What is a Film?

Buried in this post from last Fall was a note about how Hollywood defines a motion picture: A motion picture is what audiences see in a darkened theater. And I thought of that note during last night’s Academy Awards show, with the industry hammering its “movies are meant for the big screen” message and Mickey Rooney and Jack Nicholson in the audience, nodding along in agreement.

Of course, a big part of the theme and a big part of the message is copyright-related. DON’T DO IT! (Steal movies, I mean.) As the Guv once said, “We’ve got to protect our phony baloney jobs, gentlemen.” Hollywood’s symbolic economy depends on the price discrimination built into the current pattern of movie distribution, and the current pattern of movie distribution begins with theatrical.

There’s an important cognitive dimension to this, however, and the cognitive may be even more important than the economic. Money aside, Hollywood really does believe that movies-in-theaters are different “things” than whatever-it-is-we-watch-on-a-TV-monitor. I include writers, actors, directors, producers, and other crafts working on films in my Hollywood metonym, and to Hollywood, there is something distinct about the audience’s theatrical experience. That’s what was so poignant about the Oscars last night: The movie theater set; the pleas for theater-going from the stage; George Clooney’s “I’m glad I’m an outsider” acceptance speech; even Jon Stewart’s talk-show host gawking at movie stars. Chris Rock mocked Hollywood last year; Jon Stewart fawned over it. Hollywood is its own Tara, its own Rick’s American Cafe.

The problem, of course, is that a growing proportion of movie watchers (e.g., NetFlix customers) are metaphorical Rhett Butlers and Rick Blaines. They don’t buy the illusion; they don’t care about the theater. Movies may be made with the theatrical experience in mind, but movies are watched, if they are watched, for a thousand different reasons, and most of those have to do with price and convenience and celebrity and the movie consuming public’s feel for what is worthy, and what’s not, when it comes to entertainment. Whether we think about Paul Haggis’s “Crash” message or Robert Altman’s filmmaking art, the Oscars are struggling as never before against the commodification of movies. And the Oscars are losing. Jon Stewart’s best line last night: “Martin Scorcese, zero Oscars. Three 6 Mafia, one.” At least some in the Academy get it.

Many years ago, Jack Valenti said to Congress: “I say to you that the VCR is to the American film producer and the American public as the Boston strangler is to the woman home alone.” Jack Valenti was right, but not in any way that he anticipated or intended. The VCR, and now the DVD player, really is killing film. But the machines aren’t killing anything via piracy. They’re killing the very idea of film.