Friday, February 26, 2010

How I Didn't Watch Spider-Man 3

So I finally saw "Spider-Man 3" for the first time last night. Before you point out that the title of this post is seriously misleading, consider this - why did it take a self-declared movie geek with a yen for superhero films nearly three years to see this one?

These days if you really want to see a movie, it's fairly easy to find a way to see it, and if you really don't want to see a movie, it's not difficult to avoid it. But when you're ambivalent toward a film, that's where things get interesting. I'm one of those people who ends up seeing a lot of movies that I don't have strong feelings towards one way or the other. I see them in theaters with friends or relatives on social outings. I see them on DVD when I hang out with people casually. And of course, I run across plenty of them while channel surfing. To give you an example, I've paid to see three films in theaters in the past two months that I had no real interest in seeing - "Avatar," "When in Rome," and "Up in the Air" - two with dates, one with family. They outnumber the films I saw that I actually wanted to see over the same time period, "Sherlock Holmes" and "The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus."

When "Spider-Man 3" came out, it was impossible to avoid the hype leading up the May 2007 release date. It did amazing business and currently ranks fifteenth on the list of the highest grossing films of all time at the North American Box Office (unadjusted). But for my part, once I had a look at the reviews, I decided that I didn't need to see it in theaters. I wouldn't have said no if a friend or relative asked me to go with them, but I didn't think it was worth the money to specifically seek it out on my own. For the record I liked "Spider-Man 2" and thought the first "Spider-Man" was passable, but I didn't have a very strong attachment to either, making me pretty hype-proof.

The theatrical release came and went, and the next round of the marketing blitz came around with the "Spider-Man 3" DVD release in September. I seriously considered renting it, but money was tight and I had a big list of films that I wanted to catch up on from earlier in the year. I was alsopretty sure I'd see the film eventually on cable and didn't mind waiting. Mainstream films, especially the blockbusters, have a far higher profile on television than the little indies and foreign films that can only be found through rentals. So I let it go, and for a long time after that, I totally forgot about "Spider-Man 3."

Then came April of 2009, when I got my first taste of Netflix. It was love at first sight. I filled my queue out to ridiculous lengths and and devoured the free online catalog. I watched war documentaries, old Bing Crosby musicals, and lots of other titles I never would have picked up in a hundred years if they weren't so conveniently available whenever I wanted them. And what was sitting on top of the list of free Starz Cable films when I logged on the first day? "Spider-Man 3." I happily made plans to watch it over the weekend, but alas it was not to be. Cut to a few days later, when I discovered that it had been dropped from the catalog to make way for newer titles. Curses, foiled again.

From that point on it turned into a game, and I started consciously keeping track of where the film was popping up in the distribution stream. How long would it take me to see "Spider-man 3" without consciously making any effort to do it? I had just missed the end of the premium cable "window" for the film. How far down the media food chain would it go before I ran into it again? I'll stress now that at no point did I lose my ambivalence toward seeing the film - I could have added "Spider-Man 3" to my online rental queue or gone right out to the nearest Blockbuster and picked up a copy at any time. I saw plenty of other movies while this was going on, and my lukewarm initial impression of "Spider-Man 3" never changed.

After the theatrical, rental, and premium cable distribution windows comes basic cable. (For a great breakdown of these "windows of exploitation," see this lovely article here: "Spider-Man 3" had its premiere on FX in December, 2009 and has been making frequent appearances on its schedule ever since. Unfortunately, I liked Netflix so much and was getting so much more out of it than my overpriced TV cable service, I went ahead and dropped the cable during the digital TV transition over the summer. Another chance to see the movie squashed.

A very near miss occurred over the Christmas break when I went to visit the folks for the holiday. They have satellite - and got the deal that gave them the basic tier channels plus a bunch of premium movie channels for a couple of months. And since they're early sleepers, there wasn't much to do for many of those nights except watch movies with the siblings. A lot of these were 2007-2008 titles I'd put into the ambivalent category - "Eagle Eye," "I Am Legend," "Beowulf, "Body of Lies," and the most recent "Die Hard" movie. "Spider-Man 3" would have fit right in.

After realizing I'd missed the cable premiere, I figured that "Spider-Man 3" would probably be airing over the Christmas weekend when lots of movies fill out the schedules, and I was right. It was on slated to be on FX on Saturday the 26th. But my parents' satellite service didn't carry FX or any of the other FOX/Newscorp channels on the basic tier. Apparently FOX's carrier fees are much higher than most other channels. My cable company sucked it up and paid, but the satellite carrier bumped those channels up to a secondary tier that required extra charges. No FX, no "Spider-Man 3." So I watched "Stardust" again.

Ironically on the way home from that trip, I took Jet Blue, which had an in-flight TV service that carried nearly all the FOX channels, including FX, and a bunch of other second-tier cable channels like BBC America and Boomerang and Discovery Health. I wonder if the airline got some sort of special rate to pad the number of subscribers to these channels. Anyway, FX was showing "Spider-Man 3" during the flight, but since the trip was short and the movie was already well into the second hour by the time I stumbled across it, I didn't bother trying to watch.

Now, two months later, I've finally seen "Spider-Man 3." I didn't pay for a movie ticket, or a rental fee, or a pay-per-view fee, or a premium cable subscription, or even a basic cable subscription. And no, I didn't pirate it. And no, there hasn't been a showing on one of the national networks yet - that probably won't happen until this fall at the earliest. No, what happened was that a couple of the DVDs turned up at my local library. Probably old rental copies or overstock from somewhere that were donated.

You can blame shrinking windows and you can blame too much mediocre product out there, but movies don't seem to be worth as much as they used to be, even with all the insane profit from the highest performers. I can't help but find it funny and sad that while movies themselves may last forever, the business of movies has become so terribly time sensitive, a single viewing of a film loses nearly all of its commercial value over the span of just three years. Anyone with a little patience can wait it out like I did - anyone who's figured out that new isn't always better and films don't actually have expiration dates.

So what did I think of "Spider-Man 3"? That's a post for another time.

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