The Problematic Friction of Going to the Movies

It’s a big commitment, one streaming alleviates.

In her analysis of why Netflix’s awards push for The Irishman failed to get the movie an Oscar win, Indiewire’s Dana Harris-Bridson talks a lot about “friction.” Here’s the key graf:

And then there are the movie theaters, which are friction factories. Movies start at specific times, in specific places. You have to fight traffic to get there and then pay at the door, get gouged on refreshments, find a seat with a clear eyeline, and suffer through 30 minutes of commercials and trailers. It might be too hot, or too cold. It might smell like stale popcorn oil. And, worst of all, you might not even like what you came to see and then you’re stuck: There’s no forward button, or the option to nope out and try something else. Your only option is to leave, which will annoy all the strangers next to you while you feel ripped off and out of sorts for the rest of the day.

Netflix and other streaming services have, to her logic, worked to reduce that friction by making choosing to watch a movie or show a much lighter emotional lift. Thus, she concludes, The Academy didn’t see The Irishman on the same level of significance or importance because the audience wasn’t required to make nearly as heavy a commitment as was made to see other movies in theaters.

There’s likely some truth to Harris-Bridson’s hypothesis here, since The Academy wants movies to “mean something” and making the choice to physically go to a theater is certainly part of that.

Removing friction, though, is a key element of opening up movies to broader audiences. It’s true that The Irishman, a 3:30 film, is best experienced in one sustained, cohesive experience. Doing so communicates the full weight of the story and the journey of the characters, and with so much jumping around in time happening it’s the best way to keep track of what’s going on.

It’s also true that devoting a full three and half hours to a movie is something not everyone can do. Especially in an era that includes the gig economy, last minute scheduling of part time employment and other demands on people’s time that are unpredictable at best.

Somewhere around 20 percent of Americans have jobs with irregular and on-call schedules, meaning they don’t know what hours they’ll work until just before the day arrives or are subject to being pulled in at the last minute. And some 36 percent are engaged in what’s referred to as the gig economy, using apps and other tools to connect them with work that is frequently low paying and often infrequent.

Putting aside the rising costs of movie tickets, imagine someone working in one or both of those situations being able to carve out the time necessary to see a movie in theaters. Even a 2.5 hour film requires 3-4 hours or more when factoring in travel, beating the crowds to find a seat and more. Watching a movie on streaming might even be a struggle since it may be interrupted by a call that they are needed at work, a call they have to heed if they want to keep a roof over their head and food on the table.

Streaming not only reduces the friction of choice, then, but it also allows for accommodations to be made based on the reality of the watcher’s life and financial situation. Going to the theater involves making the choice to check out of the world for a few hours and deal with the repercussions of doing so. Or they get up and leave to deal with things, which seems reasonable but also means accepting that the individual will miss out on the remainder of the film.

If something comes up while watching a streaming movie, all that needs to happen is the movie is paused until later. When they are free again they can pick it back up.

Audiences aren’t necessarily making the choice of theater OR streaming viewing. This and similar reports have shown the overlap is significant, as most people who watch movies via streaming also regularly go to theaters. It’s just that one or the other may be more convenient at any given moment or a more realistic choice in a particular circumstance.

If the thinking is right that The Academy opted not to honor The Irishman because watching it was too easy for audiences and therefore couldn’t be as meaningful as Parasite and other titles it’s another sign of how out of touch those people are with the realities people in the audience are faced with.

All movies mean something – or have the potential to mean something – because all involve the audience deciding *this* is worth an investment of my time *now.* All that’s different is the venue that investment takes place in, but in very few instances does venue convey any significance or importance in and of itself.

One thought on “The Problematic Friction of Going to the Movies

  1. Chris, this is one of the best pieces, you have ever written and I absolutely LOVED reading this. Partly for the reason in which you cite most of your article on relatability.

    This is exactly what Netflix and streaming sites, have given the movie watching/screen time giving, community, that the cinemas are unable too. As you have so dearly mentioned.

    I am one of those “digital nomad” types, you have highlighted. I haven’t owned a TV for about 7 years, and I don’t ever see myself, having one again. A screen, maybe, but for the single purpose of being able to stream, my Netflix through.

    The ease (again as you have mentioned) of being able to watch, not only on my laptop but also on my mobile device, can not be compared to the hassle of “the cinema friction” as you’ve termed it.

    Loved reading this. Thank you.

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