Why I’ll Never Watch a Film on a Phone

Although the ability to watch films on phones or pocket sized devices has been around for a while, the choice to watch a film on a phone again became a hot topic following the announcement of the new iPhone. Speaking to friends/film lovers I was pretty shocked at how many said that they were more than happy to watch films on devices such as the iPhone and already had in many cases.

Now the reason I was so shocked was because watching a film on a small device (for convenience I will define this as just a few inches in size, the iPhone is 3.5″) seems like such an unappetising and, to be honest, unthinkable proposition. Why would you watch a film in such an inferior way? Aside from the visual issues in watching a film designed to be projected on a large screen on a tiny screen there is also the importance in immersing yourself in a film. Immersion must be quite hard when you are holding a phone on a busy commuter train.

It is important though that any debate surrounding this issue is treated in an intelligent and mature way. Although I personally will never watch a film on a phone this subject is not a dichotomy, a simple argument about being right or wrong. I do not believe that anyone who disagrees and is willing to watch a film on their phone is wrong. Unfortunately the internet has the irritating effect of polarising any debate, “Avatar’s the greatest film ever made”, “Avatar’s the worst film ever made”. This is not what draws me to film criticism, intelligent debate draws me to film criticism.

On the day of the iPhone announcement, Roger Ebert tweeted the following,

This generated a mixture of positive and negative responses and unfortunately they were just that, positive or negative responses, not a debate. Although Ebert has not yet elaborated further, he was, I’m sure, quickly responding with his opinion on the subject. It was a statement regarding a personal attitude he holds, one I also hold, and not necessarily a judgement call, although it was treated by many as such.

So with this in mind I will briefly outline the reasoning behind my statement and hopefully this will encourage further debate on the subject and not just negative or positive confirmations.

I believe that watching a film on a small device is the far end of a sliding scale of compromises. Films are made for an intended viewing experience. I will concede that in some cases films are made with the understanding that they are going straight to Video/DVD or that they will be watched in 4:3 and in these cases the filmmaker may deliberately make the film in certain way to accommodate this. I will even concede that if at some point a filmmaker makes a film that he/she intends to be watched on a phone I would then watch it on a phone, although the prospect does not excite me. For the most part though films are intended for theatrical distribution and for a large number of years this was the only consideration. For these films the filmmakers made the films with a cinema in mind. The intended audience watched the film in a cinema with a large screen projected by a professional.

Even just watching a film in a screening room at a Post Production facility highlights the difference between how the filmmakers will watch a film and how films are generally seen in cinemas. From the post production screening I see it as a downward sliding scale that currently ends with watching a film on a phone. Barry (also from HeyUGuys) mentioned to me that he felt that watching a film on an iPod was preferable to watching it on VHS, thereby making the VHS the bottom of this scale. This is his choice and view but it is not one I share and I think it is worth briefly mentioning why. Watching a well kept widescreen VHS made from a well sourced print on a good television is preferable, in my opinion, to the same film viewed on an iPod.

I believe though that any way in which one watches a film is a compromise and this debate boils down to how much of a compromise are you willing to make. As I have said, even a cinema experience is a compromise. I came across a good example of that this year.

When I reviewed Kick-Ass in March it was after attending a large press screening. In my review I mentioned the “super-saturated colours” and the positive effect this had on my enjoyment of the film.

Upon rewatching the film again at the cinema, but this time not at a press screening and two weeks after its release, aside from the change in atmosphere (something I also consider important) the first thing I noticed was the big difference in how the film looked. The “super-saturated colours” were gone and the print had been poorly treated, with noticeable damage. The film was also probably projected as a single reel and the joins between reels had been poorly done and their were noticeable jumps and pops. Although I still enjoyed the film, it just wasn’t the same. This is, of course, anecdotal but it highlights where, even in viewing films at the cinema, there is a compromise. This is a compromise I try and eliminate where I can (attending trusted cinemas helps) but one that is still preferable to what I consider greater compromises represented by the experience outside of a cinema.

I also feel that the so-called ‘home cinema’ is a compromise but one that mostly due to the availability of films showing at cinemas and my own finances is a compromise I have to constantly make. In an ideal world I would only watch films in cinemas, expertly projected from director approved high quality prints. I except though that in order to see the number and variety of films that I want to, this is not a realistic prospect and I have to make compromises and watch films at home. I am still careful though to ensure my compromise is as slight as possible. Well sourced prints, good quality transfers, correct aspect ratios, good quality original audio tracks are all important when I rent or buy a DVD or Blu-Ray and I will import or wait if I know there is a better version that I could watch. Some may say this is going too far or that I care too much but this is the ‘price’ of loving films and wanting to experience them in the best way you can, with consideration given to your finances, time and location.

I love cinema and to me it is important. If its not that important to you I understand why you might not care but I find it so strange that so many people who appear to love cinema are so willing to compromise and watch films in a way that I believe is at the very bottom of a downward sliding scale of compromise. I feel that films deserve better than the experience of watching them on a phone; this is, for me, a compromise too far.

So in the interests of open debate I encourage you to respond to this piece with your own take on my thoughts regarding this scale of compromise and your own viewing habits.