About those things watched on an iPad

A friend was telling me about a screenwriting class he spoke to recently. At one point he asked the 20 students how they watched television most of the time. Seventeen of them said they watched it on their iPads or other mobile device. The three remaining -- relative Luddites -- admitted they still watched most of their programs on computer screens.

These students consume media very differently from the way I do. And, if you're reading this in analog form, if you're holding a newspaper in your hands, maybe their viewing habits seem different from yours too. Maybe you're more like me, and you have a screen set up in a room in your house that's attached to various cables and devices. Maybe you still slide shiny discs into a drawer to watch movies. (Maybe you get those discs from a vending machine or through the mail.)

Maybe, like me, you still go out to the movies on occasion.

I can make a case that going to a theater is the only real way to see a movie -- that the experience of sitting in the dark with strangers is an important cultural practice, one of the rituals that reminds us of our common humanity. But then I've got skin in the game, don't I? I've been writing about movies for more than 30 years and paying attention for more than 50. I have bright line divisions between TV shows and movies, and videos that run on websites.

But that's me. That's my generation.

I don't know exactly when I started making a distinction between entertainment products produced for the "big screen" and those produced for television. I do have a distinct memory of asking my father, when I was 7 years old and we were moving from the East Coast to the West, if that meant the movies that came on at 10 or 11 p.m. on our local stations would start at 7 or 8 p.m. in California. Which means that even if I had an unclear understanding about how television stations structured their schedules, it indicates that was I hopeful that those movies would no longer air after my bedtime. I wanted to see those grown-up movies.

Things have gotten a lot more fluid in recent years. Most people saw this year's Academy Award winner for Best Documentary as a limited series that ran on ESPN. I recently watched the film that won the Grand Jury Prize at this year's Sundance Film Festival -- Macon Blair's crime thriller I Don't Feel at Home in This World Anymore -- on Netflix. A disproportionate number of the "For Your Consideration" screeners I received during the recent awards season bore the logo of Amazon Studios, an off-shoot of the online retailer that some of us reflexively identify as a threat to brick-and-mortar bookstores.

One of the themes that developed during the LifeQuest movie discussions I conduct every winter was how high-quality scripted drama was continuing its migration to television, which meant it was being produced for cable channels and streaming services. While films that are released theatrically still occupy a special place in our national conversation -- while they still receive enough attention from enough people to count as cultural binding elements -- relatively few of us actually leave our houses to watch them anymore. And why should we make the trip when the period between a film's theatrical release and its video-on-demand or Blu-ray release has been reduced to a matter of weeks?

A lot of the calls I get ask about home video. People want to know when they can stream a movie on their devices. I tell them that our home movies column is designed to talk about films released on physical media -- on DVD and/or Blu-ray -- that week. Some films appear on video-on-demand while they're still in theaters, and there's no good way for us to keep track of when every film is available for online streaming.

What we've always tried to do in this section is focus on the content of the movies we write about. We're critically driven, not especially interested in the movie business or celebrity gossip. We try to write about the movies that are opening in Arkansas every week. We still try to review every film that opens.

But that's not always possible. Studio promotional budgets don't allow for many screenings in markets like ours anymore, and the larger studios are nervous about providing online links for critics to screen their films. (And most critics don't like reviewing films off streams because there's a qualitative difference in the experience.) So maybe we can't review as many movies as we used to. But then lots of movies don't really need to be reviewed. Often, studios are hoping we won't review them.

A lifestyle editor at another publication I once worked for explained to a reader that her decision not to review fast-food chain restaurants in the newspaper wasn't born of snobbery but of the recognition that those places existed to serve a particular kind of clientele: Those who liked to eat at fast-food chain restaurants. Their patrons knew what they were going to get and were unlikely to appreciate a review, whether it confirmed their taste or mocked it.

The same might be said for most of the increasingly generic movies produced by Hollywood studios. They have their audience, and that audience knows what it likes.

I struggle with that, for I think we ought to consider everything we consume, whether it's an ice cream sandwich or a Fassbinder film. I think that movies, even (and maybe especially) dull movies, can tell us things about who we are that we mighn't otherwise perceive. I think there's an audience for criticism, that there are people who have no interest in seeing a particular movie who will be interested in the review.

But I understand things are changing. And I expect we'll continue to evolve in the way we write about these movies. You know, the things you watch on your iPad.




MovieStyle on 03/17/2017

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