Members of the film industry often bemoan the demise of the cinema, commenting that instead of lining up outside our local movie theater, we're all squinting at Citizen Kane on our smartphones. Spike Lee is the latest filmmaker to contribute to this running theme, and was reportedly taken aback at Variety’s recent Entertainment and Technology conference by the idea that people are watching classic films on their mobiles. "I know it’s not a popular view, but as a filmmaker — we kill ourselves with editing," said Lee. "With lighting. With sound ... It’s heartbreaking."
"It such a sadness that you think you've seen a film on your fucking telephone."
The actor Julianne Moore made similar comments earlier this month, telling the audience at Las Vegas' CinemaCon that "a movie never looks the same on television," and that filmmakers "work very hard ... in creating a theatrical experience." For fans of the movies-are-stupid-on-phones meme, there's also this classic clip of director David Lynch, in which he remarks with great passion: "It's such a sadness that you think you've seen a film on your fucking telephone. Get real."
Comments like these are sometimes presented by the media as baleful endtime prophecies — as if the world was on the verge of abandoning the movie theater and the trend for watching films on smartphones was not only well-established but irreversible. The reality is that the cinema remains incredibly popular — both in the US and worldwide — and although it's true that we spend more time watching video on our smartphone than ever before, it's not like people are thinking, "Ooh, I can't wait to get home and watch The Godfather on my Nexus."
In 2014, reports the MPAA, global box office revenue was actually up 1 percent worldwide. And although ticket sales in North America fell 6 percent (most of the growth was in the Asian Pacific region), this still leaves an industry worth $10.4 billion annually in the US and Canada alone. This isn't a dying art.
Technology lovers account for a lot of ticket sales
The MPAA's data also shows that it's technology lovers who make up a significant amount of sales at the box office. Frequent moviegoers — those who see more than one film a month — account for more than half of ticket sales. And of these repeat customers, nearly three-quarters of them own at least four "key technology products" (for example a tablet, smartphone, laptop, and games console) — compared to 55 percent of the general population. This suggests that it's not a zero sum game. You don't quit the cinema because you can get a cam recording of the new Avengers to watch on the bus. Our smartphones are usually supplemental — we pick them up because we're bored; we don't often set aside time for them.
And although there's no denying that people are watching more video on their smartphones than ever before, it's a relatively small amount — one estimate puts it at 33 minutes of mobile video per day compared to four and a half hours of TV. These sorts of figures suggest people are watching YouTube videos and news clips — not movie marathons.
As for Lee's comment that our attention to detail is diminished on the smaller screen? Well, we won't dispute that, but the same worries were expressed when TV supplanted cinema, and filmmaking survived that transition just fine. There's also plenty of evidence that our ubiquitous video capabilities on smartphones are even helping cinema — as with Tangerine, a breakout hit from this year's Sundance that was filmed completely on an iPhone. Who knows, in another 20 years' time we might be worrying about people watching films on their smartwatches, but it's certain that an immersive, theatrical experience will still have a dominant place.