films that fits into this category is Forgetting Sarah Marshall – one of the funniest movies to come out in the last thirty years. I don't think the director was too worried about how Jason Segel’s singing and piano playing was going to sound in Dolby Atmos. The scene early in the film when Jason Segel goes full frontal out of nowhere is hysterical in whatever setting you're in. It is not shot with framing in mind, it's a scene to get laughs and that it does. This film does not lose anything when being watched at home, besides the audience's mutual laughter. There are many other examples but I think my point is there.
On the other hand, modern films like Dunkirk, Blade Runner 2049, (sadly) Joker, are all films that were made to be seen in a theater. These types of films still work at home, but they do lose some of the inherent magic that a theater gives them. I think the best example of this in recent years is Christopher Nolan's Dunkirk, a film that thrives on the energy that theater audio brings. In the opening scene, all the soldiers are lining up on the beaches and have to hit the ground when an airstrike comes. Our protagonist is in the foreground laying there while bombs hit the sand in a line trending closer and closer to him, explosions louder and louder as they strike the beach, as the camera holds still with only a slight wobble at each strike. This scene in a theater gives the human body more senses to react to than any living room sound system and large tv could ever try to replicate. Dunkirk in particular loses a lot of its gravitas when watched on a smaller screen.
I dislike Todd Phillips' Joker film immensely, but I do see some of its merits. Despite my aversion to it, it still qualifies as a modern movie that was clearly made to be seen in a theater. Quentin Tarantino has talked about his thoughts on the film in an interview with The Playlist, calling it "a little one-note," but noting that the film's climax is “subversion on a massive level, audience response, cause and effect on the screen, feeling the atmosphere in the theater change;"
I couldn't agree more with the end of his statement about the atmosphere in the theater. When I saw it in theaters, Joker gave me a literal violent reaction, as in I became violently mad about the film. The film created an energy of chaos that for me wasn’t exactly earned by good storytelling, but was created through the atmosphere of the audience in the theater. The whole auditorium had a sense of violence (for me it was partly due to disliking the film), but for many it was how the film grabbed them and created that feeling, a feeling I don’t think is possible to garner at home on a tv. It is a great example of a film that loses a lot of its power when seen at home or on an airplane without the energy of an audience.
In the end, I don't think it is necessarily a bad thing to make a film that doesn't have to be seen in a theater, but the films that are made for a theater and use all of its elements are truly special, especially given their increasing rarity. I can’t always tell what films are going to use the theater to its full capabilities, but usually with certain directors you know that you're in for a treat. A director who optimizes the immersive experience a theater can bring with a movie is a filmmaker who knows how to use a giant screen and calibrated sound system to create magic. Some more modern examples to check out that match this description are: 1917, Avengers Endgame, There Will Be Blood, The Dark Knight.
Go to movie theaters, see movies how they should be seen. Just remember that not all films use that glorious setting to its full potential, but when they do, you will know.