The Big and Small of It

April 04, 2006
A thought by James Berardinelli

Size is important. At least when it comes to video devices. But, depending on age, it's important in different ways. For kids and teenagers, small is big. But for adults, big is better. It all comes down to the application, and it sheds a great deal of light on how much of a product movies have become. Sure, there's still plenty of "art" out there but, when it comes to big budgets, even the artiest films are commodities.

Children and adolescents love gadgets. So it should come as no surprise that PSPs were gobbled up by this demographic. What has been surprising is the success of the UMD format - a small disc that can only be played on the PSP. After all, PSPs have tiny screens. How can anyone watch a complete movie on a 4" by 2" screen? For the most part, no one does. They watch select scenes, favorite moments. (The exception is on long car rides and during other similar situations, to relieve boredom.) It's at this point that movies cease to be movies in the conventional sense. And for members of this age group, portability trumps everything else. They love the ability to bring a movie with them, everywhere they go.

For adults, however, the movie-away-from-theaters experience is entirely different. They're interested in recapturing the theatrical experience as closely as possible. That means big screens and top-line sound systems. The term "home theater" has become commonplace, although it means different things to different people. Generally, adults who care about movies go as big as their budget allows, whether it's a 40" plasma screen, a 65" rear-screen projector, or a 120" front screen projector. The bigger, the better. And closer to the multiplex experience, but with all the comforts of home.

It's an interesting experience to watch the same movie in both of these environments. I have done so. When my wife bought a PSP last year, it came with a free UMD of Spider-Man 2. I own a Superbit DVD copy of the same film. My current home theater system has a 65" screen. Watching the film in the dark with full digital audio is an immersive experience. The movie pulls the viewer in pretty much as it does in multiplex auditoriums, and there's no one kicking your seat-back (although a cat did curl up next to me - something that has never happened in an AMC). On the PSP, it feels like a cartoon or a video game. It's a distraction. In order to follow the movie, you have to have seen it already. It's like watching one of those grainy, pirated movies that are sold on street corners and were made by aiming a video camera at a screen. You get a representation of the movie, but not the real thing.

Miniaturization isn't done. Movies will soon be available for cell phones. Compared to the 1.5" square display on many phones, the PSP screen looks huge. No doubt people will pay $10 per movie to be able to not really watch it on their phone. Big-ization isn't done, either. With prices tumbling, it won't be long before 40" is considered small. New homes are being built with standard home theater rooms that will easily accomodate 120" screens.

Studios love this schism. It allows them to increase the money they milk out of each of their "prestige" titles. Consider how triple dipping (theatrical viewing, DVD, UMD) adds up. A family of four might pay $40 admission to see a movie in a theater, then $25 for the DVD (so Dad and Mom can watch it in their home theater) and $25 for the UMD (so the kids can share with their friends). That's $90 for one title.

My gut tells me that, while this is economically sound, it's leading to an erosion in the quality of movies. (Duh. Just call me Master of the Obvious.) Studios are increasingly taking fewer chances. They all want this kind of big payoff, and it doesn't come from catering only to adults. I'm not trying to argue that blockbusters are bad things, but they should not be the only things. Small, indie films aren't going away, but what we're losing is the middle ground: modestly budgeted films made with mature audiences in mind. Those may play nicely on a 65" screen, but they have no future in a 4" x 2" world.