—James Cameron speaking at CinemaCon, as quoted in Variety
The Paramount Screening Room atop the old Gulf & Western Building at Columbus Circle in New York, was an elegant place: John & Yoko, Otto Preminger, and other celebs screened their rough cuts there, back in what is euphemistically called “the day.” Post-millennium, you might know some swanky rooms in New York and L.A., not a few of which, like the Vista on Sunset Drive, are single-screen movie houses in their own right. But have you heard about “Screening Room?”
If your ear hasn’t been to the ground yet, Screening Room is newspeak for something that isn’t a room at all, but a “deluxe” set-top box that will give people--who want to see movies first-run--a perfect reason not to buy any more movie tickets, ever. And the most upsetting news for me is that, as a passionate moviegoer and former theater operator (1976, a 2672-seat movie palace, the St. George Theatre in Staten Island), I freely admit I’m part of the problem. We all are. Gradually, over the years from 1976 to 2016, the convenience of my bedroom screen combined with a lack of showmanship, and reduced screen-size at most of the theaters I used to attend, made me, more than I would ever have wanted to admit, susceptible to a diminishing assortment of faux movie experiences, from Blockbuster Video, to DVD’s, and these days Netflix, and Apple TV. I offer the lousy excuse that we’d lost our shirts trying to fill the ocean of empty seats under the St. George Theatre’s gilded dome, and I was temporarily theater-lovelorn. It didn’t help that, one by one, the neighborhood houses all disappeared, replaced by what I used to call “the black hole in space,” a single multiplex adjacent to New York City’s (then) landfill.
On a vacation in Florida some time in the late seventies, I glanced over the counter at a St. Augustine restaurant. The proprietor was watching a Sony Trinitron, it’s rabbit ears aimed out the kitchen window. Inside this fishbowl, a tiny Clark Gable carried an even punier Vivien Leigh up what I knew from experience must be the grand staircase at Tara. Having always wanted to run Gone With the Wind at our movie palace, I was struck by this dollhouse recreation of a former spectacle. That Trinitron was probably around seventeen inches, which, compared to the St. George Theatre’s 1,100 square foot screen, was a big come-down for Rhett and Scarlet. Stained with grape soda though the screen at the St. George Theatre may have been, while it existed, the scale was right for movies we showed, like The Man Who Would Be King.
A little more than twenty years ago, Susan Sontag observed:
To see a great film only on television isn't to have really seen that film. It's not only a question of the dimensions of the image: the disparity between a larger-than-you image in the theater and the little image on the box at home. The conditions of paying attention in a domestic space are radically disrespectful of film. Now that a film no longer has a standard size, home screens can be as big as living room or bedroom walls.
Only a few years after her death, you can watch The Grand Budapest Hotel on an even more disrespectful surface: an iPad, a laptop, even a cellphone. How many people are left who have actually seen The Wizard of Oz, Casablanca, Citizen Kane, Lawrence of Arabia, or a host of other great flicks on an actual movie screen? Now supposing there is no reason whatsoever to leave the living room/bedroom/family room. Who will?
Here’s how Screening Room will work, if it comes to pass:
1. Cinema maven buys a set-top box for an initial outlay of $150.00.
2. For a charge of $50.00 and a 48-hour time limit, he/she/they can view first-run movies the same day they come to theater screens.
Now do the math. Considering the average price of a movie ticket in the U.S. in 2015 was $8.43, when you add in concession (popcorn, soda, Snickers) for two people you’re almost to thirty dollars. If they were planning to eat out, factor in transportation costs, and they’re breaking even--saving money, if they have a few friends over who split the bill. It has also been suggested that pirate entrepreneurs might decide to create their own small home theaters, charging admission to parties.
In 1976 at the St. George, a third-run house, we paid about 33 percent of our ticket sales for the rights to whatever movie(s) we showed on our giant screen. A clever Screening Room entrepreneur has 48 hours (we had a week) but will begin making money after selling only six tickets! We actually never made money: our overhead (monthly nut) was close to the downpayment on a modest house.
Beyond these economic musings are deeper considerations. How far have we strayed from what some would call the sacred experience of movie-watching? I’d like to give the last word to Susan Sontag, who begins here by recalling the Lumiere brothers’ film, The Arrival of a Train at LaCiotat Station — at 50 seconds, arguably the first documentary ever made (1896):
Everything in cinema begins with that moment when the train pulled into the station. People took movies into themselves, just as the public cried out with excitement, actually ducked, as the train seemed to move toward them...it was from a weekly visit to the cinema that you learned (or tried to learn) how to walk, to smoke, to kiss, to fight, to grieve. Movies gave you tips about how to be attractive. Example: It looks good to wear a raincoat even when it isn't raining. But whatever you took home was only a part of the larger experience of submerging yourself in lives that were not yours. The desire to lose yourself in other people's lives . . . faces. This is a larger, more inclusive form of desire embodied in the movie experience. Even more than what you appropriated for yourself was the experience of surrender to, of being transported by, what was on the screen. You wanted to be kidnapped by the movie -- and to be kidnapped was to be overwhelmed by the physical presence of the image...
Don’t buy Screening Room; it’s tempting, I know. Set yourself a goal for the number of movies you’ll pay tickets to see each month. I’ve begun this program in my own life, because I want to be kidnapped (as Sontag reminds us), ...in a movie theater, seated in the dark among anonymous strangers.