In a 1987 interview with Omni Magazine, Roger Ebert prophesied that in the not-too-distant future we “will have high-definition, wide-screen television sets and a push-button dialing system to order the movie you want at the time you want it.” He went on to anticipate what this could mean for the future of cinema:
I also am very, very excited by the fact that before long, alternative films will penetrate the entire country. Today seventy-five percent of the gross from a typical art film in America comes from as few as six—six—different theaters in six different cities. Ninety percent of the American motion-picture marketplace never shows art films. With this revolution in delivery and distribution, anyone, in any size town or hamlet, will see the movies he or she wants to see.
Three decades later, Ebert’s prediction has come true—and it’s exemplified by a documentary about Roger Ebert. The film Life Itself opened in just 14 markets over the July 4 weekend, and yet anyone in the United States can watch Steve James’ intimate exploration of the critic’s life and death. That’s because Life Itself was a “day-and-date release,” available on demand (for $7.99 using my Comcast set-top box), on iTunes (for $6.99), and on various other streaming platforms the same day it came out in theaters.
In 2014, a film buff in Dubuque, Iowa, need not lag behind us coastal types when it comes to watching the latest independent fare. In addition to James’ documentary, you can stay home to watch the trippy animated feature The Congress (not in theaters until Aug. 29) and the Aubrey Plaza zombie comedy (zom-com?) Life After Beth (available exclusively on DirecTV until it comes to theaters on Aug. 15). On Aug. 1, the intriguingly weird-looking The One I Love, starring Mark Duplass and Elisabeth Moss, will come to on demand. And over the last couple of weeks, I used a push-button dialing system (aka my remote) to order the rom-com spoof They Came Together and Bong Joon-Ho’s sci-fi railroad romp Snowpiercer, paying $7.99 a pop to watch them on my high-definition, wide-screen television.
Sitting on my sofa, push-button dialing system by my side, I can’t help but feel that I’m filing a dispatch from a future entertainment universe. We should embrace and celebrate the fact that we can now watch great movies on TV the same day they’re in theaters. And yet this development feels like it’s brought on more consternation than joy. Writing in the Wall Street Journal, director Christopher Nolan ponders a “bleak future” in which the theatrical experience becomes akin to “television in public.” But, as Ebert did 27 years ago, we should see the projector as half full. Instead of stroking our chins about some dark time ahead in which moviegoing loses its cultural primacy, let’s appreciate the fact that a cinematic bounty now lays before us. The summer movie season isn’t just for Dinobots anymore. Now, you can watch a huge array of films of all different sorts, whenever you want, with or without pants.
Consider Snowpiercer, which I’ve been meaning to see for weeks. It’s not playing anywhere close to my house, though, and I never quite pulled the trigger on piling into the car and spending the time and money to see it in the theater. But when it was released on demand on July 11—just two weeks after its U.S. theatrical debut—my finger immediately wandered over to the play button. Before the on-demand era, I would’ve missed out on the cultural conversation around Snowpiercer—by the time I watched it in 2017, everyone would’ve moved on to some post-apocalyptic movie set on a dirigible. Now, after watching it at home, I can listen to the Slate spoiler special and ask the next person I meet with cool-looking glasses whether he thinks the movie’s super-train needed a car with a ball pit.
Admittedly, this is the kind of effects-heavy movie that some people may prefer to see in the theater. I have an HD projector—the one I recommended in this article is still humming—and its 90-plus-inch image is close enough to cinema quality that I don’t feel like I’m missing out on much. But as Ann Hornaday explained in a 2013 Washington Post piece on the “on-demand indie film revolution,” even projector-less entertainment systems are getting better every year. Plus, she adds, with “audiences texting, talking, beeping and buzzing through a movie they just shelled out nearly $20 to ignore, a compelling case can be made that watching a movie at home—even with kids, electronic devices, and easy bathroom breaks—is more immersive and less prone to distractions than going to the multiplex.”