Thoreau, iPhones and moving pictures

“We are the tools of our tools,” or so Henry David Thoreau famously said. It’s true. As a species, our single greatest flaw is our obsession with inanimate objects. How many folks died for the shiny yellow metal stuff? What about blood diamonds? How many newspapers did we deliver so we could buy that Red Ryder BB gun, only to play with it for a day and then throw it in a box under the bed for the next 20 years? How many extra hours do us workin’ folks put in for an extra bedroom on the house, power locks on the car or just to have the latest gizmo or doodad, or to have real hardwood in our floors instead of that laminated stuff that looks exactly the same.

I have to admit that I’ve fallen victim to that material cycle that Thoreau warned about, even after reading Walden twice. My latest gadget of obsession is the iPhone. I know I’m about two years late on this little fad. But the old bag phone had to go. I’ll miss it. With the shoulder strap it was handy in dark alleys for self-defense.

So I’ve been obsessed with this little thing and how you can use your fingers to make stuff glide around. I downloaded games (ostensibly for my daughter) and even watched videos. The size of the screen, unlike my old phone, actually allows you to watch video rather than just preview it. I could even see myself sitting in an airport lobby and watching a feature film on this device.

So here’s where we get to the crossover with the film industry. Whenever I experience a new gadget, like those mini LCD projectors that can turn any blank wall into a movie screen with the help of an iPod or laptop, I wonder what that means for the future of feature films. Is some new technology going to suck theatres dry and eliminate the revenue stream in an industry in which I’m just beginning to play a part. I wonder if I should feel like a saddlemaker in 1902 or a punch card operator or the publisher of a major urban newspaper. Is our medium going to experience obliteration due to technology, home theaters or even the economic crunch?

The answer is no. I’d  be naive to expect that the business model and process behind what makes people sit down in a stadium seat and chew popped corn drenched in fake butter-syrup will not change. The process of how people will find their way to the cinema might work totally different. But people will still go.

I have faith in this for several reasons. First, the original Great Depression saw a rise in filmgoing. Today it’s a twenty-dollar escape from your woes. We’re social animals, and even if we are going bankrupt and it would be cheaper to sit in front of our big LCD screen before it’s repossessed, we would rather experience something in the company of other humans. That’s why people go to the bar and spend five bucks per stout rather than sit at home with their own keg and suck it back for fifty cents a glass. It’s why people go to nightclubs instead of stay at home with a strobe light. Even those in search of solitude will sign up for a ten-day Sierra Club hike rather than strike out alone across the wilderness. Most of us are social creatures at least part of the time.

Second…nothing happening now in technology even compares to the previous advances that issued in countless predictions for the industry’s demise. If film and theatres were going to die, then television would have killed it. Or VHS. Or DVD. Or home theatres. Or Netflix. The iPhone won’t kill cinema either. Actually, one of the first apps I downloaded for my iPhone was Flixster. That program finds your GPS location and then connects you with all the films playing in your area. You can watch the trailers, read reviews and then get directions to the cinema. Just like television advertising or film websites, this is a technological advance that can actually drive people to the theater.

Finally, I’m convinced that cinema has a bright future because when I went home for the holidays and returned to the theaters I used to haunt as a kid, I found that they have expanded the building to add another half dozen shows on any given night. They’ve also build a five storey parking garage. They’re doing well. Every show we wanted to see was sold out, so we bought tickets for the next showing. We waited patiently. And we enjoyed the hell out of the picture.

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