Determining what movie to go see at a theater continues to become more selective for many film watchers. The cost of going to the cinema can be exorbitant, especially if you have to pay for parking or hire a babysitter. Making the overall trip “worth it” obviously favors the large budget action films, like Marvel productions and the James Bond franchise. These films deal in grand spectacle, stuffed with large scale action set pieces to showcase the vast amount of money that went into the film to make you feel a tiny bit better about the amount you spent. Horror films also fit into this mold, even if on a budget level they don’t cost anything close to these films, as they tend to be set piece-driven in their own way. Seeing these bombastic sequences on a large screen with seat-rattling sound unquestionably packs a punch. Purely from a financial necessity standpoint, this line of thinking seems totally reasonable. The trouble comes when the discussion turns to these types of films being the only ones you “have” to see on the big screen.
Believing that just the gigantic films only benefit from an equally enormous screen distorts much about what makes cinema an impactful art form. Granted, many of these films are quite dazzling, but a film does not have to contain battlefields filled with thousands of soldiers or superheroes punching foes into buildings to justify its existance on a screen the size of a basketball court. If anything, a more modest movie with a well-composed eye requires that vast canvas to fully engage with its visual language, aestheic beauty, and own sense of spectacle, which are facets of the medium not often admired or commented upon for the smaller scale. Foregoing fully immersing oneself in these types of films serves to disassociate film from the primary focus of the medium, the visual.
The major shift in how we perceive a large action film and a smaller drama comes from how audiences process plot. A great portion of film watchers today engage with plot as if it were purely information to learn and remember. Dissecting the “what” of a story has become its own cottage industry, laying out a timeline of events and figuring out whether each new point makes logical sense after the previous one. If the film is in a franchise, they then use the information they have accrued to plan out a hypothesis of how the story will continue. Because so many people are treating films like textbooks, you need the immense pageantry that $250 million can buy to pull them out of the left side of their brain so they start using the right side. The small drama they watch on their laptop without these bells and whistles will have a much harder time setting that right brain aflame with wonder.
At home, a medium dolly shot of two people walking through a park is easy to tune out. You glean what the scene is about based on the two characters’ conversation, so you glance down at your phone and reply to a text you just received. After all, you successfully computed the “what” of this scene, therefore able to continue casually observing for the rest of the film. However, placing these images on a cinema screen forces the audience to engage with them in a way you can’t at home, because while the “what” of a story is important, filmmakers greatly concern themselves with two other question words, “how” and “why.” Film as a medium is inherently visual, and camera placement, lens choice, blocking, and lighting are how filmmakers answer these questions. For this hypothetical shot, the filmmaker decided why this particular moment is important to the story and the characters emotionally and uses those four elements of mise en scène (what exists within the frame of the movie) for how to depict it in the most impactful way.
The audience does not need to be consciously aware of these filmmaking techniques and choices. If you are determing whether something was shot with a 35mm lens or a 50mm lens while you are watching a movie, really all you are doing is taking that same logic based method of analyizing plot and adapting it to the technical side of filmmaking. The goal of a well designed shot places you in the ideal emotional space to engage with the material. Seeing films without obvious spectacle in a theater allows the viewer to align themself within the film’s unique visual language with much more ease. You develop emotional responses to certain motifs that appear throughout a film, whether that be a repeated use of a particularly designed close up to evoke heartbreak or using a Steadicam to depict uneasiness. Watching a film at home requires a tremendous amount of effort on your part to create the best circumstance you can to mimic taking in a film this way. In a theater, the film comes to you and shows you how it operates.
Of course, a plethora of films on a small scale feature shots that are aesthetically gorgeous on their own, which have been designed with a particular sized canvas in mind. To best admire the visual artistry displayed in these shots requires seeing them on that intended canvas. Yes, it is possible to admire Georges Seurat‘s painting A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte by seeing it on a poster print or postcard, but unless the original is in front of your face, you aren’t going to have the same response to its beauty. The same goes for movies. Watching the famous two shots from Persona from Swedish legend Ingmar Bergman, featuring its two leading ladies (Bibi Andersson and Liv Ullmann) as one looks at the camera and the other in profile, on a television does not hold the same power as seeing it projected on a screen as tall as the room you are currently in, if not taller. Every movie is a spectacle, which has been co-opted to mean grand scale. All spectacle means is an image with significant visual impact, and it can manifest itself in any kind of shot imaginable.
Since films started showing on television decades ago, many people have had transformative movie watching experiences at home, even if they were watching The Wizard of Oz on a ten inch, black and white television where they never knew the film turned to Technicolor when Dorothy lands in Oz. In those early days of television, Hollywood turned to the massive epics to draw people back to the theater, much like they are doing today with superhero and action films. However, saying “These are the only films you have to see in a cinema, and anything else does not require the big screen,” strips away a fundamental part of the medium. The tenets of cinematic storytelling are inextricable from their presentation, and filmmakers everywhere take great care to compose their movies in a way to best be enjoyed in a theater setting, be it a $500 thousand drama, a $45 million comedy, or a $100 million Western. No, you do not have to watch non-tentpole films like this in a cinema to adore them, just as much as you don’t have to watch the next Marvel movie in one. Also, some cinemas do not provide the greatest atmosphere, particularly in cell phone policies. (How many people who complain about this turn their phones off at home, though?) Nevertheless, the big screen allows the greatest opportunity to fall in love with a film, from its ease of grabbing focus to ideal conditions of maximizing beauty, and ideally, every film would be watched on one.
KEEP READING: Why Theaters Still Need the Mid-Budget Movie
If you ever see these characters again, Holland said, “you’d be seeing a very different version.”
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