Cinema has been dead since the nineties. Or at least in an “ignominious, irreversible decline”, as Susan Sontag puts it in her famed essay “The Decay of Cinema”, which in one way or another has been on the mind of almost every film lover since its publication in 1996.
The dwindling ticket sales, the surge in big dumb loud and creatively bankrupt blockbuster movies, franchises so big their installments stretch all the way into the double digits, she was right about it all. And now it looks like the recent Covid-19 related closing of movie theatres might be the final nail in the coffin of cinema going as we have known and loved it.
But, to seek comfort in a cliché, sometimes when one door closes, a window opens. Prophetic in many ways, Sontag essay does not foresee Internet film culture (how could it?) and how it would change how films are accessed, watched, studied, and discussed, and how it would rise to the occasion to provide solace and comfort in the new and distressing times of social distancing.
“A new way to watch films has become particularly popular in the recent months of #stayathome: communal streaming.”
The Internet has been a blessing from the start. It made film critical resources more widely accessible and it made it possible to stream or download films at one’s convenience, to access films that are rare or have never received a wide international release. The recent ascendance of Disney to the position of absolute and untouchable box office dominance seems to be the type of event Sontag explicitly alludes to when she writes about the blockbusters that flood the movie theatre screens at the cost of smaller, more artful films being sidelined. But on the Internet, things are different. There, Disney – at least at the time of writing – is just one fish in a large and colorful pond of audiovisual online content.
But Internet has also allowed people who love film to find each other, to interact, to ultimately change and democratize the nature of film critical discourse. Film blogs, forums, podcasts — the forms of online engagement are numerous. And a new one has become particularly popular in the recent months of #stayathome: communal streaming.
Now, this is not something the online media suppliers had intended or foreseen. Most online streaming services are subscription-based, and while one account can be shared and used by close friends or family members, this circle of people is meant to remain small. Then suddenly, the term “Netflix Party” started popping up on Social Media. Netflix Party is a browser extension that allows one to watch Netflix films and shows with others by synchronizing video playback and, crucially, adding group chat. There are other ways to watch things online together. There are extensions such as TwoSeven or Kast, and if all else fails one can simply live stream a film on Discord.
Ways of communal digital film viewing are not limited to unofficial third-party solutions. Twitch, the live streaming platform used primarily for video game streaming and owned by Amazon, recently introduced Watch Parties, a feature that allows Twitch communities to “come together to watch, react, and discuss movies and TV shows available with their Amazon Prime or Prime Video membership, directly on Twitch.”
This is a new type of movie watching, one that is incompatible with the traditional movie going practice in which respectful silence is the default form of film consumption. The movie screen becomes a sort of digital fireplace around which we gather. Its warmth fuels our conversation, but it is the conversation about the film and not the film itself that becomes the main purpose of and reason behind the viewing.
“The movie screen becomes a sort of digital fireplace around which we gather.”
This new mode of film spectatorship seems to be explicitly designed to counter those now century old claims about the passivity of cinema viewers. That persistent myth of an entranced film spectator, seated, immobilized, and completely consumed by cinema, mindlessly following the moving images is both shattered and almost parodied by this type of viewing. This type of spectatorship is neither passive nor mindless, and yet, ironically, completely antithetical to the deep cinephiliac film analysis that would require us to pay the film our undivided attention.
A thoughtful media theorist might have predicted these watch parties before we even learned about the existence of Coronavirus. Live coverage of important media events or popular TV shows have become commonplace on Social Media and Twitter in particular, and YouTube is flooded with so-called reaction videos.
“This new mode of film spectatorship seems to be explicitly designed to counter those now century old claims about the passivity of cinema viewers.”
The popularity of these types of reviews, should we wish to call them that, is no longer – or at least not exclusively – owed to the famed intellectual curiosity that once was said to fuel critical discourse. The main motivation behind them seems to be an emotional one. To seek out such reviews is to look for a kindred spirit, or to anticipate a certain type of a reaction, or to wish to relive the viewing experience almost vicariously, as it were.
This film mode of viewing centered around multitasking – one must watch the film, read what others have to say, and write in chat at the same time – will surely not be for everyone. Seasoned cinephiles may be used to taking notes while watching a movie but are hardly accustomed to simultaneously reading others’ opinions on it. Many will be put off by this distracted way of watching but recognize in it something that’s been a long time coming between the frequent pauses and phone calls and runs to the fridge that accompany many a home cinema viewing. And there is something to be said not only about our new lockdown film viewing habits but also about the world in which such new modes of viewing emerge as an instinctual way to combat loneliness and isolation. The question is, will this be the new normal after our old normal is back or is our old normal truly a thing of the past?
In 2019, films by Disney and its subsidiaries accounted for nearly 40% of the US market while its closest competitors for less than 14%. Source: Jake Coyle: “In 2019, the box office belonged to Disney” in: AP News (December 31, 2019). www.apnews.com/1eef5653bdf27f2cb1a99b56ba18cfc5