Ostensibly, a brewing battle at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences over possible new rules limiting Oscar eligibility for films that go straight from a couple of theaters to a digital streaming service like Netflix or Amazon is about technology.
Elementally, it is about a crisis in storytelling.
Hollywood players like Steven Spielberg, an advocate of some limit on the eligibility of immediately streamed films like Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma, instinctively know that the theatrical experience differs deeply from home viewing. Seen simply in terms of awards voting, the battle for theaters was lost long ago, as distributors turned to screeners in promoting their contenders.
But Roma’s run at a Best Picture Oscar that ultimately went to Green Book has drawn a red line in what is really a battle over powerful storytelling tools – a fight that may ultimately decide whether film-viewing is a collective or an atomized experience.
Because actors, writers, directors, producers and their fellows are by nature more visual than verbal, they don’t always enunciate precisely what they’re thinking about their own grand art. But an exception to that rule is the longtime film producer and executive Peter Guber, who wrestled with the roots of story in a 2011 book called Tell to Win.
In his book, Guber described an extraordinary experience during a 2005 trip to Papua New Guinea. Somewhere on the Blackwater River, says Guber, he was allowed into a long, thatch-topped lodge that belonged to a group he describes as the Crocodile Men.
Inside the lodge, ritual storytellers would repeat narratives that had held the tribe together for uncounted generations. The story technology, said Guber, was obviously primitive. Just an individual confronting listeners, perhaps with the aid of a few props. But the experience, he noted, was profound, because it laid bare the visceral connection between a teller and a completely engaged, collective audience.
“Tellers and listeners swayed together,” wrote Guber.“They swooned. They gasped—‘Ahha!’ One-to-many, each teller delivered his story through his whole body and spirit straight to the hearts of his listeners. This fundamental full-body, real-time experience, I realized with shock, is what gives all oral stories their advantage over written, filmed or otherwise mediated stories.”
In the book, Guber goes on to argue that words communicate only a small part of what a speaker, or a movie, has to say. The rest comes from a mélange of cues, large and small, that bind storyteller and listener in what he describes as “mirror neural activity.”
Each step in technology – from oral delivery, to stage, to big screen, to cell phone – may widen reach, but it also dilutes the power of cues like lighting or gesture or facial expression. And it splits the collective audience into pieces that, if they bond at all, can only do so digitally and after the fact.
It’s not hard to see why those who thrive on the sensation of moving five or 5,000 people in a theater would be leery of streaming services like Netflix. Those might open a door to millions, but never really let you touch them.