It has been more than 120 years since the first film started rolling in the Lumière brothers’ machine. Surely, they would never have imagined that one day there would be a vast festival with several thousands of visitors, and the largest screening room in the world named after them.
However, the story of moving images goes back even before 1895. The laterna magica, the kinetoscope, the chronograph, and several other experiments all wanted to present motion pictures to an audience. Then cinema seemed to be the ultimate place to screen stories and nobody could even imagine a different way of consuming moving images – some said it would mean the end of theatre as well.
When television appeared, many people forecasted the end of the cinematic era. This did not happen, so we would be foolhardy to believe that digitalisation or the internet might kill it either. The different ways of watching films are getting more and more complex, and it will be interesting to see what the future holds and what new options will be available to us to watch motion pictures.
The world wide web and cinema were not the best friends around the dawn of the internet.
The world wide web and cinema were not the best friends around the dawn of the internet. This new platform represented a total freedom, with all of its pros and cons. All of a sudden many films were available, and even classic works could be watched more easily. If you had the right sources and you were willing to investigate how to search and download, you could find everything: it was a brand new phenomenon. Since the birth of cinema, accessing film (finding the right screenings, getting tickets, going to the video library, catching a film on TV) had always been fairly difficult. Suddenly, the entire back catalogue of movies became readily available. That was the positive side. The rights were not clarified however and there was no business model behind it to help filmmakers generate a revenue stream.
All of a sudden many films were available, and even classic works could be watched more easily.
Also, from a technical – or user experience – point of view, watching films online was not at all convenient. One had to download files and then play them with certain software – this method still exists, but will fade away soon, just like the sound of rewinding a VHS tape. Low bandwidth and limited internet connection did not help the habit of watching films online either. This meant that it was mainly geeks and IT professionals who had the chance to see films online in the early days and The majority still accessed film through the traditional formats of cinema, TV and DVD.
It was an important milestone when YouTube and other streaming platforms were launched. Technologically it was a huge step forward not to have to download the videos, but to watch them instantly. This opened the door for a whole new business model: ‘free-to-view’, with ad- sponsored videos. It was said that the best things on the internet were for free – and it was especially true for films. And this caused problems: YouTube made huge losses for years until they were lucky to have Google eventually step-in and finance them. Then the big distributors started to launch their own platforms for feature film and TV series content (Hulu, Joost), but they continued to struggle with how to monetize this investment.
Even though the financing part was not resolved, from the film historian’s point of view streaming platforms created new habits for the audience. Nobody wants to wait any more for a film to be released: anything anytime – that’s the new motto. Which of course is very convenient, but also raises new questions regarding the way films are watched. Since the platforms are forced to feed the audience with novelties, an immense amount of content is generated and the pace of production and consumption becomes ever more rapid. This may pose a real threat to the feature film format and the cinemas screening them, because a TV series can work much better to serve this new habit.
Since the platforms are forced to feed the audience with novelties, an immense amount of content is generated and the pace of production and consumption becomes ever more rapid.
Understanding of this habit led us to the business model which seems to currently work best: getting subscribers who pay a monthly fee for the service. This means that people don’t pay for individual artworks (like at the cinema), they pay for a service (just like TV broadcasting). Unlike on television however, the show is not live, so all the content has to be made (scripted, directed, recorded) beforehand. This works best with TV series: a season of a successful series provides more than 12 hours of content, which can be much more effectively written, produced, marketed and then binged on than 12 hours of feature-length or short films. Films – especially indie and arthouse – do not fit easily into this new consumption model.
As I said earlier this change will not kill cinema and feature films. It will always be an exceptional form of entertainment and self-expression. The internet is just a new challenge which needs to be tackled. In the meantime we can enjoy new TV series too, and think about how to create a new model that will bring arthouse films to the internet too. Sometimes the distribution of films and changes in cinema can be as exciting and challenging as the films themselves.