July 12, 2018
DALLAS—There’s a theater in the little Greek town of Epidaurus that seats 14,000 people. It has perfect acoustics. It’s where people gather to tell stories, hear stories, and discuss stories, sometimes with music, sometimes with dance, sometimes with costumes, sometimes just with words. This was true 2,300 years ago and it’s still true today.
Have you ever watched a great movie on your tablet and, as the closing credits rolled, felt a profound sense of loneliness?
The same thing can happen with a book. Great fiction should be spoken, not read silently. There’s a sense, when the narrative ends, that someone should have been there with you, that the experience was intended to be communal—you were supposed to be with other people, and so your joy is bittersweet. Yes, you can go annoy your friends with “I just read the most amazing book” or “I just saw the most amazing movie,” but the adrenaline rush at the third-act climax is mixed with “Why was I alone? I must tell someone, I must talk about it, I must proclaim this.” You’re trying to build an audience postmortem, construct a group of sympathetic listeners who should have been there with you. People ask me, “Why are there so many horror bloggers?” Because many hardcore horror fans grew up as misfits, sneaking around so their parents wouldn’t know what they were watching, missing the community of fellow horror devotees, and so now they get to talk about it. They’re looking for soulmates.
Wall Street has been telling us for some time now that theaters are dead—not just stage theaters, but movie theaters as well. And, as to the drive-ins, well, do they even exist anymore?
I have articles from the early ’60s talking about “the death of the drive-in,” and then I have articles for every successive year since then saying the same thing—that it’s only a matter of time before the last one locks its outer gates and rips down the all-weather screen. There’s been a six-decade elegy for the most democratic form of moviegoing ever invented, and still there are 400 of them that just refuse to die. Adding insult to journalistic injury, new ones pop up all the time to replace the ones that do close.
It seems that the drive-in has the spirit of Epidaurus, right down to the outdoor setting and the press of people from all walks of life moving in, out, and around a massive people’s proscenium. It’s fitting that the drive-in was invented in Camden, New Jersey, because that’s also the home of Walt Whitman. He would have sung its praises with italics and exclamation points. He would have seen it as a secular temple of Americanism.
I’m part of a vanishing breed called the movie host. That means I frequently travel to theaters to talk about movies that could easily be downloaded or streamed or accessed on YouTube, and I’m often asked by my less cinema-crazed friends, “What exactly do you do there? Why do people drive so far to be at these events?”
What we do there is we experience the movie as a group and then we discuss the movie as equals because we’ve all had the same emotional experience. I suppose, if we asked Camille Paglia or some other academic, they would tell us it’s some form of pagan worship.
No one ever talks about this. If you ask the specialty theater managers, they’ll tell you about the brilliance of the 35-millimeter film image (true), the awesomeness of the sound system (true), or the various ways the film has been reconstructed, preserved, enhanced, or changed by the director. None of these things matter. What’s essential is the crowd—and it doesn’t matter whether it’s five people or five thousand. What matters is the agreement that “We will tell each other stories and we will feel that rush of knowing who we are and where we are and why we are here.”
Netflix, the original streaming service, is now trading at $418 per share, up 100 percent from over a year ago, making it the 10th-largest internet company in the world. Netflix is considered the future of entertainment and therefore the future of storytelling. The company will spend $8 billion this year on original content, including feature films that will never be shown in theaters. I asked a friend of mine who works at a rival streaming service why Netflix doesn’t release its movies in theaters before releasing them to streaming, since that would just be extra revenue for Netflix, and he said, “Because it’s against their religion.”
In other words, they believe not just that drive-ins are dead, or movie theaters are dead, or live performance spaces are dead—they believe the animus behind Epidaurus itself is no longer needed by our inner psyches. Analysts who follow the stock are constantly talking about “cord cutters,” meaning people who abandon traditional television in order to have menu-based services like Netflix. The future, they say, is one person at a time, one device at a time, one singular piece of “content” at a time. (Not movies, not films, not plays, not stories—they always call it content as though all media are the same, all forms of expression the same, all of it just parts of one big digital grab in the basket called content.)
I don’t think so.
This weekend, thanks to the Shudder TV streaming service, we’re going to try something insane. We’re going to ask people to show up at a particular time for a 24-hour horror marathon that can’t be streamed or downloaded. We’re going to ask people to join with us on social media as we watch the movies together, as a group, in real time. We’re even going to interrupt the movies, put them on pause, so we can talk about them. If you consult the Bible of streaming, which says that the whole appeal to the cord cutter is that he can download anything at any time and watch, alone, on any device, on his own idiosyncratic schedule, then this is heresy and madness. That’s because the Bible of streaming focuses on only one side of the entertainment equation—the “content.” I’m gonna focus on the other side—the audience hungry for shared experience—and I’ll probably lose, but in the meantime, please call me Joe “Polykleitos the Younger” Bob.
Polykleitos is the guy who built Epidaurus. He knew it wasn’t just about content.
Join Joe Bob as he hosts The Last Drive-In With Joe Bob Briggs, a 24-hour movie marathon streaming on Shudder starting at 9 p.m. EDT/6 p.m. PDT this July 13, 2018.
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