Third screen's a charmer

It's a womb! It's Plato's cave! It's ... a movie theater! And, as in the days of yore (i.e. the bygone salad days of the TV and VCR), for the past few years romantics have again been living in fear of the demise of their favorite hideout, the temples with shadowy interior where they can at once be (proverbially) naked and nothing and sharing in a community experience. Maybe their fears are misplaced.

What demon-spawned force is supposed to take down the great cinema palaces of old this time? What accursed thing wields the power to transform the lovely Redford Theatre into a veritable museum? What malevolent influence threatens to overcome the intrinsic human need for social interaction? Personal technology, baby: Sweet-ass home-theater systems and "the third screen." Simply put: computers, but not just your lap and desktop varieties. Expand your scope to include video-enabled MP3 players, Internet-ready mobile phones, and iPods and iPhones. Apple TV, by making your computer files available on your television, facilitates the transformation of your second screen (that'd be your telly, sugar) into the third in combination with iTunes' movie rental service, Netflix's instant-watch feature and, of course, piracy.

There are many factors playing upon said romantics' anxieties, not least of which is the growing market influence of a generation of movie watchers suffering from a condition David Denby documented last year known as "platform agnosticism," which renders them indifferent to the size or location of the screen on which they consume film. (There is no known salvation.)

What would lure an individual away from the larger-than-life majesty of the silver screen? Convenience, certainly. Pirated films are available for the braver to watch as early as opening weekend, and Netflix and iTunes allow cinephiles who revile the oft-juvenile theater crowds to simply await home release (only four months from theatrical release and shrinking) and enjoy in peace, at the click of a mouse. (Oh, yeah, did I mention that most of those 50-inch flatscreen beauties in Sunday's Best Buy ads have a PC input?) Young'ns with short attention spans and instant-gratification issues can text away mid-film without the intrusion of those meddling theater staffers.

But, assuage your fears (translation: Ixnay on the oomsayingday, folks), at least for now:

Theaters are finally back on track after the 2005 slump, and National Association of Theatre Owners President John Fithian says they're here to stay.

But what will they play?

As of June 13, 2008's box-office take was only slightly under last year's — the year of "threequels," Fithian interjects — and he fully expects to make up the difference in no time.

He points out that the total number of U.S. screens actually increased in 2008, though the sum of theater locations has decreased, which he ascribes to older facilities being torn down and the erection of more modern multi-screened structures.

It would seem counterintuitive that an attention-deficit generation of instant-gratification addicts still makes up the majority of frequent moviegoers, but Fithian recalls a 2007 study by the MPAA (Motion Picture Association of America) which shows that individuals who own or subscribe to five or more technologies (DVR, satellite TV, MP3 players, etc.) actually see about four more movies per year than, er, neo-Luddites. The old wisdom that techies are by their very nature antisocial creatures is being challenged. For instance, the University of Southern California Digital Media Center's 2008 report showed that Internet users say they spend more face-to-face time with friends and family than nonusers.

"For [young people], this is just one more form of being pervaded by media," Fithian says, adding that many theaters are looking into rowdier, text-friendly auditoriums to serve their long-term welfare by meeting their youthful patrons' desires — AMC's Star Theatre in Southfield, anyone? — and additionally creating adult spaces for more challenging content. AMC offers its "AMC Select" for, they tell us, "special films for select tastes," most of which are released regionally and occasionally screen in a Detroit-area AMC theater.

VHS and DVD in fact drove increased crowds to theaters (logical, when one begins to think about sequels), says Fithian, instead of keeping them indoors. Third-screen distribution of films may have the same effect. Certainly from a marketing standpoint the third screen plays a key role in driving traffic to movie theaters — the MPAA found that individuals who research films online are more likely to attend on opening weekend.

Studios are undoubtedly taking their cues from this information, as viral videos and featurettes — not just traditional trailers — for upcoming films like The Dark Knight and Watchmen permeate the Web, generating interest and giving fanboys and girls a sense of supervision over narratives they care about deeply.

This may be business as usual for blockbuster sequels or derivative films, but what about original independent movies without studio-level marketing budgets? The big screen has become a harder market (consider: Ang Lee's 2003 Hulk made $132 mil and was still considered a flop). Especially in Flyoverland, low-grossing, more esoteric fare may only be a second- or third-screen option, and that seems good enough for Warner Bros. chairman and CEO Barry Meyer, who in Denby's article asserted that special-effects movies may be the only ones given major theatrical releases a few years down the line. "Other movies," he said, "maybe you see them on DVD, through downloads, maybe it goes to an iPod."

Terrence Malick's The New World didn't click for former Village Voice (now New York Times) film critic Nathan Lee until he watched it on a laptop on an airplane. I had a similar experience with Gillian Armstrong's Charlotte Gray while winging it over the Pacific years ago. But imagining artier films ghettoized to the third screen is a little hard to stomach.

Todd Wagner and Mark Cuban's Magnolia Pictures tries to coordinate same-day theatrical and home-video releases of low-budg indies like Steven Soderbergh's Bubble and Hal Hartley's Henry Fool sequel Fay Grim, giving us some semblance of medium choice, but many theaters refuse to show same-day multi-platform releases.

It's tragic to think there was an age when folks between coasts might've actually had a shot at watching, oh, say, David Lynch in theaters. At least in Detroit, we have the Landmark theaters in Birmingham and Royal Oak, Birmingham's the Uptown Palladium and the Detroit Film Theatre inside the DIA. In Ann Arbor, there's the Michigan Theater and the State Theatre. Thing is, when indie films get any play here, not enough advertising money is devoted to giving the movie any visibility. And then of course there are constant opening-date changes. It's difficult to keep track.

For David Lynch, who famously railed against the experience of watching a movie on an iPhone ("You'll be cheated ... It's such a sadness, that you think you've seen a film on your fucking telephone — get real."), and others who find themselves short of funding and big on challenging ideas, the third screen is a viable option for distribution. Lynch releases film content — like the "sitcom" Rabbits — online to paid members of his website, His ex, Isabella Rossellini, recently directed and starred in a series of shorts titled Green Porno "conceived specifically" for the third screen via the Sundance Channel. In them, Rossellini portrays various male insects copulating with their female counterparts.

And speaking of Sundance: Major festivals, promoters of our nation's foremost indie and pseudo-indie fare, such as the ubiquitous Toronto, Sundance and South by Southwest film fests, are increasingly cozy with the third screen. Sundance, for its part, created a film-screening "island" in Second Life's virtual world in 2007; in 2008, The New York Times style magazine, T, exhibited on its site a number of short, original films made during the festival. Both brought those of us who couldn't make it to Park City, Utah, just a little closer to the premiere experience.

Austin's SXSW is five years into its Click mobile-media festival, which showcases a vast amount of new short-film work on the third screen. Winners of SXSWclick! — chosen by a panel of industry professionals — go on to screen at the SXSW Film Fest in March.

"Over the course of the past five years, video on the Internet has changed a lot," says Jarod Neece, SXSW Film Festival conference and production manager, referring to the founding of YouTube in 2005. Click uses mobile devices as a means to disseminate a curated selection of quality short films, and, according to Neece, "A couple of filmmakers have made features now." The end goal of most short filmmakers, he says, still seems to be to make feature-length movies for the big screen. And there may be hope for indies in movie palaces yet: As theaters convert to digital projection, distribution will become cheaper, says Fithian.

Reels currently run a grand or more, where digital copies will set you back only about the cost of a hard drive each. And rather than unloading and re-spooling an unwieldy reel to move an "underperforming" film to a smaller auditorium, Fithian says digitization will allow you "to just flick a switch and [the film] goes to the auditorium you want."

With theaters all over the country upgrading to digital technology, including the nation's largest chain, Regal Cinemas, and James Cameron's newfangled 3-D projection technology accompanying his all-3-D release Avatar, it's hard to picture movie houses vaporizing in a matter of years. Fithian has, at least for me, provided a glimmer of silver-screen indie hope. For a paradoxically Gen-M neo-Luddite like myself, a solo iPhone viewing won't ever touch the inimitable communal experience of "the movies." Still, I find myself considering a projector (and a savings account), just to be safe.

Ashley Lindstrom is an associate editor for media at the San Antonio Current where this story originally appeared. Send comments to [email protected]