The Privatization and Individualization of Movie-Watching

This item in the Independent got me thinking (but then, pretty much everything does):

“Cinema chains could refuse to show major films in a showdown with two leading studios over home viewing.

Warner Brothers and 20th Century Fox are expected to soon launch a premium online video-on-demand service, allowing people to watch movies on their TVs and computers a month after they are first screened.

Cinema companies are outraged by the proposals, which would greatly reduce the standard gap of four months between cinematic openings and films becoming legally available for the small screen. They believe it would greatly cut into profits by reducing their time window for luring audiences into cinemas and have warned that it would cause many cinemas to close down.

Their cause is supported by 23 of the world’s most successful directors – including James Cameron, Kathryn Bigelow, Guillermo del Toro and Michael Mann – who attacked the plans in an open letter published in Hollywood trade magazine Variety.

Last year, the UK’s three largest cinema chains announced they would refuse to screen Tim Burton’s film Alice in Wonderland due to Disney’s plan to release the movie on DVD a month earlier than usual. Although Cineworld and Vue eventually relented, Odeon went through with the boycott.

The prospect of this occurring on a much wider scale is looking likely, with cinemas in the US already cutting the number of promotional trailers they are showing for both studios.

Under the studios’ scheme, which will be launched in the US, customers would pay $30 (£18) to rent a single movie digitally. Though this is a relatively high price for an individual film, they believe it is cost-effective for families for whom the convenience of watching from the sofa rather than the cinema would be a prime incentive. There is also speculation that Google will sign deals with Sony and Universal to stream films through YouTube in competition with iTunes and Amazon.”

So the issue is not “movies you can watch on TV”, because that was always the case with the advent of television. The issue is to get movies on TV soon after theater release or straight to DVD (for crappy horror films), so the “I’ll wait for the DVD / on-demand” becomes a more attractive and realistic option, especially with very large HD TV sets.

As one of these curmudgeons who cannot stand people who eat / chew gum / drink / chat / do whatever on their cell phones during movies, I recognize the trend. But on a larger scale, this is clearly in line with the privatization and individualization of movie-watching. This is privatization in the sense of retreating into the private sphere for an activity that used to be social (common and collective).

This is individualization in the sense that, even as a private experience, you could still have the whole family watching the same film on their big-ass HD TV (think, the Mannion family movie night which is private but social, then shared more widely with readers, see the right sidebar on Lance Mannion’s blog). But this is truly individualization as every household member could be watching a different film on different platforms (TV, iPads, computers, smart phones, etc… a trend discussed here). And, of course, no more concession money for movie theaters as people could eat their own junk food at home.

Needless to say, there will always be theater audiences for movies like Avatar (and the same people will buy the DVDs or watch on HD TV when available). The issue is for “smaller” films (foreign, independent) that have a smaller audience to start with. Basically, the movie producers might make determinations as to which films “deserve” to be on the big screen as opposed to thrown straight to streaming on-demand. And we know what kinds of decisions this will lead to: more Thor, less Little Miss Sunshine. More disaster films, less character-driven productions. Which means, more guys films, less chick movies (paging Anita Sarkeesian), when chicks movies is understood as everything that is not a guys film.

And now, if you’ll excuse me, I’ll go watch something from my Netflix Instant queue.

2 thoughts on “The Privatization and Individualization of Movie-Watching

  1. This reminds me of another sociology post I read recently about the demographic characteristics of who attends movies at the theater (find it at

    This increasing individuation reflects other trends of specialization in both the entertainment industry and the larger world. People are becoming increasingly expectant of customization in their interaction with media, but I do worry that this could also result in more action movies. They have a time and a place, but not all the time and not everywhere. It reminds me of the tension of globalization – the more we share, do we become more the same or more individual? Is a global culture or national identity more lasting?

  2. Excellent recognition of a trend, we can see that the same thing occurred within music about 15 to 20 years ago with the emergence of the mp3 player, internet, file sharing and the demise of the lucrative CD. The business was decentered. Now all that exists is the lowest common denominator…in other words very superficial pre-teen/teen driven music market. This is the equivalent to just “guy films” made for the theatre now. I would argue there is a genre of “chick flick” that is still made for big screen, but the audience is pre-teen/teen girls.

    I love my Netflix Instant. I enjoy digging up a gem from their archive. They have an excellent foreign film selection as well.

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