Spielberg at the Revolution

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Movie director Steven Spielberg is an admitted luddite in at least one respect: when he makes a film, he wants to deal with actual film. Yet he recognizes that the digital revolution is changing the way we watch movies. He talked with TIME's Desa Philadelphia:

On why he doesn't shoot in digital:

I'm too nostalgic to make my movies digitally. I'm the last person in Hollywood who cuts his film on film. I still love cutting on film. The greatest films ever made in our history were cut on film and I'm tenaciously hanging on to the process. I just love going into an editing room and smelling the photochemistry and seeing my editor wearing mini-strands of film around his neck. It's a choice. I feel like I should call myself "handmade productions."

And why he will eventually:

For me, sadly, it's the inevitable medium. I think that certainly it's right around the corner. Dreamworks certainly recognizes the tens of millions of dollars that will be saved in distribution costs in not having to make five, six, seven thousand 35mm prints, just in the domestic market, for a big event movie. I think someday, when digital technology mainstreams, films will be broadcast to satellites from one transmission depot and then be beamed down into thousands of venues, which will save hundreds of millions of dollars when you combine every studio that releases movies on film, that have to pay those laboratory costs. The industry is looking at this not so much as a way to enhance quality, although it will, but they are looking at it as a way to save money. I may be the last person as a director to accept it, but I certainly will not be the last person to accept it as someone who runs a film company.

On whether the new technology will divide film audiences:

Audience members are only concerned about the story, the concept, the bells and whistles and the noise that a popular film starts to make even before it's popular. So audiences will not be drawn to the technology; they'll be drawn to the story. And I hope it always remains that way.

On how Hollywood will react to the new technology:

Hollywood had an answer to TV; it was cinemascope. Of course, it couldn't stop the juggernaut of television, but Hollywood has always had an answer for the small-screen experience and now more and more filmmakers are converting their films to the 3D Imax experience, and the Imax theaters are bearing us out.

The good thing where movies are right now is that studios that finance independent classic arms are allowing films to get made that five years ago no one would have made. Do you think they would have made Brokeback Mountain 10 years ago? Do you think Capote could have gotten off the ground five years ago? I think that studios are allowing their classic divisions to really take risks. To hire new directors and give new people chances, new writers chances. I think itís a tremendously powerful revolution.

On how we will watch movies in the future:

I think we are eventually going to get to a point where the audience is going to want to make a choice: to go to a movie theater and let the movie just roll over them, and they walk out having felt that a confident filmmaker told them a really good story and thatís really satisfying. But also in the future there is going to be a movie theater that allows the audience to be active members in the story-telling process. And I think the audiences who are flocking to video games, which is an interactive experience, are going to want to interact with movies as they play in real time. And there will be room for both. There will be stories that allow the audience to determine the outcome. Some day in the not too distant future you'll be able to go to a movie and the movie will be all around you. The movie will be over your head, it will be a 360 degrees around you, even be a little bit under you, and you will be in your seat with hand controls where you can rotate your seat, lean back, lean forward, have complete control over your seat to be able to keep up with all the imagery that is going to take you on a mind-blowing journey. I see that kind of experience without losing narrative.

On the shrinking window between the theatrical and DVD release of a movie:

I'm sad because when I first started making movies, when I made Raiders of the Lost Ark, we stayed in theaters for a year. But now you're a hit and it stays in theaters for three months. I think there's such an appetite for different forms of entertainment, we can't depend on a big motion picture audience who isn't distracted by listening to your ipods, playing your interactive video games, watching television, going to concerts or just going to a restaurant and talking. People are just impatient with the distance between a movie coming to your local theater and the DVD being available at Blockbuster, and Hollywood is listening to that impatience. Although I have to go on record saying that I am not in favor of a DVD coming out the same day as the film opens, because I really believe that the average home system is far inferior to a movie house. And a lot of it is the social magic of going out to the movies, seeing it with a lot of people you have never met and sharing an experience. I feel there is no substitute for going out to the movies. There is nothing like it.

On how cell phones are affecting box office returns:

Cell phones play a huge role in diminishing returns in the movies because you can do so much with your cell phones. You can talk on it, you can play games on it, you can watch TV on it, you can watch film clips on it, you can organize your life with it, you can text messages. Cell phones tend to bring us more inside of our lives whereas movies offer a chance to escape, so there are two competing forces. One force is very old — from nickelodeons to silent movies to talkies to cinemascope to cinerama to IMAX. The other venue is the gadgets that sort of anchor us in one place and eat up the hours in our day, that makes us wait for the DVD.

On what audience he thinks about when he's shooting a movie:

I only paint on the one size sheet of paper. I always make my movies for a movie theater that has, like, 500 seats, and I like to imagine how big that screen is and feel confident the audience can see a central character a hundred yards away in the lower right hand corner of that screen. But I also realize on a laptop on an airplane, or even at worst on an ipod, they are never going to see that character, and an element of the story will be lost. I would never want the audience to be able to touch a couple of buttons and move an arrow key and suddenly recut my film to be able to see the background better on a smaller screen. If it's an interactive movie that allows the audience complete control, that's not my business. But I am not in favor of movies that I make being so malleable in the hands of an audience, where they are able to kind of recut it and redo it and remake it.

On the appeal of special effects:

The great thing about 3D special effects, computerized effects, is that now we can pretty much do anything our imaginations tell us. That's one of the greatest tools I've ever had in my professional life — being able to imagine a dinosaur and a real dinosaur is walking though our artificial jungle. Right now technology cannot say no to our imaginations. Thatís a great thing for audiences and for filmmakers, and it's one of the happier notes that I've observed over the last decade. The only danger is when the technological tools become the whole point of making the movie, as opposed to a great story with great characters. When we become infatuated with the tools that can do anything and we forget the story, that's when we get in trouble. And in the end the audience calls us on it. I appreciate the fact that we can all get carried away with the special effects because they are fun; they are fun for the filmmakers, they are fun for audiences. This is a burgeoning technology and we are all bound to overindulge in it and make some mistakes, but I think we all get back to telling a good story. If you look at some of the movies that came out this year, there were a couple special effects extravaganzas, but I think the movies that hit people closest to their hearts were films that dealt with morality and conscience and intolerance. None of [the best picture nominees] had special effects and this was an exceptional year in that sense. But it was also a year that brought us the last Star Wars,, one of the best Batman ever made; it brought us Narnia, the great King Kong, and I got a chance to squeeze War of the Worlds in there, where I worked very hard not to allow the special effects to upstage the characters in the movie.