The Gray Man opened in theaters over the weekend, before hitting Netflix on July 22. Surrounding that, directors Joe and Anthony Russo gave an interview to The Hollywood Reporter in which they said some stuff about Netflix and movie theaters and elitism and by Hera’s long hair, I am exhausted. First of all, Joe Russo said auteur filmmaking is “fifty years old at this point. It was conceived in the ’70s.” No, it wasn’t. It is a verifiable fact that the auteur theory developed in the 1950s, specifically in a review by Francois Truffaut in which he distinguished between directors who merely “adapt a literary novel” and what he called “la politique de auteurs”, or those filmmakers who imprint their personality on their work to create better cinema.
In Hollywood, Truffaut’s “policy of authors” became a way of distinguishing directors of vision working within a stifling studio system, your Howard Hawks and George Cukors and Billy Wilders, people with identifiable individual style over the studio house style. In contemporary parlance, it’s Taika Waititi making a Marvel movie that satisfies the studio mandate yet is still consistent with his own style. So, auteur filmmaking is not “fifty years old”, it’s seventy years old, as an organized theory, and it’s bothersome that someone putting himself forward as an industry sage doesn’t know basic cinema history.
But wait, it gets worse! Because Joe went on to say, “A thing to remember, too, is it’s an elitist notion to be able to go to a theater. It’s very f-cking expensive. So, this idea that was created — that we hang on to — that the theater is a sacred space, is bullsh-t.”
Okay, three things here. One, “elitist” and “expensive” are co-morbid but not synonymous. Two, there IS a point to be made about the cost of theatergoing, but a commercial filmmaker is probably not the best vessel for that conversation. And three, there IS something unique about the communal theater experience, just as going to a live music concert is different from listening to songs on your car radio. It’s possible to talk about the communal experience without treating theaters like a “sacred space”.
Because this is where I agree with Joe Russo, most theaters suck. At least in the US, going to the movies is expensive, and often the experience is bad—poor projection, poor sound, rude audiences, unclean facilities, huge lines at concessions—which makes the cost all the more unbearable. Movie theater owners had 12+ months to figure their sh-t out during the COVID lockdowns, and they did not. Theaters that were dirty before, are still dirty now. The theater in my area with consistently dim projection, still has dim projection. Instead of fighting over exclusive release windows, movie studios and theaters should have spent 2020 fighting to get theaters in shape and actually exhibit their movies in the most advantageous ways possible.
But to return to the issue of elite vs. expensive. As an entertainment option, going to the movies is BY FAR one of the most widely affordable activities available. Through 2021, the average cost of a pop concert was $100.65 per ticket. A ticket to Elvis is $9.17. I know there are cheaper concerts and more expensive movie tickets, but there is no question going to the movies, even a premium, large-format experience, is cheaper than a concert. Going to the movies is NOT elitist, though it can be expensive, especially as wages have remained stagnant for 40+ years, and that average $9-10 ticket is taking a bigger bite out of your wallet today than it did in previous decades. And again, poor experiences at the theater only make it seem like less of a value, as you’re paying for misery, essentially. (I saw Elvis with my family over the July 4 weekend and noted how little I minded the $60 total ticket price in exchange for a clean theater, beautifully projected film, and engaged but respectful audience experience—there was a lot of clapping and cheering, but no extraneous talking.)
It is the fact that the movies remain our most accessible communal experience that means we shouldn’t give up on theaters. There’s no denying the democratization of streaming, that more people get more chances now than they did twenty years ago, but there is also the “content firehose” problem where much of that work is utterly forgettable. Movie theaters still serve a purpose, and while I am cynical about their future, I am not actually rooting for them to die. I just want them to be clean and to show movies with proper projector lighting and sound racking, and to enforce audiences to be quiet and turn off their f-cking phones. Because when the experience is good, there is really nothing like sitting in a dark room full of strangers, everyone experiencing emotions together. And in our increasingly polarized times, the value of that communal experience might just be priceless.
Live long and gossip,