Christopher Nolan Goes Bold on the Future of Cinema in the WSJ

July 8, 2014

Christopher Nolan

Whoa. Time to geek out. So, Christopher Nolan just wrote a piece for the Wall Street Journal, about the future of cinema. And it's kind of brilliant, but of course we all expected that. The title online explains: "Christopher Nolan: Films of the Future Will Still Draw People to Theaters", with the subtitle "When Movies Can Look or Sound Like Anything, Says the 'Dark Knight' Director, Extraordinary Work Will Emerge". Now, Nolan is in the midst of finishing work on Interstellar, his sci-fi epic which will arrive in theaters this November. He makes rather some bold comments about the state of the industry. "We moan about intrusive moviegoers, but most of us feel a pang of disappointment when we find ourselves in an empty theater." Yep.

Nolan goes on to write very eloquently and actually quite optimistically about the future of cinema, if we can get things under control. It's a short piece, but cuts right through it and really touches on some great points. Of course he's as good at writing editorials as he is directing movies. The best part of the entire piece is when he gets in the real future, where things could go if they actually turned out well, which is, a focus on the experience and spectacle of the movies again in glorious movie palaces (which might just happen once we get around to seeing Star Wars: Episode VII). It's best to let Nolan explain himself - excerpt from WSJ:

The theaters of the future will be bigger and more beautiful than ever before. They will employ expensive presentation formats that cannot be accessed or reproduced in the home (such as, ironically, film prints). And they will still enjoy exclusivity, as studios relearn the tremendous economic value of the staggered release of their products.

The projects that most obviously lend themselves to such distinctions are spectacles. But if history is any guide, all genres, all budgets will follow. Because the cinema of the future will depend not just on grander presentation, but on the emergence of filmmakers inventive enough to command the focused attention of a crowd for hours.

These new voices will emerge just as we despair that there is nothing left to be discovered. As in the early '90s, when years of bad multiplexing had soured the public on movies, and a young director named Quentin Tarantino ripped through theaters with a profound sense of cinema's past and an instinct for reclaiming cinema's rightful place at the head of popular culture.

Never before has a system so willingly embraced the radical teardown of its own formal standards. But no standards means no rules. Whether photochemical or video-based, a film can now look or sound like anything.

It's unthinkable that extraordinary new work won't emerge from such an open structure. That's the part I can't wait for.

Me either, Mr. Nolan! Read his entire piece at WSJ. There's something that makes me particularly excited when I read this thinking, in the back of my mind, that we have Nolan about to bring us Interstellar, and J.J. Abrams about to bring us a new Star Wars, and James Cameron about to bring us more Avatar, all on the horizon. I find it interesting that Nolan is out there, writing a piece for the newspaper, talking about the future of cinema, with some projects like this on the way, because it means there is hope. And he's hopeful, too. He's seen up-and-coming filmmakers, he knows what's on the horizon, and despite the dimness of some of it, there's still that drive to make things great again. I love his searing statement about modern gimmicks:

These developments will require innovation, experimentation and expense, not cost-cutting exercises disguised as digital "upgrades" or gimmickry aimed at justifying variable ticket pricing. The theatrical window is to the movie business what live concerts are to the music business—and no one goes to a concert to be played an MP3 on a bare stage.

Exactly. While he doesn't say it, that sounds like a veiled hint at 3D being one of those gimmicks, and he doesn't buy it. Instead, he'll give us IMAX in full resolution, to show us more and more depth, to expand and deepen the experience even further. Even though there's plenty of superhero movies and franchises and sequels and adaptations on the way, I'm still looking forward to the next few years in movies. I'm excited to find out what the future does hold, and how things continue to evolve, with technology in movie theaters, and with innovative filmmakers. Thankfully we only have four more months to wait until Interstellar, but oh my is it going to be so good. See the Interstellar trailer. What do you think of Nolan's comments?

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Not so subtle jabs at digital film-making and 3D. I'm a massive fan of Nolan, but those rubbed me the wrong way. Aside from that, I love what he is saying. Once theaters are truly offering a premium experience, many more people will make the trip out to see them. IMAX, Laser projection systems, etc etc

Chris Groves on Jul 8, 2014


3D in most cases is garbage

HotPocket on Jul 8, 2014


Typical response. That is like saying "CGI in most cases is garbage". Things like CGI and 3D can be used terribly, because virtually anyone can use them. Do you use a SyFy production as a reason that CGI should never be used in a film? The key is being smarter when it comes to which 3D movies you see. Avatar, Life of Pi, and Gravity were some of the most memorable theater experiences of my life and that was largely due to the 3D. Films like Pacific Rim and 300: Rise of an Empire also had excellent 3D. Not every film has great editing, acting, or writing...and not every film has great CGI or 3D. But when it is done well, it truly enhances the experience on every level.

Chris Groves on Jul 8, 2014


I think Nolan is right with the Digital/3D comments. I don't necessarily think that 3D is horrible, but typically its only used as a gimmick to give the production companies a reason to sell a ticket for $5-10 more dollars (for example, there are a hand full of movies where I could give you the one scene that they made for a "3D experience"). On average, 3D is garbage. Having said that, if 3D is done right, it can make for a totally different and amazing viewing experience. Avatar/Life of Pi come to mind. Those two movies were magnificent in 3D, to the point that I'd go see them in theaters right now if they were re-released in 3D. I hated 3D walking into Avatar, but walking out (having seen it in 3D), I was a believer. If done right, 3D is great. If done as a quick grab, as is the case in about 95% of the scenarios, it is garbage.

I'm Batman on Jul 8, 2014


I wouldn't go as far as saying 95%, especially since nowadays the 2010 craze of 'convert EVERYTHING to 3D!' has died down. Now, the 'in' thing is to really trumpet how a film was envisioned in 3D from the start, whether it is a conversion job or not.

Chris Groves on Jul 8, 2014


He's completely right about "content" in the full piece. Netflix is cool and all, but it'll never be the same. I don't share his optimistic view that the theater will survive, but I hope he's right.

TJW on Jul 8, 2014


I personally believe multi-plexes will be phased back out, and that MANY more films will skip theatrical releases. A lot more content will debut digitally at home. The theater experience will likely be saved purely for big blockbusters, spectacle, and 'event' films. Theatrical distribution will be saved for the larger productions that 'warrant' it. Starring in a film that doesn't get released in theaters will lose its stigma. As a lot less movies get the theatrical treatment, there will be less of a need for multi-plexes, as at any given time there will be fewer films in the marketplace. SO the emphasis will then be able to switch back to 'bigger screens, better projection, better sound, better auditoriums', the showmanship will come back to the theatrical presentation, and I believe that IMAX will become a much more common standard in theaters.

Chris Groves on Jul 8, 2014


Sadly this also requires theatres that don't suck. For instance, I saw The Raid 2 in theatres but I'm way more excited to watch it at home with better sound and a better picture now that it's on bluray.

Matt Stuertz on Jul 8, 2014


What he says makes perfect sense. I think he's hinting at the fact that theaters should show film versions you can't get on homevideo. Of course what cinemas will have to do is offer something you can't get in the comfort of your home, whether it's a different product or a different presentation doesn't really matter. They need to get back their unique selling proposition.

DavideCoppola on Jul 8, 2014


I didn't understand anything.

Tuomas Lassila on Jul 8, 2014


He really understands what's at the heart of cinema. You can watch any movie at home with the best setup you can afford, but nothing compares to the cinema experience. It's where you see the movie, the way it's meant to be seen. And with Nolan, that future is bright and beautiful.

aleks_989 on Jul 8, 2014


We don't all live in thriving metropolitan area's with state of the art theaters. I'd put my home theater up against all the local theaters without hesitation (save the IMAX & Cinemark XD screens - and it's not really that fancy). Heh - if the film makers saw most of our local theaters, they'd probably say "oh my... this is definitely not the way my movie was meant to be seen." Ex. - the right stereo channel was out in a particular theater at my local Cinemark for the better part of a year. No idea if it was ever fixed - just quit going.

avconsumer2 on Jul 8, 2014


If they would quit whoring out ALL the IMAX showings to 3D only... I'd go back, & I'd still pay out my nose.

avconsumer2 on Jul 8, 2014


No: he's right and quite very so. New producers are about content, and digital facilitates that. It's not 'the future', it's been decided and capitalised on to push 'all type of content' to 'all types of technology'. That's why digital has been chosen. That and the meddling power of Sony, who wanted to make the big push from the doc and TV worlds into dominating cinema cameras. They led the push before others followed (with the exception of Canon, but that was never the intention but indie filmmakers found the 'loophole' and exploited that to make shorts, etc). This all HAS AN EFFECT on cinema, which is about COMMON experience, shared in a dark room with others, watching a large screen surrounded by sound. That is cinema. Full stop. We filmmakers need to be making cinema, not content, and the mindset determines the outcome and the shape of what's made. Ditching film in favour of digital because 'it's the future and we're all watching on our iPads now' type of nonsense talk is the mindset he's berating. And just because people are making good cinema on digital isn't the point either. It's the generational impact of such an 'ahh, ditch 35mm, ditch watching the film in the cinema, ditch this, ditch that' attitude has over time. The 'we make cinema with digital' brigade are doing well, but they either started out with a cinema mindset (see Fincher, who now shoots digital because he does 37 takes of a comic book being dropped on a seat, and generally does many takes on purpose to 'empty' the actors' virtuosity and ego in performance - unless you're using digital for those reasons, you must question why to just copy him), or have been exclusively influenced by such (watching classics, which were constructed and work because they were created AS CINEMA). A similar thing happened with Christian church. Community, looking to God for wisdom, reaching out to others beyond your own personal comfort zone: thats all replaced with narcissism and self determination. Me culture. Consumer pick-and-mix culture. We rejected Christianity because we don't get to pick and mix. We don't get to have it our way. We have to follow and pick up our crosses. Nah, sack that, I'll construct my Facebook wall. The impact of both the 'we see it as content for all meduims' clan, mixed with the 'yeah, the future is digital, pass me my Netflix login sucker' could be that classic cinema (and it's enduring and timeless for a reason) as opposed to the reams of throw away blockbusters (compare the complete rave over Jaws to the onslaught of 'blockbuster' after 'blockbuster' today, they don't compare in impact and timelessness) gets lost. It needs resurrecting. Go to the cinema. Put your bloody iPad or Netflix down and go SEE a film.

The Grooviest chicken on Jul 8, 2014


I'm just wondering- do you jerk-off to the vision of yourself in your head or do you have to look at a mirror?

AdamPortrais on Jul 8, 2014


What a wonderful vision. I hope audience agree. I know the frequenters of this website will agree, but the masses seem to be okay with unoriginal stuff.

DAVIDPD on Jul 8, 2014


I would rather go to an old theatre that shows a good old fashion movie that entertains me for less than two hours. It doesn't matter if it's in 2D, black and white, sepia, or stereophonic sound. No CGI or big explosions. Just a good ripping yarn with a double feature.

Mike Zarquon on Jul 8, 2014


However, what Nolan fails to recognize is the potential burgeoning market of movies at home. With foreign box office numbers surpassing domestic numbers, and more films being made to appeal to a world audience, I can see films eventually being offered in a home OR theater format on release day. Of course, the theatrical experience will have to give its viewers an incredible reason to come out of the comfort of their homes to sit in a theater, and I think Nolan touches on the idea here. Personally, I love the theater experience, but I see a growing and growing push for bringing those films home on release day 1, thereby expanding the global market even further and hitting the billion dollar mark financially faster, and possibly exceeding it aggressively as well.

Quanah on Jul 8, 2014


What stage of grief is Nolan in here? Anyone?

loder74 on Jul 8, 2014


Who is this guy? He's not the person I worked for! The one who treats his distinguished crew like they're nothing but a number, rather than filmmakers who've devoted their lives to filmmaking. He's treats young filmmakers-ones without hedge-funders if their own- like peons and surfs. And his hedge-funder style of filmmaking has done more harm to the American film industry, American jobs, and American creative opportunity than everyone else combined. You want a job making your art in the US? Forget about it. He destroyed that back in 2009. Fanboys believe all his hype rather than connecting the dots and requiring a higher standard.

avenue_a on Jul 10, 2014


There will be no end to the destruction of our industry to benefit him. (Just like one of the characters from one of his movies. He writes what he knows.) Not until the fanboys demand more. They are they largest consumer base in the US. No other product can general more than a billion dollars in a matter of weeks with only 10 months of production. This is why hedge funders pulled their money out of mortgage swaps and hijacked the American movie business, with Nolan's help. The cash infusing fanboys hold an entire industry in their hands, yet behave like someone begging for an allowance. Stop. Stop it. For all our sakes. Before the American film industry resembles Detroit and the auto industry.

avenue_a on Jul 10, 2014


By future , he does not mean star wars or interstellar.. there are plenty good independent films and blockbusters alike.. Dawn of the planet of the apes is a wonderful piece.. Avatar is basically the undoing of good films

sanch on Jul 11, 2014

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