Opinion: Can I steal three minutes of your time?

Should we be worried that film-viewers of the future are turning into undiscerning, content-ambivalent goldfish? CT’s Alastair Balmain gives the cat video a good kicking


 What are you watching? “YouTube.” “Yes, but what are you watching…?” That’s a pretty regular dialogue in our house between me and my two pre-teen sons, and I’m far from unique in getting frustrated at seeing children huddled for warmth around a tiny screen, but this isn’t an article about what lurks in the dark corners of the internet. As baffling as some of the things they watch may be, “Rugby’s stupidest brain fades”, “How to draw BB8” and “The Top 7 never before seen Britain’s Got Talent’s most shocking moments” don’t cause me very sleepless nights. Given that the boys knockabout outdoors as all 7 and 11 year olds should, nor is this a standard-format whinge about excessive screen time. No, from a cinema perspective, I look at their screen habits (and those of every age group with internet access) and my immediate thought is that short-form content is having a bit of moment…

Have we, as a sector, focused so hard on the dominance of streaming services in the Home Ent world that we have taken our eye off the ball when it comes to a potential threat to cinema’s popularity — namely a growing obsession with unscripted amateur content and lamentable production values? If we can get our kicks in three minutes from a low-quality, inappropriately ad-infested how-to video, is there still space in our lives for feature-length material edited by an actual editor, with high-quality projection and sound?

Four hundred hours of content is uploaded to YouTube every minute, for the benefit of 1.9billion regular monthly users who stick around on average for no more than 40 minutes per session. For some context, the major Studios release roughly 120 films a year — by my maths that equates to less than 30 seconds’ worth of annual YouTube content uploads. And while they are there, YouTube’s figures state that the men are primarily watching football or strategy games, while the women primarily watch beauty videos. To me, that information is depressing both for the nature of the content and from a gender stereotyping perspective.

Yeah, but at least it’s not Netflix, right?

Apologies for dropping the N-bomb, but in pitching itself deliberately in pursuit of high-quality content, most rational people now recognise that Netflix is potentially one of the cinema’s strongest allies, encouraging as it does a high degree of respect for the story-telling formats we revere. As a fan of digital photography using adapted old manual lenses, I’m currently obsessed by the anamorphic quality of the lenses, the framing and the colour grading on “Narcos Mexico”. It may be one of Netflix’s series rather than a feature, but it is nevertheless a work of artistic integrity that merits a big screen outing. I’m not certain the same could be said of the standout 17-second YouTube hit, “Surprised Kitty”. To date, that’s been watched 79m times (For the purposes of research, that number includes me. I can only say sorry.)

So what does this all mean for exhibitors? In short, I believe we’ll have an increasingly hard job to do educating audiences about the quality and value of the feature-length narrative in the future. If someone could squeeze all that into a three-minute format, perhaps that would be best.