Watching movies and the collapse of the universe

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I love watching movies on the largest screen possible, which is why I’ve booked tickets for Inception and Toy Story for next weekend at the BFI IMAX in London. As London is a little bit of a trek for me, doubling up to save on the travel seemed like a good idea at the time, but now the reality is beginning to sink in; unless I go and live in a cave for the next eight days, I am unlikely to remain unspoiled for these movies before I go and see them.

I can still remember seeing the first movies on VHS when I was a kid – my very first ever was Superman III. It was a kinder, more innocent time, when the only likelihood of a movie spoiler was the kid with the big mouth on the playground, and running away was a fairly effective option.

But everything took longer to filter down in those days. It could be six months or more before a movie made its way out of cinemas, and three or four years before that movie ended up on TV. But if there was a movie with a big twist, somehow it would make its way at least to the second stage of that process without discussion about it taking place in the wider world.

Then The Sixth Sense came along and the world changed. The buzz about the movie was the spoiler, and it kept going and going at the box office, keeping audiences coming back week after week after week, and if you let the secret out, God help you if someone hadn’t already seen it. Even by the time I bought the DVD (one of my first two DVDs, incidentally), there was still a certain stigma to giving away the secret.

As time has passed, release windows have gotten shorter and shorter. The standard is now down to seventeen weeks from opening day to DVD release, but some movies now get released on DVD and even satellite TV the same day they hit cinemas, so desperate are movie companies for the cash.

With that decreasing window, it’s become more and more important for movie studios to make their money back as quick as possible, to guarantee their return on investment. The average movie now takes at least 40% of its money on the opening three days – if it’s not a big box office draw, see it or it’s gone. With Twilight and Shrek coming out, Tetro got one week in most cinemas in the UK, before being reduced to literally two or three screenings in its second week – and that’s a movie from Francis Ford Coppola, for crying out loud.

The other effect of that decrease has been to decrease the spoiler window in the same proportion. The amount of pre-release discussion about both Inception and Toy Story 3 has been phenomenal; debates raging about the validity of reviews collected on sites such as Rotten Tomatoes and Metacritic and people violently exchanging opinions and discussing the merits of key scenes before the movie has even opened to the general public. On Inception, a movie that did its best to hold the marketing campaign back to the last possible moment and kept almost a complete clampdown on on-set leaks, this is particularly harsh; sadly it seems all that did was attract more attention when the cork was released from the bottle.

As these windows continue to narrow, my fear is that soon, unless you’re a movie critic it will be impossible to see a film without a fairly clear understanding of what’s happening, and that movies will come and go from cinemas in a week, and be available in the foyer on DVD or Blu-ray as you leave, or to download wirelessly from your phone on the journey home. All this will do is cause the movie world to collapse in on itself until there are no secrets left anymore.

Sadly, cave dwelling is not for me. I’m now likely to go and see Inception in the next few days (a decision motivated partly by the constant spoiler threat, partly by several reviews saying you need to see it at least twice to truly judge it and partly by hearing that the IMAX conversion isn’t actually that good), but I think my main strategy is going to have to be fingers in ears and going “la-la-la” for just over a week. Not good.

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