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Patrick Goldstein and James Rainey
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Roger Ebert predicted the future of the movies in 1987

Roger_ebert It would be hard to find anyone who would argue with the notion that Roger Ebert is perhaps the most influential film critic of our time (and with all of his tweets, blog posts and freelance essays, one of our  most prolific too). But it turns out that Ebert has also had an uncanny knack for predicting film's technological future too. Paleofuture dug up this fascinating excerpt from a 1987 interview with Ebert and the late Gene Siskel from Omni magazine, where Ebert weighed in on just how radically different the delivery and distribution of movies would be in the not-so-distant future. 

Nearly a quarter of a century ago, inhabiting a primitive world where the biggest movies of the moment were such cinematic fossils as "Three Men and a Baby" and "Beverly Hills Cop II," Ebert took a pretty impressive stab at swami-like crystal ball gazing:

We will have high-definition, wide-screen television sets and a push-button dialing system to order the movie you want at the time you want it. You'll not go to a video store but instead order a movie on demand and then pay for it. Videocassette tapes as we know them now will be obsolete both for showing prerecorded movies and for recording movies. People will record films on 8mm and will play them back using laser-disk/CD technology. I also am very, very excited by the fact that before long, alternative films will penetrate the entire country. Today seventy-five percent of the gross from a typical art film in America comes from as few as six --six-- different theaters in six different cities. Ninety percent of the American motion-picture marketplace never shows art films. With this revolution in delivery and distribution, anyone, in any size town or hamlet, will see the movies he or she wants to see.

OK, so the CD became DVD and 8mm didn't really go anywhere, but otherwise, Ebert got it pretty much right on the money. He also predicted that by 2000, people could be making movies for as little money as it costs to publish a book or make a record, which also turned out to be true, at least as long as you didn't hire James Cameron or Michael Bay as the director. 

Ebert's ideas look especially sagacious when you compare his prognostications to much-heralded futurists like Herman Kahn, who promoted the idea of a winnable nuclear war or Paul Ehrlich, whose famous "Population Bomb" doomsday thinking warned that hundreds of millions people would have died of starvation by now. As it turned out, most of those hundreds of millions of people are on Facebook helping overthrow their governments and watching cruddy Hollywood movies and TV shows on their smartphones. Maybe Afghanistan isn't Vietnam, maybe Newt Gingrich is really finally happily married and maybe "Arthur" won't be an unbearably pale imitation of the original, but isn't it funny how the future often turns out to be tacky and dispiriting, but rarely as awful as we think it will be?  

--Patrick Goldstein

Photo: Roger Ebert at work in his office at the WTTW-TV  studios in Chicago. Credit: Charles Rex Arbogast / Associated Press

Comments () | Archives (29)

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Dang, Ebert should've work with Steve Jobs and bought lots of shares of Apple back in the late 1980s when it was a struggling company.

Please, Mr. Ebert, tell us that this ridiculous 3D craze is a passing fad.

Good to see ole Rog uses an Apple. All the really smart people do...

well, about the 8mm, there are older shows like, TJ hooker showing now on Universal HD channel that are being remastered from the movie prints onto HD formats. supposedly, movie film is like HD in clarity, so the remastering is consitent with the clarity we expect today - unlike video taped shows which are less clear. therefore regarding the 8mm paradigm, i'd say Ebert was pretty much right on or at least as close as his "dial-up" movie analogy is to internet distributed movies b/c how could he have known per se what the interenet would be from the 80s POV he had then.

Even as far back as 1987, it was easy to see to tone of the trend. Minibox theaters with small screens and a growing number of commercials were the trend. And High Def TV had long since left the drawing boards in Japan. Bigger screens at home with definition greater than the multiplex and shrinking screens with commercials not very well projected at the plex clearly pointed to the logical outcome. The handwriting was next to the sprocket holes, and Roger Ebert with his passion for film was and is a great chronicler of film.

I am fully SICK of ebert. It is time he handed over the biz to younger and better movie pundits. WAAAY past time.

He didn't predict how awful most Hollywood films would be.

Remaking "Arthur" will be like remaking a Marx brothers movie.

Rog got a lot right there. But, one item deserves call-out for how it's working backwards. He wanted to see art films distributed to every small town and village. Well, that was already happening in 1987, with VHS, which made his prediction kind of easy. But, I just read an article that pointed out the total VHS catalog was much larger than the total DVD catalog, which in turn is much larger than the available blu ray catalog. Hollywood has decided, it seems, that VHS is to remain the pinnacle of our experience in this regard, and its downhill from there due to the costs and diminishing returns of putting out legacy or alternative titles on the new formats. All I know is, for over a decade I've been looking for rarer, and almost by definition more interesting, titles that were put out on VHS but never made it to DVD without success. At this point the writing seems to be on the wall, and I guess I can give up hoping for Blu Ray, eh?

Will Smith is the future.

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