In a 1987 interview with Omni Magazine, film critic Roger Ebert prophesied that in the not-too-distant future we "will have high-definition, wide-screen television sets and a push-button dialing system to order the movie you want at the time you want it." He went on to anticipate what this could mean for the future of cinema:
"I also am very, very excited by the fact that before long, alternative films will penetrate the entire country. Today 75 percent of the gross from a typical art film in America comes from as few as six — six — different theaters in six different cities. Ninety percent of the American motion-picture marketplace never shows art films. With this revolution in delivery and distribution, anyone, in any size town or hamlet, will see the movies he or she wants to see.''
Three decades later, Ebert's prediction has come true — and it's exemplified by a documentary about Roger Ebert. The film Life Itself opened in just 14 markets over the July 4 weekend, and yet anyone in the United States can watch Steve James' exploration of the critic's life and death. That's because Life Itself was a "day-and-date release," available on demand (for $7.99 using my cable set-top box), on iTunes (for $6.99), and on various other streaming platforms the same day it came out in theaters.
You can stay home also to watch the trippy animated feature The Congress (not in theaters until Aug. 29), and on Aug. 1 the intriguingly weird-looking The One I Love, starring Mark Duplass and Elisabeth Moss, will come to on demand. Over the last couple of weeks, I used my remote to order the rom-com spoof They Came Together and Bong Joon-Ho's sci-fi railroad romp Snowpiercer, paying $7.99 a pop to watch them on my high-definition, wide-screen television.
I've been meaning to see Snowpiercer for weeks. I never quite pulled the trigger on piling into the car and spending the time and money to see it in the theater. But when it was released on demand on July 11 — just two weeks after its U.S. theatrical debut — my finger immediately wandered over to the play button.
Admittedly, this is the kind of effects-heavy movie that some people may prefer to see in the theater. But as Ann Hornaday explained last year in the Washington Post, with "audiences texting, talking, beeping and buzzing through a movie they just shelled out nearly $20 to ignore, a compelling case can be made that watching a movie at home — even with kids, electronic devices, and easy bathroom breaks — is more immersive and less prone to distractions than going to the multiplex."
If a big sensory extravaganza like Snowpiercer is a no go, you still have plenty of options that are suitable to the small screen. I'm a huge fan of Wet Hot American Summer and Role Models, and so I didn't want to wait a bunch of months to see They Came Together, David Wain's latest directorial effort. While early reviews indicated that even Amy Poehler and Paul Rudd couldn't rescue this thing from mediocrity, I was still curious. My girlfriend and I watched this 83-minute trifle instead of a couple of episodes of Veep. Compared to going out somewhere, this was a cheap night of entertainment.
Major theater chains hate day-and-date and "ultra" video-on-demand releases — that's when a movie hits streaming services before its theatrical debut — as they believe (probably correctly) that happy, lazy home viewers will skip out on driving to the Cineplex if given the option. That's why, with the exception of the Kickstarter-funded Veronica Mars, big studios have so far been hesitant to eradicate the window of theatrical exclusivity.
It will be interesting to see whether, in two or five or 10 years, we'll be able to watch the 50th Spider-Man reboot from our living rooms on opening day. But by focusing on the business side of things, and by noting that there are certain kinds of movies that you have to wait to watch at home, we're losing sight about how great we have it now.