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The Case Against the Case Against Video on Demand

Tower Heist
In between his reviews of “Tower Heist” and “Melancholia,” New Yorker film critic Anthony Lane goes off on a rant this week against the creeping menace of video on demand, treating the emerging film-distribution trend as if he were Greece and VOD were a German-backed bailout program. For those of you just tuning in, Universal last month announced plans to make “Tower Heist” available to half a million households in the Atlanta and Portland, Ore., areas for home viewing at $59.99 a pop, beginning three weeks after the film’s theatrical release. Theater owners threatened revolt, saying they would refuse to screen the film if Universal followed through on its plan. The studio blinked, ensuring that Georgia’s and Oregon’s laziest Eddie Murphy fans will now have to wait for the DVD (or for someone to upload a copy to the Web).

Explaining the rationale of viewers who would rather pay to watch films from their couches than from their theater seats, Lane writes: “ ‘Can you blame us?’ they will cry. ‘Who wants to pay for a sitter, drive 20 miles in the rain, and sit in a fug of vaporized popcorn butter next to people who are either auditioning for “Contagion 2” or texting the Mahabharata to their second-best friends?’ And the answer is: me.” The critic goes on to argue that “home cinema” is a fiction, and that the act of answering the door or pausing a movie to go to the fridge destroys the cinematic experience. He then gets grandiose about the communal experience of going to the theater: “We are strangers in communion, and, once that pact of the intimate and the populous is snapped, the charm is gone. Our revels now are ended.”

To understand what a load of crap Lane’s screed is, you need to know how most critics watch films: in small, clean, private spaces in Los Angeles and New York, many of them more comfortably furnished than the critics’ own homes. (The best seats in my favorite New York screening room are two giant faux-leather loungers in the back, while the worst seats resemble what you might find in the first-class cabin on a British Airways flight.) When critics are asked to visit a multiplex, the theater is rented out for a special screening, where the best rows are reserved for media types and fiercely guarded by eager interns from the studio’s publicity arm. In either case, the critics are at all times surrounded by their peers, who are mostly older, recently bathed, and quiet once the lights go down. Rarely do they cross paths with screaming children, chattering neighbors, or idiots playing Words With Friends on their iPhones—and never do they have to pay for the experience. In short, Lane has little idea how the other 99 percent watch their movies, so he has zero right to criticize them for wanting something different.

Studios and the industry unions—including the Screen Actors Guild and the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists—have stepped up their efforts to combat online copyright infringement big-time in the last couple of years. Both camps claim that piracy devours money and jobs, and while the jury is still out on just how much money and just how many jobs, SAG and AFTRA have argued that the negative impact for actors has been great.

The death of the theatrical experience that Lane lionizes might be an emotional issue for some. But in the world of reality, it behooves all film professionals, actors included, to find out if people in Atlanta are willing to pay money to watch a Brett Ratner movie at home—because one of the alternatives for those same people is watching the movie at home for free.

Pictured: The Cast of "Tower Heist"

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