Watching big movies on the small screen

But filmmakers in training aren't scaling their aspirations to the tiniest screens

Film Students

Columbia College film students Al Benoit, 24, left, Ali Hadley, 21, center, and Noemi Santo, 21, all prefer viewing movies on large screens. (Nancy Stone, Chicago Tribune / March 26, 2014)

Whether it's time or technological preference, many of us watch movies in ways we would've considered ridiculous a few years ago. The other day, blowing off the sensible Not Safe for Work guideline, I reviewed "Nymphomaniac: Volume I" at the office by way of an online link. Confronted with the first really gamey encounter in Lars von Trier's sexually explicit film, I did what any Repressive-American would do. I panicked, looked over my shoulder like someone with something to hide and quickly reduced the screen on my laptop to bottom-of-the-screen thumbnail size. Literally, the image was the size of my thumbnail, approximately 0.75 inches by 0.60 inches.

And I thought: Well, the next time I YouTube something a little less dicey on a big screen — on my company-issued iPhone, for example — it'll look like "Lawrence of Arabia" at the Music Box Theatre compared with this.

And then I thought: Welcome to the beginning of the end.

I go out to a lot of movies, for work and as a civilian. It is not a strange or forbidding experience to me. When I was 6 my parents took me to "Grand Prix," a widescreen soap opera with lots of split-screen track footage, and I sat in the front row, and my eyes were so bloodshot I stayed home from school the next day. In the disaster movie heyday, a friend and I caught "Earthquake," in Sensurround, and sat inside one of the rumbly, jacked-up Sensurround speakers at the back of the theater, at least until the blue-jacketed, bow-tied General Cinema Corp. usher ushered us out of there.

I like falling into the experience. I love a big screen. As often as life permits, I want to see films I love the way their directors imagined them.

Today I live in a household blessed, and cursed, with a typical number of screens and screen sizes used by people ages 4 to 53. I can't be a hypocrite; I watch enough on a laptop — in addition to screenings at the downtown Lake Street Screening Room and evening promotional screenings at ICON on Roosevelt or AMC River East — to appreciate the variety. I stream a little when I need to. I watch things at odd, early morning hours, before the kids wake up. The laptop doesn't make for ideal viewing, but there it is.

By three decades, I am no longer in the coveted 18-to-24-year-old age bracket. The Motion Picture Association of America released downward-trending figures this week. Frequent moviegoers in the 18-to-24 group dropped 21 percent last year. Attendance in the 12-17 age bracket also fell, nearly 15 percent.

So what's it like to be a young filmmaker in that 18-24 bracket, shooting stories destined to be watched on a strange variety of screens, often by people who wouldn't dream of shutting off their competing devices for an hour or two?

Ali Hadley, a Columbia College Chicago junior, turns 21 this week. She created a Web series called "Arts & Crafts," working with her fellow Columbia film and video students, buoyed by $6,000 raised through an Indiegogo crowdfunding campaign.

"Generally, because I'm a poor college student, I spend a lot of time with Netflix, streaming online," she says. "Sometimes on my iPhone, generally on my laptop." She goes out to the movies now and then (the last one she paid for at a theater: "Dallas Buyers Club"). Hadley says that as a filmmaker she realizes what she's up against.

"I personally wouldn't want to see 'Gravity' on anything but a big screen, but as directors we're going to have to get closer and closer to the face as the screens get smaller," she acknowledges.

Noemi Santo, 21, is at Columbia College studying screenwriting and directing.

"If there's a movie I'm really gung-ho about, I wouldn't watch it on an iPhone," she says. "Anyway, I don't have an iPhone. Seeing something that way is too … casual for me. I know I'm missing too many things, too much visual detail."

As she conceives her projects, Santo says, "it'll limit me too much to take all the new formats too much into consideration. I want to focus on telling the best story possible. And that story should be big enough to translate, no matter what size a screen."

Santo's more old-school than some of her Columbia College colleagues: She buys DVDs and takes full advantage of free screenings whenever she can. Seeing a film at a theater is "a mini-vacation. It's worth it. Even at full price. You get the full experience. The popcorn; the chatter beforehand; the chatter during, which is annoying, of course; and the chatter afterwards. Watching a movie with an audience, you can't replace that."

Millions, of course, have found a way to do just that, at home or at a Starbucks or on the "L." Like Hadley and Santo, Columbia College film and video student Al Benoit, 24, is part of the mobile world, yet defiant in his preferences.

"I just don't like watching movies on my damn phone or my tablet," he says. He's made some of his own work available on the Vimeo website, "and I made the decision to not let people watch it on a phone. But so many people were emailing and asking why they couldn't see my work that way. I was kind of surprised by that."

His idol, he says, is Paul Thomas Anderson.

"I saw the 70 mm print of 'The Master' at the Music Box," Benoit says. "Magical. That experience brought you so close to the story, to those characters. It wasn't like watching a movie."

And that's where we are. We see so much in so many diminished or compromised ways, when we remember what it's like to see something large and enveloping — what it's like to swim in the filmmaker's vision for a couple of hours — it's not like moviegoing as millions have come to know it. It's something else, something comparatively ancient.

"Ideally I want to bring my work to real venues, so that people will actually have to come out for it," says Hadley, the young woman with the Web series, a committed Netflix user. "They'll just have to leave their Netflix queues for a while."

mjphillips@tribune.com

Twitter @phillipstribune

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