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Welcome to Screen Time

The pandemic is changing everything about Hollywood.
July 26, 2020
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Why “Screen Time”? Because so much of the entertainment industry is now dedicated to figuring out which screen you want to watch something on rather than what’s worth watching in the first place. From the currently shuttered big screens to the flat screen in your living room to the smartphone deployed to distract you in the spare off-moment, determining the utility of screens seems to be our overriding concern at this point.

So where do our screens stand? Let’s consider them in order of size.

The Big Screen—theatrical presentations! 70mm! IMAX!—is in serious jeopardy. With the release of Christopher Nolan’s Tenet again delayed and no new release date announced, theater owners around the country have hit full-blown panic. And for good reason! Even before theaters were shut down around the world, major chains like AMC were teetering on the edge of insolvency. Niche outfits like The Alamo Drafthouse had led an insurgency in the theatrical space in recent years, offering an upscale dinner-and-a-movie experience. But they’ve been hammered just as hard; every chain, big and small, is collecting between no and almost no revenue and even when they relaunch it’s unclear at what capacity they’ll be able to operate.

In short: The Big Screen is kind of screwed, and it’s hard to imagine a scenario in which every chain avoids bankruptcy and/or purchase by either Amazon or Apple or some other player with cash to burn and a desire to acquire distressed assets.

Which brings us to The Flat Screen, the obvious winner in the post-Covid world. But The Flat Screen has its own oddities: as Bilge Ebiri recently intimated over at Vulture, the streaming services are only nominally in the movie business, at least as we traditionally understand it. I can’t stop thinking about this stat: “Last year, Nielsen … reported that only about 18 percent of viewers in the U.S. finished watching The Irishman on its first day. That sounds, frankly, terrible — but apparently, it’s comparable to noted viral hit Bird Box (also 18 percent) and higher than plenty of other big Netflix titles.”

If more than four in five people walked out of a movie they started watching in the theater, we’d all realize the thing being watched was a massive artistic failure. Yet it’s the norm on the world’s biggest streaming service—not just the norm, but a signal of success. No wonder, then, that Christopher Nolan, that conjurer of complicated storytelling, wants people to watch Tenet on a big screen, isolated from the world of distractions and overwhelming options offered up by Netflix and HBO Max and Disney+ and AppleTV+ and Hulu and the Criterion Channel.

Speaking of distractions: that brings us to The Smartphone Screen, our constant companion, a flickering oasis that draws your eyes when you’re trying to watch your kids or waiting in a line or on the way to work. Except, of course, that lines are kaput and commutes are, largely, curtailed. In other words: pity the poor Quibi, that billion-dollar boondoggle launched by Jeffrey Katzenberg that has seen more think pieces about its troubles than it has logged paying viewers. The Smartphone Screen is undoubtedly a place where some folks choose to watch stuff, but it remains unclear that there’s demand for content specifically made for that screen outside of user-generated #content like that found on the Chinese spyware app TikTok.

Now. What is there to watch on our screens?

Review: The Rental

Dave Franco’s The Rental is a brutal and nasty—and chillingly great—little horror picture in the same vein as Bryan Bertino’s The Strangers. A high-proof cocktail mixing tense relationships and creeping isolation with a sense of personal violation, The Rental has an ending that’ll stay seared in your memory for some time.

Two couples decide to split an Airbnb on a cliff overlooking the Pacific. Charlie (Dan Stevens) and Mina (Sheil Vand) pick it out one afternoon while relaxing in the office. They’re partners—seed funding for whatever venture they’re putting together has just come in, hence the celebratory weekend—but not a couple. Charlie’s dating Michelle (Alison Brie) and Mina’s dating Josh (Jeremy Allen White), who happens to be Charlie’s brother.

Got that? Good.

Things get a little hairy when they show up to the property and find it managed by a redneck named Taylor (Toby Huss, whose presence in a project generally signals it’s a must-watch). Taylor’s racial views are, shall we say, less than enlightened. A creeping sense of dread settles over the place given his violation of society’s final cardinal sin—racism—in front of this set of moderns. If he’s capable of prejudice, what else is he capable of? It’s a clever bit of writing by Franco and co-writer Joe Swanberg, a play on the audience’s own prejudices that helps shroud the film’s action in mystery and dread.

Franco, with the aid of cinematographer Christian Sprenger (a TV vet who has worked on good-looking shows like Atlanta and GLOW), creates a real sense of mood with location and setting, lighting and fog; there’s nothing scarier than isolation. The camera’s often at a slight remove, mimicking the sensation of voyeurism that dominates the film without devolving to hacky Friday the 13th-style shenanigans.

The less said the better; suffice to say, these two couples end up sharing more than a house for the weekend. And things get even more taut when, in the midst of cleaning up after a serious misstep, Mina discovers a camera in one of the home’s shower heads. It’s any renter’s worst nightmare, the sudden realization that privacy does not—cannot, really—exist when inhabiting a home you don’t own for a short period of time. What will be done with the illicit footage?

More importantly: who will see it?

***

That’s a question that could be asked of The Rental in general. At this point, obviously, it’s going to make most of its money on Video-on-Demand (VOD), though it’s also lined up for a 250-screen drive-in run. But options, obviously, are limited. What sort of business might it have done before our current crisis? Where might it have played? And which screens will this sort of movie be welcome on going forward?

The Rental may have ended up a straight-to-VOD film anyway. But it’s also the sort of movie in the sort of genre that, pre-COVID-19, could have made a splash in theaters. With its name-brand-but-not-quite-A-List cast and modest production budget, it would’ve fallen into the Blumhouse or A24 theory of releasing quite nicely: a sharp, smart horror film with this sort of talent and a highly targeted marketing campaign could’ve recouped its production budget and most of it advertising budget on opening weekend with a little luck. Everything after that is gravy.

But one wonders if there’s going to be a place for this sort of picture on big screens going forward; Blumhouse seems to have hinted as much, happily pushing Universal to release movies like The Hunt and The Invisible Man on VOD shortly after theaters shuttered. Jason Blum himself said in March that everything will change. And if there isn’t a place for The Rental in theaters going forward—if this is the sort of movie that audiences feel more comfortable watching at home because they’re watching most everything at home; if audiences say they’re only headed out for tentpoles, that spectacle is the only reason to venture to the multiplex—that’s a shame. Because The Rental, like The Strangers and like most other tense, tight thrillers, is best seen with an audience, a group of people sucking their breath in in uniform and exhaling nervous laughs after brutal kills and near-misses.


Assigned Viewing: Danton

Decision paralysis is real and terrifying, and we live in an age of nearly unlimited viewing options. This final space each week will be used to offer up something older, interesting, (hopefully) relevant, and a bit under the radar for you to enjoy.

This week’s suggestion is Andrzej Wajda’s Danton, which is streaming on the Criterion Channel and Kanopy. Wajda was a Polish filmmaker who bridled under the restraints imposed by Soviet repression. In an interview for the Criterion release of the film, he recalled life under martial law: “Those were the worst, most helpless years of my life. We were so happy to be in Paris, to be able to distance ourselves from it all.” A critic of the Russian Revolution and the excesses it would usher in—the killings and imprisonments under Lenin and Stalin; the repression of Soviet satellites under Khrushchev and Brezhnev—it’s no wonder the story of Georges Danton would appeal to Wajda.

Danton is a film about the ways in which revolutions are machines unto themselves, unstoppable and, in the end, self-consuming. No one is ever pure enough, no one is ever safe from the mob—or the guillotine. Danton (Gerard Depardieu) was a key figure of the French Revolution, a lover of life, a man of the people; he meets his match at the hands of the ascetic Robespierre (Wojciech Pszoniak), who has Danton killed to maintain control of the social transformation.

Danton’s belief in the ability of his rhetorical talents to save him in the face of the mob is, as another revolutionary put it, admirable, but mistaken. Close observers of the film will realize that we’re not watching a historical drama so much as a horror movie: the blade of the guillotine, placed firmly in the heart of the city, looms over everything, informs every action.

And in an age of terror and upheaval, words—even pretty ones—are rarely enough to stop the blade from falling.

Sonny Bunch

Sonny Bunch is the Culture Editor of The Bulwark. Before serving as editor-in-chief of the film site Rebeller, he was the executive editor of and film critic for The Washington Free Beacon. He is currently a contributor to The Washington Post and his work has appeared in The Wall Street Journal, National Review, Commentary Magazine, The Weekly Standard, and elsewhere. He is a member of the Washington Area Film Critics Association