How Cinema Is Fighting Back Against Streaming

'Avengers' and 'A Quiet Place' both forced people to go to the cinema before their viewing experience could be ruined.
21 May 2018, 12:19pm
(Photo via Marvel/Disney)

Spoiler warning: this article does not contain overt spoilers for Avengers: Infinity War or A Quiet Place, but the necessity of a spoiler warning is sort of the point of the article, so. You know.

Ten years and 20 films in the making, Marvel's Avengers: Infinity War is a titan of a movie, every bit as formidable as its purple-toned, Brolin-voiced villain Thanos. Having already become the studio's most successful feature in the UK, it's now well on its way to become the first summer movie (and only the third film ever) to gross $2 billion worldwide. And, unlike films such as Jurassic World – which made similarly tremendous amounts of money but evaporated quickly in cultural and critical terms – the pop cultural response to Marvel's mega-movie has been seismic.

Quote, if you can, a single line from the $2.7 billion-grossing Avatar? Exactly. You can't. But even before many viewers made it to the cinema, the Avengers' "I don't feel so good" meme had made it into the collective conscious, and discussions of "that ending" and the future of the franchise have dominated the cultural discourse. Put bluntly: you had to see Infinity War because everyone was seeing it, and you had to see it in the cinema. More than just a movie, Avengers: Infinity War became a cinematic event.

This is an increasingly difficult thing to achieve in an age of streaming and among a plethora of new franchises. Seeing through that noise has been one of the major reasons for Marvel's cinematic success: the MCU has grown steadily bigger and stronger while the attempts of others have crumbled upon inception (looking at you, The Dark Tower). Marvel Studios' continued ability to create the sense that each new movie is the movie event of the year – a mere Avengers trailer is greeted with a more ravenous response than most films – hasn't hurt. Their marketing machinery is so robust that it can thrive in an environment of depleting attention spans, information overload and franchise over-saturation. It even survived Thor: The Dark World.

Marvel Studios have also maintained their movies' "Big Deal" status while stocking Netflix with their street-level heroes, The Defenders – an especially impressive feat, given how the two ways of engaging with content are increasingly seen as warring kingdoms. The Netflix/Cannes feud was just the latest proxy war, with shots fired from either side: Steven Spielberg dismissing Netflix films as "TV movies" was the first rasper, with the announcement that Martin Scorsese's long-gestating The Irishman would arrive under the streaming kingpin's big red banner the retort.

It's been argued that Neflix brings smaller and more obscure films to an audience they would never have had before; another contests that it reduced Okja and Annihilation to smaller screens than they deserved. So the back and forth continues. There’s a lot of politicising behind the platform you relentlessly rewatch Peep Show re-runs on.

The economy and ease of streaming services is quickly turning them into the preferred way to watch for many people, and the entertainment industry is still very much in the process of adapting to that change: how to compete with something you can half-watch while looking at your phone, or eat a plate of chicken nuggets in front of? Fundamentally, streaming is a very different experience to sitting attentively for two hours in a theatre: you can laze on your couch, scroll through Instagram, talk to your friends and break when you want. But in the urgency to watch Avengers – and the experience of watching one of 2018's major hits, A Quiet Place – the cinematic experience might have clawed some points back.

A Quiet Place is especially reliant upon the audience's goodwill because it uses silence to create tension. The sound of a room full of people sitting silently is powerfully unnerving, and John Krasinski's film thrives and feeds on this feeling. It's an untapped perk of the cinema experience – horror and comedy both benefit immensely from being viewed in a theatre, because they play for reactions, which are amplified in a group watch. (One of the best cinema experiences I have ever had came watching Paranormal Activity 2, which is obviously awful, but shitting your pants at a jump-scare in the middle of a room full of similarly tense viewers makes for a singular collective watching experience that Netflix could never rival.)

It goes both ways: the spell is immediately broken if the audience won't play ball, and social media has been full of angry tales of A Quiet Place screenings ruined by obnoxious movie-goers and pleas for advice on where best to see it uninterrupted. But as a film it’s fundamentally designed for the traditional cinematic experience, so it relies upon an audience who know and care about what that is.

If you think about it, going to the cinema is an innately weird experience. You enter a room filled with people – often alongside friends, family, partners or first dates – and then, as the lights go down, you hope that the movie will be good enough for all of them to fade into the dark so that you can disappear into the film alone. It is a bizarre, half-paradoxical and part-sacred experience whose place in society is rapidly changing under the challenge of new technology and new viewing habits.

But a new era of event cinema can change that. Avengers and A Quiet Place are just two examples of films that project their own "cinema etiquette" onto the watching experience, and that can only be a good thing.

How many times have you checked your phone since you started reading this? Not to sound like your dad, but we spend our lives surrounded by screens which blare addictive bursts of instant gratification all through the day, and it’s not hard to see that as having a corrosive effect on our attention spans. Maybe the role of cinemas today should be as movie temples where we briefly turn all that shit off, tune everything else out and enjoy the film.

In a way, watching a big purple lad called Thanos threaten to kill half the population of Earth is, actually, very zen.