Last night I watched May December, a film that follows Elizabeth Berry (Natalie Portman) as she studies a woman she’s set to play in a movie. The woman in question is loosely based on the real sex offender Mary Kay Letourneau.
I streamed the movie. I watched it alone in my room on my laptop screen, but I also had friends who saw it the same day in the theater. May December was first released in select theaters in America before being given both a wider global theatrical release and being put on streaming in North America- Netflix has the North American distribution rights to the film. My friends asked if I wanted to come along but ultimately I decided against it. The dual existence of this film both on streaming as something more digital and in theaters as a more physical experience at the same time made me reflect on the differences between the two media and why my friends and I chose one over the other.
Streaming or Cinemas?
There are a lot of arguments for the ease of streaming. Much like my previous post on online shopping and size charts versus trying clothes on in real life, we trade a more fully embodied experience on a larger screen at a venue dedicated to this one activity for the comfort of watching at home, maybe half-paying attention while folding laundry, and all for much less than the twelve euros that a cinema ticket would cost. The thing is, I love the ritual of going to the theater usually. I have trouble forcing myself to concentrate on a lot of longer movies and I know the social pressure of watching together with strangers on a massive screen with no phones allowed will force me to give whatever we’re watching my full attention. I also just like the process of getting dressed, going out, and having a physical ticket as proof of my experience- it makes the movie more memorable. While both the streaming and cinema experience end with me watching the same movie, the cinema feels like an event.
Temporary Cinemas and Permanent Streaming
I also find that straight-to-streaming releases of movies don’t excite me as much as the same movies would if they had theatrical releases. There’s something about the perceived permanence of the internet in contrast to scheduled cinema showings that are only available for a limited window of time that makes me feel like I don’t need to watch the movie immediately. It will be there for as long as Netflix exists and I know someone with an account.
Which is more conducive to socializing?
I also wonder if streaming or the cinema is a more social experience. My first instinct is to think that cinemas are more social because of the stigma against going to the movies alone, but with streaming, you can talk with your friends, pause, and rewind the movie as you wish. There are also a number of services that let you watch the same film from different computers at the same time, effectively connecting people who couldn’t go to the same cinema through streaming. In theaters, you’re not allowed to talk until the movie is over or interact temporally with the film in the same way you can while streaming, but you also are necessarily surrounded by other people in the crowd. Concert movies and fandom-forward films like those at the height of the MCU’s popularity also seem to create moments of bonding between strangers who treat their cinema showings as live interactive events.
Do you go to the movies often? Are there any streaming releases that you wish were available in cinemas or are you the kind of person that can’t wait for movies to leave theaters and go to HBO Max? Are there certain genres that you like to watch in theaters and others that you prefer to watch at home?