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.”
If a big sensory extravaganza like Snowpiercer is a no go, you still have plenty of options that are suitable to the small screen. I’m a huge fan of Wet Hot American Summer and Role Models, and so I didn’t want to wait a bunch of months to see They Came Together, David Wain’s latest directorial effort. While early reviews indicated that even the delightfully sunny Amy Poehler and Paul Rudd couldn’t rescue this thing from mediocrity, I was still curious. And honestly, my time at home isn’t all that valuable—my girlfriend and I watched this 83-minute trifle instead of a couple of episodes of Veep. While I loved Snowpiercer on its own merits, watching at home also helped me appreciate a movie that didn’t blow me away. I liked They Came Together for its few funny moments—mostly the endless repetition of “Tell me about it” and “You can say that again”—rather than resenting the time and money I’d spent to see a movie that was 40 percent as good as Wet Hot American Summer.
Compared to going out somewhere, this was a cheap night of entertainment, and there were a bunch of perks compared to the theatrical experience. For one, nobody except me was texting during the show. We were also able to hit rewind to resolve a disagreement about a particular line, and we fast-forwarded through the credits to see if there were any hilarious bonus features hiding at the end. (There were not.)
All of these amazing capabilities will come as a shock to the 12 people who have never owned a VCR, a DVD player, a tricked-out game console, or any television with a new-age set-top box. It’s obviously not news that modern man has invented a mechanism by which to watch movies at home. What is new is that anyone, anywhere, can watch a huge selection of movies as soon as they hit the streets.
Ever since Steven Soderbergh’s Bubble helped popularize the day-and-date rollout in 2006, the Hollywood business press has ruminated endlessly on how this new tactic could shake up the industry. (See this 2011 story on the on-demand success of Margin Call.) Major theater chains hate day-and-date and “ultra” video-on-demand releases—that’s when a movie hits streaming services prior to its theatrical debut—as they believe (probably correctly) that happy, lazy home viewers will skip out on driving to the Cineplex if given the option. That’s why, with the exception of the Kickstarter-funded Veronica Mars, big studios have so far been hesitant to eradicate the window of theatrical exclusivity. (In 2011, Universal planned to stream the comedy Tower Heist for $59.99 three weeks after it debuted in theaters, but canceled that risible experiment—$59.99 to see the film Richard Roeper called “cheerfully crappy schlock”—when exhibitors made noise about boycotting the film.)
It will be interesting to see whether, in two or five or 10 years, we’ll be able to watch the 50th Spider-Man reboot from our living rooms on opening day. But by focusing on the business side of things, and by noting that there are certain kinds of movies that you have to wait to watch at home, we’re losing sight about how great we have it now.
The lack of reliable, comprehensive listings of on-demand titles is perhaps a sign that we’re not quite excited enough about this world we’re living in. (The calendars at Film Pulse and the site RentMoviesOnDemand.com are the best ones I know of. If there’s something better out there, let me know in the comments.) Regardless, it’s undeniable that you can now use a push-button dialing system to beam Snowpiercer and dozens of other excellent first-run movies into your TV set. When you get home tonight, don’t be afraid to push that button, even if you’re not wearing pants.