he world seems to change faster when you live in the woods.
Early in 2018, my wife and I left New York City, gave away most of our possessions, and moved into a 72-square-foot tiny house we built into the back of a cargo van, which we used to travel the country as part of a book project about alternative living. We lived mostly off the grid, so to speak, beyond reach of the emotional crests and troughs of this hyper-connected, anxious era.
In moving into a van full-time, we gave up unlimited Wi-Fi and access to a municipal power grid. Our tiny home on wheels generated electricity through solar panels strapped to the roof, which meant we had to forgo most forms of modern home entertainment. Our subscriptions to video streaming services and access to movies were hardest hit.
We lacked the cellular bandwidth to stream longform video, but not for lack of trying: While parked on a vineyard in Texas one night, I tried to stream The Blues Brothers using my iPhone’s Wi-Fi hotspot. I barely made it through the big car chase scene before my cell service provider cut me off for reaching my monthly data limit. Lesson learned. That was the last time I tried.
Over the next year, while the rest of the country logged billions of combined hours on streaming channels, I mostly opted out.
As a lover of film, the transition was painful. But I found that my brain, after years of being trained to run on constant entertainment, returned to its pre-internet state after only a few weeks in the woods. Instead of spending hours arguing with my wife about what to watch on Netflix each night, we read books aloud to each other, listened to university lecture podcasts, taught ourselves to cook on open fires, and explored the outdoors. It was a blissful time. I still watched movies in theaters during visits to cities, but without a library of unlimited content at my fingertips, I had to be more selective.
I returned to civilization in the fall of 2019, and, like a modern Rip Van Winkle — when a year out of the loop may as well be a lifetime; when a gap in the entertainment cycle means that approximately 18,983 hours of new TV shows and movies have premiered on Netflix alone — I found that the media and cultural landscape has drastically changed.
First, I noticed that societal norms have undergone a tremendous shift while I was gone. I had, for instance, never heard the term “cancel culture” before we left, and now it is part of the American lexicon. Words matter, and the idea that a human being, with our vulnerabilities and propensity to inevitably miss the mark over the course of a lifetime, could be “canceled,” a term that carries a sense of finality without hope for redemption, seems ludicrous. A healthy society must hold citizens to a common standard of behavior, but this adherence to an absolutist, one-strike-and-you’re-exiled ethos carries echoes of a previous, less-evolved time.
In the age of cancelation, every choice, even — perhaps particularly — entertainment consumption becomes something of a political act. Some critics decried Todd Phillips’ Joker as an irresponsible affirmation of grievances that motivate Trump supporters. These people even worried that it would embolden the aggrieved to take up arms. These fears never materialized into real events. The film went on to become the top grossing R-Rated picture of all time and the only societal consequence seems to be that a concrete stairway in The Bronx got crowded for a few weeks.
Into the streaming-verse
“The medium is the message,” Marshall McLuhan taught us more than 50 years ago, an axiom that applies now more than ever as we rethink entertainment consumption as streaming grows in prominence. When we left for the woods in the spring of 2018, there were only a few important players in the streaming world. Netflix was the undeniable king, though Hulu and Amazon, with millions of dollars invested in original content, were strong runners up. Competing services were still in developmental stages, but hardly must-haves.
Today, there’s an expanding universe of entertainment options to choose from beyond traditional television, services as diverse as The Criterion Channel, Peacock, Quibi, and Shudder. Streamers such as AppleTV+, HBO Max, and Disney+ are pumping tens of millions of dollars into original content. Cinema legends like Martin Scorsese and the Coen Brothers are releasing their art through Netflix instead of pursuing wide theatrical releases. Scorsese, while bemoaning the decline of independent cinemas in an essay for The New York Times, conceded that without Netflix, The Irishman, his three-and-a-half-hour epic, would never have seen a green light. Meanwhile, studio upstarts attached to these tech platforms are winning awards and astounding festival crowds worldwide.
While there are legitimate concerns about rapid corporate consolidation in the entertainment industry — see Disney’s decision to withhold classic Fox titles from theatrical screenings — rise of these new, competing streaming services has provided exposure to smaller, independent film production houses that are producing some of our era’s most daring cinematic work. Titles released by indies like A24 and NEON and, yes, CINESTATE can gain traction on these platforms and provide a reprieve for cinephiles longing for a film and storytelling experience that transcends typical megaplex fare.
This increased access to various media provides more entrance points for a diverse range of views, and, hopefully, ease the pressure on filmmakers who feel that success must hinge on cracking the top box office charts. Films like Booksmartand Late Night might have “failed” by traditional box-office metrics but now have a better chance of finding an audience after the theatrical release. For a different crowd, ruthless films like The Lighthouse, a black-and-white arthouse flick shot in an archaic aspect ratio that includes a trilogy of masturbation scenes, can do the same.
An eternal optimist — you don’t choose to live in a van for a year if you’re not optimistic about the state of the world — I’m encouraged by this new media landscape. Genuine fears remain that splashy superhero movies crowd out other work on the big screen, but I can’t remember a time when there was this level of access and awareness of alternative filmmaking for viewers who don’t live in New York or Los Angeles. I know that these films are ideally viewed on a big screen, but I see the exponentially higher exposure that streaming provides as a net-positive.
In their optimal state, movies are best when they are all-encompassing, which, for most of us, only a theater screen can offer. The time and money invested in a two-hour trip to the movies motivates us to invest our full attention, which can be fleeting with the distractions of home life and the ever-present handheld devices serving as constant distractions. And although the theaters face outstanding challenges to their business model, markets have a way of rising to the challenge. The threat posed by the streaming services is painful for theater chains now, but for consumers, it's making our time at the theater better. The largest theatrical chains are pouring millions into refurbishing their cinemas by adding more comfortable seating, full bars, and experiential flourishes like Dolby Atmos audiovisual technology. As home streaming becomes the norm, theaters will have no choice but to offer something better to lure us from our couches.
As for my personal consumption now that I’m returning back to normal life, this easy access to content is too much of a good thing. During a recent visit to a family member’s house, as soon as I obtained access to this cornucopia of streaming platforms for the first time, I binged and gorged. Like a rescued island castaway given access to an all-you-can-eat buffet, I didn’t know how to handle myself, gobbling up every movie I had wanted to see. I lost track of hours and days. I started bringing my laptop into the bedroom again to stream until sleep — this type of screen-use behavior was forbidden in our van — and I fell right back into old habits.
In the future, as streaming becomes more ubiquitous, I plan to continue limiting my own in-home access. It might not be as austere as life in a van below a couple of solar panels, but I’m hoping to stay away from streaming and satisfy my film habit in healthier, more controlled ways.
Otherwise, I’m doomed.
Chris Moody is a VICE News correspondent and Robert Novak Journalism Fellow with the Fund for American Studies.