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Christopher Nolan says movie theaters can still flourish in a Netflix world

Christopher Nolan says movie theaters can still flourish in a Netflix world

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Can your local cineplex survive in a world where most people are happy to stream a movie from the couch? Director Christopher Nolan thinks so. In an op-ed published by The Wall Street Journal today, Nolan didn't hide from the facts: the moviegoing experience is rapidly changing as studios move away from film prints in favor of digital, a format that allows them to put movies on screens of every size. Video-on-demand services like Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon Instant Video now dominate the living room, and it's easier than ever to take movies along for a flight or your daily subway commute. But Nolan still sees the theater as nothing less than essential.

"No one goes to a concert to be played an MP3 on a bare stage."

"The theatrical window is to the movie business what live concerts are to the music business — and no one goes to a concert to be played an MP3 on a bare stage," he writes. Nolan suspects that movie theaters of the future "will be bigger and more beautiful than ever before" and offer audiences a presentation experience that simply can't be anywhere else — regardless of how much cash you dump into a home theater setup.

But there are also very real risks that point to a "bleak future" for the industry, Nolan warns. Many of them rest with greedy Hollywood studios and their gravitation towards blockbusters and summer spectacles. Nolan believes the digital transition has led movies to fall under an unwanted blanket term: "content." Christopher Nolan hates the word content. He says:

As streams of data, movies would be thrown in with other endeavors under the reductive term "content," jargon that pretends to elevate the creative, but actually trivializes differences of form that have been important to creators and audiences alike. "Content" can be ported across phones, watches, gas-station pumps or any other screen, and the idea would be that movie theaters should acknowledge their place as just another of these "platforms," albeit with bigger screens and cupholders.

Lumping movies into this category is dangerous, Nolan says. It could lead to a world where theaters adjust their screening schedule on the fly based on what's selling tickets that day. At first that might sound reasonable, but the Dark Knight trilogy director doesn't agree. "Smaller, more unusual films would be shut out," Nolan says. "Innovation would shift entirely to home-based entertainment." Such a shift could kill movie theaters as we know them, since Nolan isn't convinced they'd survive based on presentation alone. "The audience experience is distinct from home entertainment, but not so much that people seek it out for its own sake," he says.

"No standards means no rules."

Creative minds and films that captivate are a crucial part of the formula, just as they've always been. "The cinema of the future will depend not just on grander presentation, but on the emergence of filmmakers inventive enough to command the focused attention of a crowd for hours." And Nolan believes those experiences are coming. People needn't worry about formats or standards, he insists — only the freedom that opens up as those things evolve. "It's unthinkable that extraordinary new work won't emerge from such an open structure. That's the part I can't wait for." Nolan's own next work, Interstellar, is scheduled to hit theaters in November.