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Why watch Citizen Kane when you could check Instagram for new photos of shoes? Tim Green wonders if the phone could do what TV, video and DVD failed to achieve: kill cinema…

Many many years ago I used to write about the video industry. By video industry, I mean VHS tapes.

Remember those, kids?

During that time, there was perennial discussion about the imminent death of the cinema. Video was flying, and experts mused that this would lead people to abandon the big screen.

  DVD and TV promised a rival screen experience, but it turned out they were complementary to the movies. The mobile doesn’t offer an alternative at all. It kills attention. And that’s far worse.

Actually, the debate had been running for years. The only thing that changed was the identity of the assassin. In the 50s it had been TV. And after VHS video would come satellite TV, DVD, Blu-Ray, 3D TV, streaming.

All of them were going to spell the end of the cinema, warned the pundits. People would stop going because of the cinematic experience they could get at home.

None of the warnings proved true.

Quite the contrary. It was still fun to go the ‘pictures’ and get an epic collective experience. In fact, cinema takings went up. Two of the top four money makers of all time were released in 2015: Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens and Jurassic World grossed over $3.5bn between them.

Despite this, I wonder if the end is nigh (again) for the big screen. And you can probably guess the culprit. Yep, our beloved smartphone.

So why should this new prediction of doom be any different from all those previous false dawns? Well, DVD, TV et al promised a rival screen experience, but it turned out they were complementary to the movies. The mobile doesn’t offer an alternative at all (though some people watch movies on the phone). It kills attention. And that’s far worse.

A few days ago, one cinema chain AMC Entertainment mooted the idea of smartphone-friendly screenings. Its CEO reasoned it might be the only way to get more young people to go to the cinema. “When you tell a 22-year-old to turn off the phone, don’t ruin the movie, they hear ‘please cut off your left arm above the elbow,’ he said.

There was a furious backlash, which promoted a U-turn and a statement: “There will be no texting allowed in any of the auditoriums at AMC Theaters. Not today, not tomorrow, and not in the foreseeable future.”

It struck me as an irony that AMC responded to a storm of protest on social media. I wonder how many people were tweeting their displeasure during an 8pm showing of Batman vs Superman.

This is the point. You can ban texting and ask people to be considerate, but the addictive qualities of the ‘like’ and the ‘retweet’ make it extremely difficult to resist pulling out the phone anyway.

I suspect that most people – apart from the odd genuinely unpleasant idiot – do not want to disturb their fellow cinemagoers. And yet they can’t fight the urge to check their mobile when the film gets a bit boring. The problem is, the best films can be kind of boring. Drama needs tension, and to get tension you have to vary the pace. That means slow bits.

This weekend I saw a German film, Victoria. It’s about a waitress who meets some high-spirited guys after a night out and hangs around with them for a while before things take a nasty turn.

For the first hour, not much happens in terms of plot. But that just makes the second half more nerve-shredding. You’ve got to know these people. It wouldn’t be the same if the film plunged you into the drama after five minutes.

Many smartphone addicts would simply not have been able to tolerate that first hour. I understand that. But what an experience they would have missed.

It’s telling that I watched Victoria at home. I’m a movie addict, but I just don’t go to the cinema much any more. When I do, I confess it’s to an arty middle-class venue where I can guarantee the audience will be as superior and picky as I.

So the smartphone effect is driving people like me away from the cinema, and it’s degrading the experience of those that still go. Meanwhile, Hollywood makes films not for movie-mad snobs, but the kind of people that can’t pay attention for 90 minutes.

The wrong people!

tim-greenTim Green

Features Editor

MEF Minute

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Now, I’m not saying there are no good films being made. Of course there are. But they’re all on Netflix or Amazon Prime or Curzon. I can watch them at home, and I do. That leaves the big screen for juvenile nonsense about superheroes, CGI kids films with animals that talk like stand-up comedians and sequels to juvenile nonsense about superheroes and CGI kids films with animals that talk like stand-up comedians.

It’s self-perpetuating. As the cinema becomes more noisy and distracted, Hollywood makes films that make more noise and require less attention. And so the cycle continues.

Which is why I will watch the directors’ cut of Ratchet & Clank on my home cinema set-up.

One Comment

  • m says:

    Yes. I agree. But never – I thought in the past – the home video of any kind will get rid of cinema. That is confirmed, thanks to the bigh screen and audio. Cinema is much more involving, just takes you in. But it works much better for movies using a lot of Special Effects, and this is much more effective with the nowadays movies with computer-made effects.