Staying Home

October 18, 2009
A thought by James Berardinelli

Roger Ebert once commented that he believes a movie good enough to warrant a recommendation for home viewing is good enough to see in a theater. A recommendation considers only the movie, not the situation in which it is viewed. If only it was that simple.

Certainly, some movies are good enough to recommend for viewing in any venue and under any circumstances. Others are so ignoble as to be worth ignoring unless you are being paid to sit through them. No movie suddenly gets "better" when transferred from the big screen of a multiplex auditorium to the smaller screen of a living room or home theater. But what about the ones in the middle - the **1/2 ones? The ones I categorize as receiving "qualified recommendations?" Those are titles for which I can't endorse for theatrical viewing but have no problem recommending for a couple hours at home. The movie doesn't change but the circumstances do and, like it or not, circumstances matter. That's why some people are willing to watch the most godawful trash on television.

I occasionally receive e-mails from people who wonder why I review fewer art house films than I once did. The reason boils down to economics and logistics. The nearest art house to me is in Philadelphia. Including time to park, the one-way trip is about 45 minutes door-to-door. That's 90 minutes spent in the car. Assuming I arrive 15 minutes before showtime and am forced to sit through about 10 minutes of trailers, that means I have to devote nearly 3 3/4 hours to a 105-minute film. And I'm restricted to four or five start times per day. If I wait for the DVD, I save nearly two hours and can start the movie anytime I want, including at 2:00 in the morning when the art house is dark. I'm seeing the same movie. The screen is smaller, but the convenience level is way up. The only downside is I have to wait a few months. But the gift I have given to myself is incalculable: two hours of time that would otherwise be wasted. When you consider it in those terms, you have to really want to see a film to make that kind of sacrifice, and I find that the number of films falling into that category has been dwindling in recent years.

But that's just time. Consider also the economic toll. Going to the theater: $4 bridge toll + $6.50 parking + $9.50 ticket. Ignoring fuel costs, that's $20 for a movie. At home, assuming a Netflix membership, it boils down to about $2, or 10%. For $20, I could buy a discounted DVD at the day it's released. Or I could wait another few months and get a copy to own for less than half that price. I have a friend who frequents ebay and assures me he can get just about any title on BluRay for about $5. So consider these circumstances: theatrical viewing: 225 minutes and $20 with restricted start times; home viewing: 105 minutes and $2 with open start times. And I haven't even mentioned things like other theater-goers who text through the movie and do other annoying things. None of that in my home theater.

These cold, hard realities explain why I limit the number of art house films I see. Even if I'm watching the movie at a press screening, it's still not cheap (and the price of parking for a morning screening is $16, not $6.50, so I'm not saving anything). The economics don't make sense. Reviews of art house films don't generate a lot of unique views so the low advertising revenue (which is tied directly to how many times a review is read) makes it tough to justify writing a lot of those. In 2009, the District 9 review generated the most revenue, about $250. Star Trek and Transformers 2, about $200 each. Most of the other summer blockbusters were in the $150 to $200 range. But what about Easy Virtue? $4. Flame & Citron? $2.50. Paris? About the same. The fact is that most of the art-house films generate between $2.50 and $5 in revenue, making them money-losers. Now, reviewing isn't all about economics and I don't plan to stop reviewing art house films altogether. But I have changed my viewing habits. I see a lot more art house films on DVD than I once did and I rarely review movies I see on DVD. This may change.

Many of the issues that have forced me to re-align my review priorities with respect to art house films impact the average viewer when it comes to theatrical movies. Home viewing is more convenient and cheaper (and, if there are kids, it may be the only viable option). And this gets us back to the **1/2 film. It's not a terrible movie. I can argue it's worth a $2 Netflix rental and an expenditure of 2 hours in the comfort of your own home. I can't argue it's worth a trip to a theater, the price of a ticket (or two), and the risk that the audience is going to impede your ability to enjoy the experience.

Movies are changing. I don't think anyone reading this would disagree. This isn't a judgment; it's a fact. Directors are now aware that what they're making may be seen by as many people (or, in some cases, more) on home video as in theaters. 3-D is a transparently desperate attempt to get people to keep populating multiplexes. Ditto for the pseudo IMAX auditoriums that are springing up all over the place. Anything to differentiate the theater from the big TV screen. Suck viewers in and entertain them. Too often, movie entertainment is beginning to resemble TV entertainment. It used to be that movies offered a superior alternative to sitting home and watching television. That was the carrot. You could stay home and watch a marginally enjoyable sit-com, night soap opera, or cop show on a 27" screen or you could go to the movies and see something that aspired to be bigger and better. That was then, this is now.

Movies today are becoming indistinguishable from what's on TV. Why? Because there's a level of comfort in the familiarity. TV is omnipresent. It's a babysitter and a companion. Many movie-goers today crave that sense of sameness. They don't want something challenging or different. It's no surprise that many of the biggest, highest grossing motion pictures have a strong television connection. And even when a film isn't a direct adaptation of something that once appeared on TV, it often feels like a TV production - the same flat, by-the-numbers plotting and direction, the same lame jokes, the same limited storytelling. Too often, if you know the genre, you know the plot. And if you've seen a trailer, there's no reason to see the movie. You will have already seen all the best moments. Certain websites are providing "trailer reviews." This may sound like an abomination but when you consider that 80% of the trailers out there are accurate representations of their movies, it makes one wonder…

Some e-mailers have noted there are some reviews of newer titles "missing" from the site. These are not oversights. I'm beginning to more carefully vet the titles I choose to see. I'm no longer in a mode where I feel the need to see every new release. What would I gain from reviewing Astro Boy? I have no interest in the movie. It's not going to generate much revenue. And its absence is unlikely to cause a gap for the majority of those who visit the site. If it turns out to be much better than expected - a surprising "can't miss" animated comedy/adventure - and gets stellar across-the-board reviews, I can always change my mind in the future.

The number of innovative titles playing in multiplexes may have taken a nosedive in recent years, but there are thousands of worthy titles on video for me to explore, and that may be where the future lies - in the past. For the price of one new movie ticket, I can rent about five older films. From a time and convenience perspective, it's about two-for-one (two video reviews for every one theatrical review). One good way to free up time to accommodate lifestyle changes is to stop seeing as many marginal theatrical releases. ReelViews won't fall apart if my output of theatrical reviews drops from 200 to 140 per year, especially if the number of video reviews increases.

It's hard to cut back on seeing new movies. There's an almost addictive quality to watching nearly everything either before it's released or on the day it comes out. Many times, when I skip a film, I experience a sense that I'm letting someone down. There have been times when I could go to a 24-plex and boast having seen everything on the board. It takes some getting used to to recognize that's rarely the case any more. Now, there may be two or three films I haven't seen. In the near future, that number will increase.

Here's how I look at it: It's better to see fewer movies and generally be more satisfied with what I'm seeing than to continue with a high output and be increasingly frustrated with the quality. There are still plenty of *** and ***1/2 movies out there. They key is being more selective and balancing that with the focus my readership expects. Be finicky with not only the art house releases but with the mainstream ones. That's where I'm headed and, hopefully, both ReelViews and my individual reviews will be better for it. I want my love of movies to get back to where it was 10 years ago, and if that requires seeing fewer films, so be it.