Steve Jobs caught something real when he was making Toy Story for Pixar. He said that everything has its own essence. “The essence of a toy is to be played with by children….what is a person’s essence, the essence of a place, of an inanimate thing? That is what movie magic can show.”
In the history of movies, the magic has been tapped here and there by gifted people, but always – strong or weak – a movie reflects the culture of its time. You can make movies about the same subject – say the McCarthy era of the early ‘50s – but the one made in the ‘50s will reflect that decade just as one made about the same subject now will reflect the attitude of now toward the happenings of then.
Much of the magic of movies touches us as we watch in the quiet, dark theater among strangers, and there lies the new threat. While storytellers will continue to write marvelous scripts, the magic of the theater is threatened by escalating prices that have caused a decline in attendance. A ticket plus popcorn and a drink has been the trigger for their departure.
As this new century ticks away, technology is sending movies into homes via Netflix, On Demand, and proliferating streaming techniques. But what teenager wants to invite a date over to watch a movie under the watchful eyes of parents? And what parents want to sit on the couch in familiar surroundings with familiar distractions?
Try hunkering down on the comfortable couch. Lights stay on because someone wants to read instead. The phone rings several times. The dog asks to go outside at least twice during the running time. The fire needed another log. Each of these distractions breaks the mood.
The mood in a theater begins as you walk down the aisle looking for a seat at a favorite distance from the screen. The lights dim half way for the trailers. We are slipping away already from the day we just had. Then the lights darken and though we know no one in the theater, we have the screen in common. The experience of laughing or tensing or crying quietly with a hundred or more people is the essence of movie magic. But who can afford to pay for the pleasure when you can see it free at home?
And so, the multiplexes will fold. We will adjust our living rooms for a better watching experience by dimming the lights, turning off the phone, putting the dog to bed – creating an environment as close as possible as the one we used to know. But laughing and crying and being scared alone isn’t much fun, so, very gradually, we will improve on the experience by inviting a few friends over to join us. As we recognize and appreciate the pleasure of their emotional company someone will have the idea that it might be even more fun to gather somewhere else with a few more people. We might even be able to buy snack food. And so the small movie house will be reborn, and then, because not everyone wants to see the same movie, the multiplex will return. Until then, we best make do with the family couch, the small screen, and all those everyday distractions.