You don't have to go far if you want to see Terrence Malick's new movie, To the Wonder, this weekend. You don't have to go anywhere, in fact.
Though the movie, starring Ben Affleck and Rachel McAdams, opens at the Dallas Angelika on Friday, you can already watch it in the comfort of your own home. Last weekend, when its limited release began in New York, it also became available for rent on iTunes for $6.99, which is between $4 and $70 dollars less than you'd pay to see it in the theaters, depending on whether you have friends, an appetite or, God forbid, a baby who needs sitting.
I live in Denton, an hour away from the Dallas Angelika in good traffic, so I've been on the fence about which way to go. I value the experience of sitting in a darkened theater, surrounded by like-minded moviegoers and the smell of popcorn. I want to get lost in a filmmaker's vision and feel overwhelmed by enormous images and sounds.
I don't, on the other hand, want fight my way there on I-35 or the North Dallas Tollway on a Saturday or Sunday, not after a week of commuting back and forth from Denton to Plano for work. So that has me wondering, why should I wait? Why not just watch it now?
It definitely is. Once you realize that a movie like To the Wonder or the documentary Room 237 are simultaneously available in theaters and online, you also start to wonder how a model like that is sustainable. Who really benefits?
"The most likely beneficiaries seem to be the aggregators, the cable companies and online retailers, such as iTunes, Hulu, and Netflix, that sell the content," says Chuck Tryon, professor of Film and Media Studies at Fayetteville State University. "But in some cases, distributors have done pretty well for themselves." He points to an article published earlier this year in the Los Angeles Times about two limited release films, Arbitrage and Bachelorette, that both featured major stars (Richard Gere and Kirsten Dunst, respectively) and made most of their modest grosses from video on-demand, or VOD. "The other big benefit might be that the publicity is a lot cheaper," he adds.
Moviegoers benefit in their own way, too, of course. "If you don't live within an easy drive of an art house theater, VOD may be your only option," Tryon says. He proposes another scenario: maybe it's date night and the babysitter fell through. " I'd also argue," he says, "that the theatrical and VOD audiences don't always overlap."
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But none of that really answers the original question of why I (or anyone else) should wait. There's the obvious reason: to support traditional moviegoing and local business, but that's not enough. Ebiri points out that video stores were popular too, andl ook at what's happened to them. It's not enough to just like the moviegoing experience, he says. "You have to also then go out of your way and actively support it. But how do you do that in a world where everything else is becoming increasingly more convenient?"
At a certain point, it may just be a matter of holding my nose and going with what works better for me. I certainly wouldn't be the first or the last.
"I grew up in the age of video, and many of my favorite films -- even ones that people say demand a big screen -- I saw first on video, on VHS tapes and on 19 inch TVs, sometimes smaller," Ebiri says. "Today, with huge, high quality HDTVs, it's hard to make a case that one needs to wait for a film to be released in their theater to see it, if it's already available on VOD or iTunes or whatever."
Yes, but if only Malick were getting the kind of attention I think he -- or maybe his reputation -- deserves. With his increasingly abstract narratives and ruminative voice overs, though, I'm doubtful, and so is Ebiri. "It's hard now for anything but a genuine box office phenomenon to draw people in like that."