The Shape of Film to Come: “…the feelies and the scent organ instead”

Though far afield from the cold, hard principles of physical science, the second law of thermodynamics holds in the realm of film. Film as a concept, as a form, as a field, is indeed a process, a system, and it is cyclical. Its entropy, its disorder, its randomness and unpredictability too increase over time, to the point where film is no longer film, extricated from its material essence. So what is film? And, what will it be? These questions have been fodder for science fiction for decades. The malleability of the filmic form has been contorted largely for dystopian ends. Fear of the power and influence of these flitting images have been amplified to reflect cultures in decline, placated, pacified masses unplugging from the drudgery of everyday existence, and the pleasure principle satisfied and satiated by mounting iterations of direct sensorial stimulation. Aldous Huxley’s “feelies” come to mind in particular because in many ways the technology and movements of the industry have headed in a direction akin to this prognostication. More immersive experiences are on the horizon; but, so is an elevated level of control for audiences and for previously marginalized voices, opinions, and styles.

In our modern era, what do we get from film? What do we desire from film? To experience new experiences? To rehearse and articulate abstract, collective concepts? To heighten and toy with our perception of sensorial stimuli? To expand the bounds of technology? To achieve and create the impossible, the unreal, the fantastic? To tap into the real and touch on issues, events, cultures, happenings in an approximation of the organic? To bring the world to us and vice versa? Perhaps, all of the above? Do we seek out film to simply be entertained, as a diversion from the mundanity of the day to day, like Orwell’s proles or Huxley’s rigidly stratified masses? Or, is it a means of communion and connection, to share experiences and tastes and opinions and use these media as just that, a filter and catalyst, a means of interchange, articulation, and conversation about culture, emotion, and experience. The beauty is that it can be and it remains all of these things. And, for this reason we largely do not view the future of film as severely as Huxley or Orwell. The future of film instead revolves around interactivity, customization, and involvement. We want something new and relevant and we want to be part of the choice, and we are hopeful about the prospects and landscape. There are paradoxes and uncertainties to be sure, but that’s half the fun.

Oculus rift, laser projectors, virtual reality, Kickstarter, Indiegogo, and more are on everyone’s lips as we prognosticate the future of the medium. But it is the core purpose and potential of the form and the experience that is of greatest concern. Now more than ever before, the stories and issues of the moment are presented more immediately from vanguard voices. We are still a few years away from a more widespread infiltration of the Gen Y filmmakers and their capacity to really make a large-scale mark on the industry, but newly available paths have helped hasten the push to the front of the line and to the public stage, expediting this inevitability. Once there, expect to see more experimentation, more multimedia projects, a more thorough understanding of the possibilities of technology, an ability to do a lot of imaginative things with smaller budgets, more creative control, and new and underrepresented perspectives from unheralded regions and groups (and more superhero movies).

Previously marginalized voices will come to the fore. Diversity will continue to infiltrate, crumbling and reshaping stodgy institutions from the inside-out and the outside-in. Independent international productions and regional filmmaking communities will continue to rise adding more voices and cultural discourses to the overall stew. Unlike previous generations of filmmakers, the wave of the future will be distinct for lacking distinction, defined by being undefined, identified by unwieldiness, expansiveness, and fragmentation rather than by particular overarching impulses or perspectives. This is a fracturing of shards, a generation of filmmakers whose sensibilities and influences were forged in the kaleidoscope of the internet, and YouTube, and Netflix. A generation of filmmakers, who had access to vast swaths of film and media history at their fingertips and experienced it with a single click, then paused to make a sandwich.

Totems of the industry have routinely toppled in just the past decade. Avenues to renown have increased but so has the volume of traffic. Sending out headshots and demo reels is not necessarily your only way in. And networking to get scripts read can be circumvented through other funding options and the increased accessibility of cheaper, mobile equipment. Funding through high-profile bidding-wars at big-ticket festivals like Cannes, Sundance, Toronto, etc. will be chipped away by these more democratized new avenues and investment streams. Crowdfunding will give audiences higher levels of input, choice, and voice, providing opportunities to express what matters rather than being told what matters. And, crowdsourcing will increasingly allow audiences to select stories and scripts, actors, and directors, customizing the film they will experience down the road. The element of surprise may be thwarted for some but the power and control wielded so firmly by established brokers and industry insiders is finally fraying at the edges.

On the back-end, many changes are already underway and show no signs of slowing down. Old modes of economizing and distributing and exhibiting are becoming outdated with each passing year. Theater attendance continues to wane. Ticket prices have plateaued but remain high, much higher than streaming fees. Tensions between studios and theaters over the cut of the take are beginning to take drastic turns. Younger audiences are drifting in favor of new technology and new platforms. Streaming services continue to surge and multiply as theaters feel the pressure to expand and go bigger to maintain the allure of the cinema experience. As the pressure and cost to equip theaters with larger and more expensive projection and presentation/display equipment increases, small theaters unable to shoulder that burden will increasingly look to the past, retaining a connection with older presentation models and catering to specific, ever more narrowly defined audiences, furthering long-in-the-works technology divides.

This is the landscape. So, what is on the horizon? To dive into the future, we must touch on the past. We have long made a habit of recycling past desires, and the prospects going forward are primed to echo this tendency. From the very beginning, film was instantly able to replicate the speed and immersiveness of real experience and perception, allowing people to observe sights from around the world with a new level of visceral impact. The addition of movement meant harnessing time, creating an experience of heightened, primeval immediacy. Early practitioners seized upon this very early on—the Lumière brothers’ “actualities” being the first in line. Unsurprisingly, new technologies are reiterating and amplifying this desire. If the many works presented at Tribeca and the like and the countless think-pieces on the topic are any indication, we are heading toward a concerted shift toward isolation, individualization, and interface interactivity. Amplified sensorial experiences and attempts to expand the immersive possibilities of the filmic form are afoot and already underway, making the 3D boom look like child’s play.

Artists are not only looking to bring sights and worlds to people, but bring people into these worlds, creating not only immersive, sensorial experiences, but enterable environments—descended in many ways from ambitious, expansive, whole-environment expanded cinema projects from the 1960s and 1970s. Installation pieces lobbying for the future of the form, are experimenting with new immersion technology interventions. VR is popping up more and more frequently, with the added wrinkle of user interface interaction and user choice thrown into the mix. Guiding viewers along a straight line will no longer suffice for a generation well versed in fragmentation, abstraction, and contradiction. The move is toward traversable environments where user decision and interaction with the environment dictates and guides the experience—a “Cinema of Attraction” for a more technologically literate generation.

If this sounds familiar it’s because it is. All this has been in the works for some time and has been a persistent desire for even longer. But now technology is slowly catching up and, while it may still be a ways off, especially in terms of incorporating complex narratives in virtual environments, progressions and developments are happening at a faster pace than ever. For now, we are concocting more modest levels of choice and absorption to prep for the next big leap. Viewer choice and customization play heavily into streaming models, for example. The short-lived Google glass recalled the insular, individual nickelodeon experience of early film, affixing portable kinetoscopes right over our eyes. More so, features that incorporate “choose-your-own-adventure”-style audience involvement are the next wave. So, not only will audiences be actively participating in choosing the stories and helping guide the creation process, they will also be active participants in the progression of the narratives as they are presented. Films that tweak scenes and allow viewers to ruminate on the nature of choice are becoming more popular and more prevalent. The cinema of the future will reflect the complexity and knottiness of human cognition on a more grandiose and intricate playing field and, once this can be grafted on to larger-scale storytelling and world-building, it will truly be an interesting and unpredictable terrain to experience.

In an age of distraction, multiple screens, and shifting focus, sitting in one place for two hours without interaction and personal stake is increasingly an old-fashioned mode of consumption. Cinema will continue to become a game of transcending its bounds, transmuting the gimmickry of William Castle into tangible, outsized experiential benchmarks—transcend the frame, transcend dimensionality, transcend immobility and passivity, heighten the sensation. But, with change there is always something lost, a ghost of what was or could have been. What do we sacrifice in the process? How far will we actually take it? This is the potential, but the execution and ramifications will remain in question until long after a new era is upon us. If in the future we find ourselves gathered in a padded room with VR rigs attached to our heads, wandering and circling around each other, and play-acting a narrative of choice, or several simultaneously, is this cinema? Is this film? What is this?

This article was written by Oliver O’Sullivan, a writer for dusk magazine. 

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