The elephant in the theatre is this: films aren't even worth pirating these days.
While I'm happy to join the hand wringing parties over the demise of one of my favourite movie houses, the Ridge, the death of Vancouver's iconic popcorn palace suggests it's time to address the elephant in the room: movies suck.
Film going is declining, even multiplexes are closing, and like most publishing industries, the film biz wants to blame the internet and illegal downloading for their plight. But it's more likely the culprit is the ever-shrinking pool of good films attractive enough to lure people away from theatre, concerts, and sports -- not to mention the much superior-fare to be found in TV series like Mad Men.
It's telling that once demon downloaders can't even be bothered to steal movies any more. TorrentFreak.com, a website covering the downloading wars, reported that 2011 saw the first drop in illegal movie downloads and the trend is continuing.
This caught everyone off-guard. Industry analysts speculated that more legal access services like Netflix might have had an impact, and I might have accepted that had I not seen the Top 10 pirated movies. Number one was Fast Five (part of the Fast & Furious franchise). Then came The Hangover Part II, then Thor... you get the picture. It was an astounding CrapFest. No wonder thefts were down: beyond a few million teenage boys, who can be bothered with these movies, free or not?
The last three spots in the Top 10 steals included two kids movies, Rango and the wrap-up of the Harry Potter series, along with that year's Academy Award winner in ninth place, The King's Speech. It appears few adults steal the "good" films. If we're not seeing them in theatres or DVDs, we're not seeing them.
I had seen the mediocre King's Speech in a theatre only because it was on the Oscar's newly expanded list of best picture nominees. After I saw it, I knew exactly why they'd expanded that list -- to make former film junkies like myself feel obligated to see more middling movies.
Great days at the Ridge
It was around that time that another celebrated film, Woody Allen's Midnight in Paris, left me perplexed. I was once an Allen fan, but I thought it was at best a shallow, trite, boring piece of celluloid, sprinkled with every cliché imaginable able about Paris, Hollywood, art, love, life, and 1920s celebrities. At worst, it was a cynical project designed to appeal to the sort of middlebrows who would feel flattered if they got the references.
I'm in the minority in my hate: Metacritic gave it an 81, and most of my pals recommended it. And right about then it occurred to me that if this is what passes for a great film then maybe I don't like movies after all.
That was an astounding idea to scamper across the brain of someone whose enthusiasm for film was cultivated in utero. Early on I found that one sure way to avoid going to bed was to join my mother who liked to catch late night classics on television. "Come watch," she'd say, "It's Humphrey Bogart."
But soon I was hooked too. Some kids needed fake IDs to get into bars; I needed one to get into movies. But the Ridge offered the chance to see all those classic films I'd read about. The first time I saw Gone with the Wind, I was about 15 and caught a rare screening of the 1939 film on a rainy Sunday evening. The Ridge was packed, and a damp, steamy contrast to the burning of Atlanta, but we were all riveted for four hours. Even better: our intermission came with Nanaimo bars and good coffee.
There was a sense of camaraderie found in vintage houses like the Ridge that I find more common in live theatre audiences. When Lauren Bacall advised Bogart to "just whistle" if he wants her, the audience exploded with wolf whistles. When Ingrid Bergman tells Bogart he'll have to do the thinking for the both of them in Casablanca, a feminist groan reverberated around the room.
Watching movies with an engaged audience also gives you what might be called another layer of meaning -- or in my case, a clue. When Billy Crystal explained the concept of "high maintenance" to Meg Ryan in When Harry Met Sally, he pointed out her detailed orders in restaurants. "I just want it the way I want it," she replies. Seemed reasonable to me, so I was surprised when much of the theatre erupted into laughter. (Yeah, that was my first hint.)
For more than two decades I saw at least 50 films a year for fun. As an arts writer with a ready stash of film trivia, I had more than one editor try to convince me to be a film critic, but I always dodged that bullet. "I love movies because I only see the good ones," I would explain. "Or at least the ones that try to be good. There's too much bad film out there to risk becoming a critic."
I dreaded a particular sort of bad movie that was becoming increasingly common by the 1990s. The kind that set out to be a commercial hit, informed by criteria established by the dumbest people in any organization: the marketers.
As movies deteriorated into a relentless stream of blow'em up good films and super hero sagas there was the simultaneous problem of shifting social behaviour. Chatty cellphone users were bad enough, but by 2006 smartphones were everywhere and people started to think it was okay to fire up the equivalent of a flashlight and text throughout a movie. Although I have to admit the altercations that followed were often more entertaining than the film.
On the bright side, I've come to appreciate those tell-the-whole-movie trailers for the way they help me cross titles off my list.
Turning to television
I didn't really notice how much my film going had dwindled, or how much I missed it, until last spring when I attended an HBO Canada screener for the megahit series Game of Thrones, at the Vancity Theatre (home of the Vancouver International Film Festival).
It left me wishing I could see all good TV series this way: in a comfortable theatre with excellent sightlines and an enthusiastic audience. For two seasons the series has been warning us winter is coming, but this time I felt it as I was sucked into the icy white landscape on the big screen. A colleague laughed as I shivered and put my coat back on.
It was the ideal way to see an expensively produced show like Game of Thrones and it dawned on me that if movie theatres could run addictive serials it might very well change their fate, not to mention serving cable-cutters and creating another way to distribute great shows. To date, theatres have tried to lure viewers back with "premium experiences" including lounges with booze and meals. They've had limited success because it doesn't address the underlying problem: fewer and fewer of us are up for wasting two hours of our lives watching some actor in tights dangling in front of a greenscreen monster.
What attracts me (and I suspect most of us) to even the cheesiest multiplexes is interesting shows. I've been delighted to see that a lot of major dance, opera and theatre companies are experimenting with delivering their productions internationally via cinemas, but the most successful is London's National Theatre. For less than $25 you can see the likes of Jonny Lee Miller and Benedict Cumberbatch in Frankenstein, even in small towns like Langley.
Which means that many of the best shows I've seen in movie houses in the last few years haven't been what we usually mean by movies.
So while I join the rest of the city in mourning the loss of the Ridge, I think it's telling that the final film on Feb. 3 is Midnight in Paris. Yes, it's quite likely I no longer appreciate what is considered a good film. But with downloading on the decline too, there must be a lot of former film fans like me who think most movies aren't worth stealing, let alone going out for.