Tom Hanks spent years trying to bring his World War II battleship movie Greyhound to the big screen – he wrote it, produced it and stars in it, so it’s fair to say he has a lot at stake – and he recently described the fact it is not getting a cinematic release as “an absolute heartbreak”.
He later issued an apology of sorts to his “Apple overlords” (the film dropped on Apple+ TV on Friday), but he was right to note “there is a difference in picture and sound quality that goes along with [switching from the cinema to TV]”.
It’s not always necessarily for the worse, though. In his forthcoming memoir Chasing the Light, Oscar-winning writer-director Oliver Stone writes of the misery he has experienced upon watching his movies in a cinema where the sound has been turned down too low, or the projector bulb dimmed to extend its life. “I’ve lived through many hells in different theatres, begged to get the film out in the way we made it,” he writes. By contrast, the advent of streaming and digital cinema – anathema to some filmmakers but a boon to others – “has simplified the experience by making the technology easier to control”.
Unquestionably, one of the things we miss in not seeing movies at the cinema is the shared experience of watching with other people; comedies are rarely as funny when seen alone, adventure films rarely so thrilling (horror movies, on the other hand, can be way more terrifying when watched solo in a darkened house late at night – if you want that particularly morbid thrill, I can recommend the Ethan Hawke film Sinister).
The reality, though, is for many filmmakers the cinema release is becoming a minor element of their overall route to market.
“Cinema actually is about ideas and emotions and stories, it’s not about the scale of the screen,” says Kriv Stenders, whose documentary Brock: Over the Top is both in cinemas and on video on demand right now (his Slim and I, also a documentary, is due for a cinema release on August 20).
Stenders has a pull-down screen at home, on which he watches movies “through Netflix, Apple TV, all these other curatorial sites. I’m having a much more vibrant life as a cinemagoer than I did before.”
Those libraries do have their limits, though. “The one thing I do worry about with the streamers is the limits of their catalogues and how lost films can become in them,” says the Red Dog director. “So many films that were on DVD or VHS have now disappeared. There still needs to be libraries, collections, cinemas that keep all kinds of films alive.”
Justin Kurzel made his feature film True History of the Kelly Gang with a big screen firmly in mind, but when Stan* purchased it late last year – with the promise of a small theatrical release – he was swayed by the potential to reach so many more viewers than he ever would have via traditional cinema distribution.
“It’s a really sensitive time in terms of streaming versus theatrical and I love nothing more than for my films to play theatrically, and I hope that my films do in the future, and that people are going to the cinema,” he says. “But it is harder and harder to make an independent Australian film with Australian stories, especially ones that have a particular bent to them. And if you’ve got people like Stan that are interested in projects that are left of centre that’s nothing but exciting for future filmmakers.”
And for fellow Australian David Michod, who made The King for Netflix (it also had a brief theatrical window), the new route to viewers takes the heat off.
“I love not feeling subjected, sacrificing myself on the altar of the box office,” he says. “I don’t want to be released on 3000 screens in America. I want to be released on screens in the major centres so that those people who really want to go and see the movie on a big screen can. But I also love knowing that that isn’t necessarily where the movie will live and die.”
Karl Quinn is a senior culture writer at The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald.