Tyler Cowen Alex Tabarrok considers some economic explanations for the recent inversion of the traditional dominance of movies over television as “elite entertainment,” primarily the rise of pay-TV and the growing importance of the international market for movies. (Explosions don’t need to be translated, after all.) That’s surely part of it, but I’d be more inclined to emphasize the effect of DVR and the rapid collection of TV seasons on DVD. It’s much easier to tell a dense, multilayered story with many characters that unfolds over the course of a full season when you know viewers aren’t at any risk of missing an episode and getting lost, and in particular when they can go back and refresh their memories rather than having to keep the whole story cached in memory in the week between episodes.
On the movie side, though, I don’t think it’s that movies as such are in decline as elite entertainment, but that technology has effectively forced new highbrow movies to compete with the cinema’s ample back catalog. Twenty years ago, if you wanted to have a “home entertainment center” that could serve as a decent substitute for the theatrical experience, you pretty much had to be willing to drop ten grand and devote a room of your house to it. Now a 50″ high-definition TV can be had for a few hundred dollars, and will fit against the wall of an apartment living room. It’s not a perfect substitute: If you want to get a big group of people together and make a social event of seeing a big flashy action movie with the latest special effects, the theater is still probably your best bet. But if you want to watch The Seventh Seal or Citizen Kane with a couple other people, it’s a viable alternative in a way that the smaller standard-def TV you’d find in an equivalent middle class home circa 1990 just wasn’t. Moreover, for the cost of a $10 monthly Netflix subscription, you’ve got an ample and growing library of both classic and recent movies available on demand. Once those costs are sunk, and once the audio-visual quality is high enough, a lot of people will actively prefer to watch a quieter or more thoughtful movie at home with a glass of wine.
Here, again, if you’re in the mood for (say) a big flashy sci-fi action movie, improvements in filmmaking technology mean that the latest theatrical release is going to have enough of an advantage to be competitive with the back catalog. Whatever else you might say about it, Inception is visually a lot more impressive than most old action sci-fi movies. (There are exceptions—Blade Runner springs to mind—but not a ton.) But if you’re looking for a smart, artistically shot film with smart dialogue? Unless you’re a truly voracious film buff, there are probably a couple hundred Criterion Collection films you haven’t seen that are superior on those dimensions to anything made this year. Time and tech do a lot more at the margin to improve flicks than films.
I haven’t got any actual data to back this up, mind you. But my guess is that a lot of the audience for highbrow film isn’t necessarily watching less of them—though insofar as the quality of TV has improved, there’s probably some substitution effect—but that they’re probably watching more older movies at home. In the short term, with theatrical box office still viewed as a leading metric of a film’s success, that could make it harder for those types of movies to get greenlit. In the long run, one hopes, the same technological trends will make it easier to finance and distribute films at lower cost, and without necessarily going through the studio system.