Always Better on the Big Screen: Preserving the Theater Experience

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From the Loyola Film Circle’s Fete du Film. A room of college students and professors watching REC (Jaume Balaguero and Paco Plaza, 2007).

Context: Here in the Philippines, we don’t really get a lot of movies. Our online streaming services are nowhere near as content-rich as those in the United States. Our video stores’ selection of DVDs are bafflingly limited and seriously lacking in films released before the 2000s. Local movies (no matter how popular) that aren’t backed by major studios almost never get DVD releases after their theatrical runs (no matter how long). Television channels have a bad habit of showing the same movies for weeks on end, and of showing the same kinds of movies day-in, day-out.

And in cinemas, local mainstream film studios are lucky to release more than two films every quarter. The independent scene is staying strong, but indie festival runs are restricted to a select few theaters for one to two weeks–and then most of the entries never see the light of day again. Additionally, foreign film distribution isn’t as strong as I feel it could be. Once in a while we get gems like Boyhood or Whiplash, but most of the time we miss out on big awards contenders when they’re released in other parts of the world during the fourth quarter of the year (partially because of how the Metro Manila Film Festival effectively shuts down foreign film screenings for two weeks every Christmas). In their place, we get direct-to-DVD schlock and “movies” that seem like they were greenlit for theatrical runs by mistake.

But I’m simply setting the stage. This isn’t an article about film distribution in the Philippines, or the availability of movies in our video stores. What worries me is how this limitation of options for Filipinos makes piracy an easier choice. Some might even argue that pirating a film that will never be screened in the Philippines anyway isn’t as big a deal as pirating other films. But again, this isn’t an article about piracy in the Philippines. What I’m really worried about is how this culture of settling for online downloads and watching movies in the privacy of one’s home is robbing many of us of the beauty of the theater experience, and hindering us from developing theater etiquette and learning how to watch a movie.

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From http://www.polygon.com/2015/12/10/9881828/the-big-short-review

It’s screener season. The nominations for the 88th Academy Awards were announced one-and-a-half weeks ago, but already a large number of Filipinos have seen a handful of the nominees–even if these movies never screened in Philippine cinemas in 2015. Thing is, a few of these nominees will be screened in early 2016–just in time for the Oscars. The Big Short is currently screening in many major cinemas, and we are set to receive BrooklynThe RevenantThe Danish GirlSpotlightJoy, and Room before Oscar night.

But then it becomes difficult to convince people to sit and wait for these movies to be released (for measly one week-long runs, most likely) when they already have instant access at their fingertips through the Internet, and when most of them don’t necessarily put aside a lot of movie-watching money. I wouldn’t blame them. The holidays are over and work/school has resumed. By the time some of us find free time, these movies might be long gone from cinemas. I know the pain of missing a theater release and having to settle for a low quality stream instead.

But I can’t deny that there’s really just something special about sitting in a dark movie theater, and allowing a good film to completely enthrall you for two hours. In my opinion, the theater experience always enhances the quality of the film you’re watching (even if the movie is utter garbage, it’s still better garbage when seen in a cinema). That’s because theatrical releases are made to be seen on a big screen. Audio-visual elements are undoubtedly sharpened, and the theater environment makes the film a hundred times more immersive–which allows for story, direction, editing, and even acting to make a stronger impact. And I think that if you bring to the cinema the right level of commitment, then the film will reward you tenfold.

(Before I go any further, this article will not discuss television. I understand that TV is going through its own sort of Golden Age right now, and I am not saying that TV series or online shows are inherently of lesser quality just because they aren’t made for the big screen. There’s a world of difference between film and television, and I’d love to get into my thoughts on that subject–but at another time.)

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Take note of how this image by itself, on your computer screen, doesn’t impress you. Imagine what this looks like on a cinema screen. (From http://futurewarstories.blogspot.com/2013/10/fws-movie-review-gravity-2013.html)

First, let’s look at how the audio-visual elements of a film can become unbelievably enhanced in a movie theater setting. My favorite example when talking about this is Gravity (Alfonso Cuaron, 2013). The first and only time I ever watched Gravity was in a packed cinema in Greenhills Promenade (one of their fancy Dolby Atmos theaters, I believe). I remember being really scared that all these other people in the audience would just derail the experience for me by making noise and putting their feet up (more on that later). So imagine my surprise when–for practically the entire ninety-minute running time of the film–not one person spoke, and everyone seemed to stay perfectly still. The audience laughed when they were supposed to, they tensed up at the right moments, and they all seemed genuinely impressed by the time the credits rolled.

I have never watched Gravity in its entirety again because, in my opinion, it is a movie that can only be seen in a cinema. I go as far as saying that watching Gravity on TV or on a computer monitor is tantamount to watching a completely different movie altogether. Whether or not you take that as a judgment on Gravity‘s quality as a film is up to you (I personally still think it’s a masterpiece). My point is that Gravity was a movie very specifically created for the theater environment. Surround sound is put to expert use in the film; Sandra Bullock’s and George Clooney’s voices float in, muffled, from different directions, while the vastness of outer space isn’t heard so much as it’s felt through the sound design.

Most importantly, the blackness of the cinema (undisturbed by cellphone lights, mind you) erases the divide between screen and audience. During the film’s seventeen-minute opening shot, I immediately felt like I was actually in space. I felt like I was seeing stars even in my peripheral vision. Other people on the Internet have reported feeling something close to vertigo during the scene. You get the sense that you’re not just sitting in your seat anymore, but hurtling through space with the characters. Watching and listening to Gravity with earphones on may give you a bit of an idea of the theater experience, but I have to emphasize that actually being there–unable to escape the blackness of the environment and unable to disconnect your earphones–is something else entirely.

A little side note: 3D has become something of a punchline in modern-day blockbuster filmmaking. Most films, in my opinion, do not really utilize 3D well; they settle for the gimmick of objects reaching towards the screen. Not only does this gimmick rarely have anything to do with the story being told, but it ruins immersion by distracting the audience, instead of bringing them deeper into the world. Good 3D, in my opinion, has to do with depth. Films like AvatarLife of Pi, and Mad Max: Fury Road all have gimmicky 3D moments, but they use 3D mostly to enhance depth–which helps viewers become more immersed and more appreciative of the world they’re in. George Miller’s Australian wasteland, Ang Lee’s endless ocean/spiritual landscape, and James Cameron’s lush planet of Pandora simply cannot come to life the same way outside the movie theater.

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From http://moviepilot.com/posts/2389618

Another favorite example I have–this time for when I talk about the way movies utilize sound in a cinema–is The Babadook (Jennifer Kent, 2014). Many of the best horror movies in general are also some of the best sound-designed films of all time. And again, you can really only appreciate them in the environment where they were meant to be viewed. The Babadook, in particular, has a number of bone-chilling moments when static and audio distortion can be heard traveling from the left speaker to the right, or from front to behind. These audio cues do not have any onscreen source; there is no character or event making those sounds. They’re really just there, much like a film’s musical score.

And the effect is terrifying. During these audio distortion moments, I remember actually looking up, to my left, and to my right, to see if the sound was coming from inside the theater. The sound design of The Babadook is so good that it made me feel unsafe sitting inside a movie house. Watching the movie on a laptop with earphones on doesn’t come close. If you need another example of how effective the theater environment is when watching The Babadook, listen to Mister Babadook’s voice go, “Ba-ba. . . dooooook, DOOOOOOK, DOOOOOOK!” and imagine that sound coming from everywhere at full blast while sitting in the cinema. Refusing to look at the screen didn’t help. I still felt unsafe. And that’s the biggest compliment you can give a horror movie.

But wait a minute. The above examples so far have been very effects-driven. Of course they’d be better viewed in cinemas. But what about normal dramas? Comedies?

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From http://mostlyfilm.com/2013/06/17/before-midnight

This point is a bit harder for me to articulate and give examples for, but I still also believe that relatively simpler movies that only really feature characters talking to one another can still be greatly enhanced by the movie theater environment. Take, for example, Before Midnight (Richard Linklater, 2013). Much like Before Sunrise and Before Sunset, the third in Linklater’s romance trilogy is made up mostly of mundane dialogue between the two leads as they walk around Greece. How does the darkness and surround sound of a theater make the experience richer? Simply put: the theater helps us focus on what’s going on. Watching a movie on a laptop does not get rid of the million-and-one distractions in your room. Watching something on HBO won’t stop someone from barging into your room and throwing you off from the story.

In a cinema, there is no escape from what is happening onscreen. Immersion is something many viewers take for granted, but is something that is key in maximizing a film’s potential effect on a viewer. Going back to Before Midnight: the film is a pretty light watch for the first half or so. Then at a certain point in the film, the viewers are subjected to a long, unbroken shot wherein now-married lovers Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and Celine (Julie Delpy) have an intense, heated argument in a hotel room. Watching this scene on TV or on a laptop isn’t fully immersive; the option to change channels, pause, stand up and do something else, or simply stop watching out of discomfort is always open. What the theater does is that it takes away those options. It forces you to confront the discomfort of seeing these two characters fight. And man, is it an intense argument.

That might sound like a small thing, but really think about it for a second: the theater environment actually forces you to experience a scene completely differently, because it demands attention, and denies pure detachment.

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From http://www.mytvnet.vn/tin-tuc/tin-giai-tri/3/phim-oscar-giac-mo-trieu-phu/406

Another thing I want to bring up about “normal” movies that aren’t typically effects-driven or grand in scale is that many of the best dramas and comedies in film history still have very important audio-visual dimensions to them. Truly great films do not just toss aside elements like cinematography, production design, and musical scoring to be treated as secondary to acting and writing. There is just as much attention to detail to be found in them. Alexander Payne’s Nebraska (2013) can be viewed as a “normal” comedy-drama if you choose to focus on just the actors and the story being told. But what the theater does is that it allows you to really observe the film’s gorgeous black-and-white cinematography. The fact that the entirety of Nebraska looks like a series of fading photographs adds a whole other layer of poignancy to Bruce Dern’s character’s journey.

Yes, this same observation can be made on a small screen. But size really does matter. More importantly, immersion matters. Again, the fact that you are put into a dark theater in front of a large screen for a couple of hours forces you to consider more deeply the things being projected in front of you.

(Wait, hold on, before I say anything else, what about comedies? Well, comedies are a bit easier to appreciate in the theater setting: Gather together a group of friends and watch a funny movie with them in a cinema. Don’t tell me that the communal experience of being with them and being focused on the film doesn’t make things funnier. It does. It should.)

This is where learning how to watch a movie comes in. There really is an art to it (if not an art, then a recommended practice, at least). A movie will offer to you all these elements, and it is your responsibility as a viewer to try and take in the full picture. I know that sounds demanding, especially for self-proclaimed casual viewers. But it’s really not difficult, I promise. All it entails is attention, patience, and a reasonable enough level of respectful silence from the audience. You don’t “fail” or anything if you don’t pay complete attention to a movie. You just miss the opportunity to maximize the experience. You miss seeing the best possible version of the film–that best possible version being the one wherein you, the viewer, are fully immersed. Sometimes, it’s the viewer that makes the film great.

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A photo I took at SM Marikina while watching Etiquette for Mistresses (Chito S. Roño, 2015). Those are an old woman’s feet wedged between two seats a meter away from me.

Unfortunately, it’s also the viewer that can totally ruin it for others. I won’t expound that much on my hate for rude theater etiquette (perhaps I could save my ranting for another blog post), but make no mistake that I really, really, REALLY hate rude, noisy, and annoying moviegoers. People who talk loudly and constantly with their seatmates during the film, people who answer cellphone calls inside the cinema, people who whip out their phones to check the time every so often (I myself am guilty of this, I’ll admit), people who surf the Internet when they get bored during a movie, people who narrate what’s happening onscreen (a favorite habit of Filipino audiences), people who put their feet up on the backrests of the seats in front of them, people who put their bare feet up on the backrests, people who snore inside the cinema, the list goes on.

What all these people have in common (and, again, I have also been guilty of a few of these offenses; I am not sparing myself) is that they inadvertently ruin the maximized experience that the other moviegoers could be having. They chip away at their immersion by adding a distracting element into the dark space of the movie theater. It is my dream that, one day, Philippine cinemas could enforce much stricter rules when it comes to theater etiquette. Have guards shine flashlights at people making noise. Eject those who commit multiple offenses. If I had it my way, I’d pause the movie altogether if somebody did something annoying. I know that’s going too far, but hey, just wishful thinking.

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From http://www.movieinsider.com/m7509/the-revenant

In conclusion, I would just like to help people rediscover the magic that a movie theater has to offer. The screening of a film like Gravity in cinemas was an event; people will literally never experience that movie the same way ever again. I’m very afraid that the dawn of online streaming services and the Golden Age of Television might hurt (if not totally kill) the beauty of conventional moviegoing in cinemas. So I implore everyone reading this–ESPECIALLY to those who have a habit of watching stuff mostly on their computers–to really go to the movies at least once in a while. And once you’re there, to actually pay attention, make the time spent worth your money, and to give the filmmakers the respect they deserve for working hard to give you a product on the big screen–a once-in-a-lifetime event.

To those who have seen screeners of some of the Oscar nominees, I invite you to watch those same movies again on the big screen when they come out in Philippine cinemas. I know it can be expensive to go to the movies. But I promise you that, if you maximize the theater environment (and if the movie you’re re-watching really is Oscar-worthy), you will be in for a completely different experience.

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2 thoughts on “Always Better on the Big Screen: Preserving the Theater Experience

  1. While you mentioned avoiding TV, I can’t help but feel there’s a strong parallel in that both are facing the decline of viewing as an event. The freedom to watch when and where one wants is probably the main strain on both. Watching visual media has become something to do “while making other plans” so to speak, instead of being that which is planned for (or around).
    That said, viewing-as-event becomes difficult if the cinema/theater is the only way one can do it. If immersion through technology is the aim, would you say smaller screenings approximate the same experience? For instance, setting up a projector and a small surround-sound system? It would hardly do if the ideal circumstances for watching couldn’t be replicated without renting a theater.

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    1. Ooh, wait, I’m curious about how you think TV is declining as an event. I’m not a very big TV guy, so I really was under the impression that television is even MORE of a “big deal” now compared to before (given its global audiences, binge-watching becoming a thing, anticipation for a new season or series going through the roof, etc.).

      To answer your question, I think the set-up of a smaller screening would suffice! Obviously wouldn’t get the same picture quality, but it sure beats a tiny laptop screen any day. But then it also depends on where you set up the projector and sound system. Film screenings at school are still pretty effective, but screenings in people’s houses can end up with the movie being reduced to background noise. Either way, I’m still not sure if many Filipinos are committed enough to invest in home theaters. :/ But it seems to be the best alternative.

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