The Big Picture

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

March 28, 2011 |  1:25 pm

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

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