Big Screen Or Stream? The DUNE Debate Is Actually About Something More (ANALYSIS)

To stream or not to stream? That is the question the release of DUNE triggers. Whether ’tis nobler to value one platform over another comes down to more than just screen size.

With the release of Dune, Film Twitter finds itself in yet another scorched earth Tweet War (it’s the nature of that cesspool platform, after all). 

But here’s the odd thing about this particular schism: the fight isn’t about the actual merits of the movie. Rather, it’s if the movie can be properly enjoyed or judged by simply streaming it at home.

As a part of the 2021 Warner Bros. feature film slate, potential viewers of the $165 million sci-fi epic have the simultaneous option of seeing Dune either in theaters or on streamer HBO Max. Many theater purists are insisting that Dune must be seen on the big screen (and in IMAX, preferably) or else, well, you haven’t really “seen” it, while those with a more democratized view take offense at this orthodoxy, often profanely so. (As one comment on a retweet of a purist’s view read: “COUNTERPOINT: F— OFF!”)

While some tweeters are respectfully advocating for their viewpoint, they are in the minority. By and large, the two sides are obnoxiously vitriolic towards each other, even spiraling into cinephilic stream-shaming of home viewers by one side to baseless accusations by the other who slander theater purists as being ableists.

Having just deleted a pointless examination of this divide, I’ll instead focus on my intended point, which is to dispassionately advocate for a “Theater First” experience. 

As a theater purist who desires discussion rather than bluster, I’d like to dispassionately encourage my preference here — but with a wrinkle:

The virtue of holding to a “Theater First” standard isn’t because the screens are bigger and the sound is better.

In the 21st Century, for all that premium movie theaters can offer (from the scale of IMAX to the seat-shaking sound of Dolby Atmos), the first and chief value of the theatrical experience isn’t what movie theaters provide us but rather what they deny us.

Specifically: there are rules of etiquette you’re expected to follow.  

These requirements — common to any professional venue — are better suited to viewing (and judging) a movie than are the laxed and fluid dynamics of a domestic setting. 

Even with the occasional challenges of disrespectful patrons considered, what a professional venue requires is our attention. Indeed, it actively facilitates it. Conversely, the random and sundry (even infinite) distractions of a domestic setting constantly vie for and fight against that attention. 

And our attention is exactly what a feature film needs.

New York Times film critic and essayist A.O. Scott zeroed in on this point in a piece recently in response to another Film Twitter kerfuffle, this time involving a very interesting issue about Memoria, a foreign film from Columbia starring Tilda Swinton. The debate wasn’t about the movie but rather, again, the film’s unique release strategy — one that is the polar opposite of Dune’s hybrid theater/streamer day-and-date saturation.

In an intriguing calculation, distributor Neon Films has decided to go the Road Show approach with Memoria, and to do that exclusively. What does that mean? Memoria will not be widely distributed. Rather, it will go from city to city and town to town, showing only on one screen at a time as it does.

And when they say exclusive, they mean it. Neon has reportedly told trade publication IndieWire that Memoria will not have a release on DVD, streaming, or on-demand. If you want to see it, you’ll have to see it in a movie theater.

Well this did not sit well with Film Twitter. Cries of elitism came fast and furious, as if consuming art according to when, where, and how we want to is an inalienable human right. But here’s the thing: this approach is elitist, and that’s okay. In fact, it’s this kind of bold approach that could actually save movie theaters (independent cinemas especially, who would love to have this kind of exclusivity in the all-access age of streaming).

Yet even when we set aside current (and hopefully temporary) concerns about the financial struggles of theater venues, if a film artist and  that artist’s distributor want to limit how their art is consumed — believing that their strict parameters will significantly elevate an audience’s engagement and experience with their art — then so be it.

The fact that they’d take such a dramatic risk speaks volumes about the fundamental point being made by theater purists in response to Dune: venue and context matters when experiencing and processing Art.

Scott rightfully defends Elitism in Art with this salient, spot-on point, one that speaks to the Dune debate as much as the Memoria one (the whole piece is spot-on, but I love this bit in particular): 

  • How is it that a quintessentially democratic cultural activity — buying a ticket and some popcorn and finding a seat in the dark — has been reclassified as a snobbish, specialized fetish? The answer, I think, is a form of pseudo-populist techno-triumphalism that takes what seems to be the easiest mode of consumption as, by definition, the most progressive. Loyalty to older ways of doing things looks at best quaint, at worst reactionary and in any case irrational. Why wouldn’t you put your movie out there where everyone could see it?

How he answers that final question really resonates in this streaming era. You can read Scott’s full essay for the Times here. Thankfully, the link is to another outlet without a pay wall that syndicated the piece.

Bringing it back around: yes, visual scale and booming surround certainly help to create an immersive experience, so yes, platform matters. But platform and environment work hand-in-hand, and the quality of each (not just the former) has a direct effect on how Art is perceived and judged. It simply does, there’s no other way around it, and that matters

If it didn’t, movie theaters wouldn’t invest so much money in continuing to upgrade their presentation, nor would they even bother reminding people to “please silence your phones.” More broadly, if platform and venue didn’t matter, then museums would be out of business because the internet exists, and concerts would be money-losing dinosaurs (rather than bread-and-butter revenue streams for musicians) because Spotify and Apple Music exist. 

In short, the whole debate ultimately boils down to this: 

Are we, as viewers, giving a movie its fairest shot to make a first impression? 

Objectively speaking (dare I say), a movie theater provides that fairest shot.

Look, it’s not that a film’s quality can’t be discerned on a smaller screen or simply in stereo; it can, especially if the story is well-told and the movie well-made (of which Dune is on both counts). 

Moreover, as with so many people, I’ve fallen in love with numerous classics (even epics) after first viewing them under less-than-ideal conditions, especially as a kid who grew up in the 70s and 80s (bad VHS tapes, 13-inch TV, sketchy reception, et al.).

Even so, I’ve also come to admire and love those same classics in new, richer, and deeper ways when finally afforded the chance to see them in a theater. Recently, 1961’s West Side Story was a particularly profound example for me, elevating my opinion of that now-dated Best Picture winner rather significantly.

Bottom line: when an environment can maximize both platform (i.e. picture & sound) and focus (a dark room where rules of silence and time commitment are the expectation), this is unquestionably the best context within which to first watch a movie and make a judgment about it. 

It doesn’t mean you’ll love it (even in IMAX) anymore than watching the same movie on an average TV will mean you’ll hate it, but it does mean you will have given it as honest a chance to succeed as you possibly could.

2 thoughts on “Big Screen Or Stream? The DUNE Debate Is Actually About Something More (ANALYSIS)

  1. Dune is one of those movies that you really do need to see on the big screen. I say it in theaters on its opening night and it was a great cinematic experience. I’ve watched it multiple times on HBO Max, but, while I still highly enjoy the film, the movie theater experience of it is the better of the two.

    1. Agreed! And while this is especially true for a movie like DUNE, I feel that generally for any movie, even the intimate character studies.

Leave a Reply