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June 17, 2013

How Mobile Will Change Movies

My odyssey with the very small screen and the implications of handheld cinema.

Mike D'Angelo is a longtime film critic currently at the A.V. Club

As I write these words, I have two movies in my pocket. Not DVDs, of course, but 4.81GB files stored on my iPhone. I can start watching one of them here in my house, then carry it with me, still watching, as I stroll around the neighborhood. If I don't mind risking a traffic stop or can find someone else to drive, I can watch it in my car traversing multiple states. Maybe I'm dumb enough to wade into the ocean up to my neck and hold the phone up over my head and watch the movie that way—if so, there's nothing stopping me but brain cells. Movies are portable now, viewable practically anywhere that qualifies as civilization. It's a fairly new development, and it's very likely to permanently alter the way movies are made.

Explaining why will require a bit of history.


End of the Monolith

For the first half-century after motion pictures were invented, there was precisely one way to watch a movie: If you were in the mood for some Bette Davis or Humphrey Bogart, you hauled your carcass to the local Bijou—which was most likely a single-screen behemoth back then—and plunked down your quarter. Lacking any serious competition, the film industry could do whatever it wanted, and what it mostly did, at least as far as technological innovation is concerned, was stagnate. Sound and color both took some time to develop, but there was no reason to change the shape of the screen or modulate the pace of the action. Their audience was captive. 

Cut to the 1950s. Television starts making serious inroads, and Hollywood begins licensing its films to TV stations, allowing them to be viewed at home. It also starts panicking: What if people just never leave their homes anymore? So movies immediately expand, quite literally. Widescreen processes like CinemaScope and Cinerama offer an overwhelming, sensation-heavy experience that TV can't possibly match. But this makes the films problematic when licensed to those selfsame TV stations later on, because half the picture won't fit in that square little box. 

Framing the Shot

Over the decades, as home video becomes a reality, and many movies find a larger audience on the small screen than on the big screen, filmmakers increasingly compose with the TV set in mind. For example, legendary director Martin Scorsese shot all of his '70s and '80s classics in the "fake widescreen" aspect ratio of 1.85:1, for fear that anamorphic widescreen (2.35:1) would see his careful compositions pan-and-scanned into oblivion. Even when movies are shot that way nowadays, they rarely use the entire frame the way old CinemaScope films did, placing key information on opposite extremes. It's just too likely to wind up illegible at home.

A new viewing platform—CinemaScope—directly caused movies to get first bigger, as studios rushed to compete, and then smaller, as filmmakers responded to the medium most viewers were actually using—television.

TV sets nowadays are enormous compared witha smartphone screen or even a tablet or laptop. And increasingly, people are watching movies on those devices. So you might imagine that we'd see an even more exaggerated version of what happened when television became ubiquitous. In one sense, that's precisely the case—it's no coincidence that 3-D, developed and quickly abandoned back in the '50s, has suddenly made a triumphant comeback over the past several years. (An increasing emphasis on CGI spectacle serves the same purpose.) But the real question is, "How will filmmakers react when it becomes clear that a majority of viewers will see their work on a handheld screen?" Not to mention a screen that can move mid-film.

 A Mobile Odyssey

As an exercise, I downloaded a high-definition copy of Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey onto my iPhone and proceeded to watch the movie all over town. The choice of film was quite deliberate: Seeing a 70mm print of 2001 at the late, lamented, gargantuan Astor Plaza theater in New York City (a space that is now, somewhat ironically, called Best Buy Theater) was one of the highlights of my moviegoing life. As a big-screen snob, I was pretty confident that Kubrick's stunning depiction of deep space would look puny and unimpressive in the palm of my hand. I idly wondered whether I'd even be able to see the floating pen that strengthens the illusion of zero-gravity in one scene. The monolith would no doubt look like a coal-black stick of chewing gum. A movie so expressly designed to be immense could never survive.

What actually happened surprised me. Nothing in the film was visually diminished to the point of being indiscernible, including the floating pen. To be sure, it wasn't as overwhelming as it had been at the Astor Plaza, but it was still recognizably 2001, with most of its serene glory intact. The size of the screen made little difference. Had I been sitting in a movie theater holding my phone, surrounded by other people watching the movie on their phones, I probably would have wound up just as mesmerized as I always do.

But I wasn't. I was wandering around my neighborhood, and then sitting in a coffee shop, and then hanging out at the bus station. And what that drove home to me, powerfully, is that Hollywood is no longer just in competition with television or video games or the Internet. It's competing for our attention with the entire world. Rarely could I get more than three or four minutes into the movie without something distracting me: a barking dog, a request for spare change, an incredibly loud shirt passing my field of vision. (I was wearing earbuds, but even noise-cancelling headphones probably wouldn't have helped much).

Even when there was no immediate alternative clamoring for my awareness, I found it hard to stay focused during the film's more lyrical passages, like the space-station montage set to the "Blue Danube Waltz." In the theater, or even at home, that sequence had always enraptured me; out in public, it felt endless, as my peripheral vision picked up movements that were twice as quick as what was happening on the screen.

Short-Attention-Span Theater

Bear in mind, I'm somebody with pretty arty taste in cinema. (For example, I call it "cinema.") Several of my favorite recent films, like Gerry and The Loneliest Planet, consist of little more than actors walking across forbidding landscapes for two hours. So if I can't stay focused, that's not a good sign. My fear is that anything even remotely contemplative or leisurely will eventually be perceived as potential dead air, which is already the case when it comes to most studio releases. 

Savvy filmmakers may come to recognize that their best bet is to construct their movies in bite-sized chunks, with discrete set pieces that function more or less independently, even as they're vaguely tied together by some flimsy narrative.

You can already see that trend in today's blockbusters. Cowboys and Aliens aims to stun you into submission, tossing something new at you every few minutes—but it'll become even more pronounced. Movies and TV programs designed for children tend to be deliberately erratic, in an effort to combat their short attention spans. In a mobile world, though, we're all potentially children. 

Read more of Mike's work on his website.

Photos courtesy of PhotoFest. 

This article is commissioned by Qualcomm Incorporated. The views expressed are the author’s own.

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