Watching Paul Anton Smith’s Have You Seen My Movie? (2016) is a dream-like, nostalgic experience of moviegoing across time and across the world. Full of the diversity that the many genres in Hollywood offer us, Smith utilizes 136 minutes and more than 100 films to portray a complete narrative of the moviegoing experience through clips of other movies in which people are going to the movies. It is entirely and amazingly meta, and through it we see the many archetypes and stereotypes of moviegoing as told by filmmakers themselves.
There is everything from popcorn munching to dramatically tearful audiences and much more in between—yes, even the classic picture of teens making out in the back. It’s very striking to see each of these experiences portrayed through the multiple clips and multi-genre films Smith puts together, and it reveals that the moviegoing experience has some very widely accepted notions about it, and all of them have been crystallized through Have You Seen My Movie? Though the material is diverse, it shows us first and foremost that some things never change. The theaters themselves, and each of those pictured in this movie, rarely do either—even over nearly 100 years.
The architecture of movie theaters has remained largely static over the course of their existence. Though there have been quite a few moves in the industry to disrupt the moviegoing experience (think microcinema, drive-ins, etc.), few of these have really brought lasting change to the experience in a way that challenges our perceptions of theater space. Most notable of these efforts is 3D viewing, which prompted larger screens and glasses, and there is also the never-quite-right smell-o-vision, which John Brownlee at WIRED writes, has 100-plus-year history. Another disruptor is the invention of motion controlled seating, which AMC has popularized in its “D-Box” theater concepts.
Backing away from fancy gadgets and returning to architecture, there are very few theaters disrupting the boundaries of theater design today. CNN Style and Los Angeles Magazine have run lists of theaters that go above and beyond, but audiences are still sitting in the same types of rooms with rows of seats facing forward and one big screen at the front of the space.
If Smith can pull from over 100 years of moviegoing and not much has changed in the arena of theater design, it begs the question: what’s next? What can push the envelope in creating a truly new theater environment? Looking to advancements in media in recent years, the answer could very well be virtual reality. In the 1950s a filmmaker by the name of Morton Heilig created a booth called the “Sensorama,” which transitioned into the first headset iteration of creating a virtual reality for viewers. Heilig’s machine was very similar to the layout of a classic arcade game, where the user sits on a seat in front of a hooded machine fit with air vents and a set of mounted-in goggles where the screens are located. The Sensorama featured a handful of films that boasted 3D and wide vision, stereo-sound, smells, wind, and vibrations to accompany each experience. It did not receive the attention or funding Heilig hoped for, and eventually it became a collector piece much like boardwalk-style games are today. Since Heilig’s heyday, and in the last decade especially, VR has escalated from a standalone sideshow machine to a unique and fast-evolving technology that has found its way into a variety of places in modern life. Video games and home VR systems are most popular, but VR is also gaining traction in installation pieces and social experiments. The New York Times utilized VR to attempt to create connections between users and the subjects of photographs depicting displaced communities in 2015, and so it seems like the realms in which VR can be used is honestly limitless. Of course, film is a branch of culture that could lend itself quite easily to VR.
On a group-experience basis, film festivals have positioned themselves as a test track of VR cinematic concepts. Sundance is now in the 11th year of its New Frontiers program that has hosted a range of VR projects, and other fests like Tribeca are incorporating more and more pieces and experiences. Tribeca is currently hosting three categories of submissions under the immersive umbrella: storyscapes, virtual arcade, and cinema360. Some, but not all of the first and last category are interactive, but each of them place viewers in a swivel chair with a VR headset and noise-cancelling headphones. The swivel chairs are used to allow the viewer to fully experience the 360-degree view that the cinema360 concept offers. Photos and video coverage show an average of 10 viewers at a time participating in these experiences, but with the headset and headphone equipment, the experiences themselves are very isolated. Additionally, the spaces these outlets are housed in are temporary and don’t give us enough to look into the future of a regular hometown VR theater.
There are some concepts that are rooting themselves in between the typical movie theater complexes common to us today, however. IMAX’s VR theater concepts are in seven locations thus far and provide users with games to play in 12’x12’ pods that can have cinematic characters or premises, but they are still competition-based. AMC as well is hopping into the ring and is set to open a swath of VR theaters in partnership with Dreamscape Immersive. From what information is available to the public, these physical spaces will be smaller, and the experiences shared by only a couple people at a time. There is a possibility for interactive objects to be utilized as well, and this means that VR theaters could look more like film sets on a production lot than the theaters we have come to know and love for a century.
In the future, it is likely that VR will step in to create a “new normal” of moviegoing. No seats in a tidy row, and no big screens. We might all be sharing the same, giant headset, or it could still be confined to a singular experience years down the road. Maybe robotics will come into play and there will be theaters that are more like simulation pods for small groups to use, much like Disney’s Soarin’ ride but with a far more cinematic narrative and occurring for a much longer period of time.
What will prove to be the biggest anticipation of these concepts becoming normalized is how VR will navigate the human connections we foster through traditional moviegoing and movie theater design today. In Have You Seen My Movie? there are interactions between audience members as well as collective experiences that can have dramatic impacts on how the movies in the clips are watched and understood. Couples watching romance scenes are impacted enough to hold hands, and in another scene, a blind girl experiences a film with tears streaming down her face as others cry in the theater around her. There are real-life implications that can sometimes be life-changing by going to the theater, taking a seat, and staying a while to watch a story unfold on the silver screen.
Katie Heaney wrote for The Cut about how seeing a movie in the theater (without headsets on) scientifically affects our perception of the film in general. There is a provable tendency for audience members to be affected in like-minded ways, and part of that has to do with audience members becoming physically synchronized in watching films the way they are shown today.
Additionally, Lawrence Rubin wrote for Psychology Today about post-apocalyptic films and how they point to a “reminder of the inescapable threats to our fragile sense of safety and security,” further stating that to watch these films as an audience member in a populated theater is providing an opportunity for “group catharsis,” which is a unique moviegoing experience that the theaters of today allow us.
It seems as though there is a preemptive nostalgia for how films will impact our lives and emotions that happens in traditional theaters, and facing the possibility of that experience becoming outdated or even nonexistent is a little harrowing. It is also important to examine that VR can still provide very deeply emotional experiences, though not in the ways we imagine. Joshua Rothman wrote in his New Yorker article “Are We Already Living in Virtual Reality?” about the way we construct realities in our minds and how VR researchers and scientists are tapping into those realities. He recounts his own experiences participating in VR in which he was transformed into another body that moved as he moved and in one instance described being put through a narrative in which he was a woman being subjected to verbal and physical threats from a male. Rothman noted that the blurred lines between the reality that he was a male in no danger and the virtual reality of him being a female under attack was incredibly impactful for him. There are many other experiences Rothman describes as he spoke to scientists and psychologists about the ways VR utilizes the realities we construct for ourselves, and it looks promising that there is a place for the technology to shape us in much deeper ways than the way movies do today—regardless of whether or not we view them in the same place at the same time as others and with or without other people cognizant of our experience while in the same space.
However, there still exists a gap between these laboratory-like experiences, the festival categories, and the everyday moviegoer. The way these theaters are designed and the ways the cinematic VR experiences are delivered will have an undeniably large impact on how our culture will understand cinema in the future. Perhaps ten or twenty years down the road Paul Anton Smith will premier another feature titled Have You Experienced My Movie? and we will look back to see how far we have come to this new normal.