Martin Scorsese on the Importance of Cinema in the Age of Content

We’ve become a society spoiled for choice. Hundreds of hours of programming can be streamed any time you want it on one of a dozen different platforms; movies are being made not only for theaters or for home video, but for people to watch on their tablets and phones. There’s a fight going on right now about whether movies that go directly to Netflix, and are indeed paid for and produced by Netflix, count as movies to be judged for big awards. We’re in the Wild West now.

At last weekend’s TCM Film Festival in Hollywood, perhaps the greatest living director, Martin Scorsese, was honored with the first ever Robert Osborne Award for his tireless efforts in the preservation and promotion of classic cinema, presented to him by his friend and frequent collaborator  Leonardo DiCaprio. During his amazing speech, Scorsese referred many times to cinema’s place as the art form of the past 100 years.

He praised the late Robert Osborne’s ability to make cinema feel immediate, and not distant or forbidden, because he never made you “feel like you’re outside the gates of Xanadu.” He said there are some historians and scholars who make you feel like movies are over your head, and others who look back with a mix of irony and nostalgia. But, as Scorsese affirmed, Osborne “understood the value of cinema, and that movies are always under threat.”

Scorsese founded The Film Foundation in 1990, a non-profit organization dedicated to the restoration and exhibition of classic cinema. Neglect was the biggest threat to these movies in the late ’80s and has since helped save dozens and dozens of movies that are now no longer lost to the sands of time. But now, it’s less about degradation of film, but about movies becoming just another commodity, another piece of content, in the catalog of a multimedia conglomerate.

“Content,” Scorsese contends, is devaluing cinema as the art that it is, because whomever owns it can put Lawrence of Arabia next to a Super Bowl commercial, a television episode, and a video about how to straighten your hair. The upside, he says, is that film history is now instantly available, but “if there’s no sense of value to a particular movie, then it can be sampled and watched in bits and pieces and just forgotten.”

He also had no love for Rotten Tomatoes or CinemaScore, associating such with the idea that “every picture, every image is to be instantly judged and dismissed, without even giving audiences time to see it.” It’s up to us, the fans of cinema, to stand together to combat this. “We have to impress upon these people who own these films, that they are in temporary, legal ownership of something much, much greater than content or disposable merchandise.”

As someone who writes about and reviews movies for a website, I’m of the belief that what I write is content—content for Nerdist, specifically—but that the things I’m writing about aren’t. Cinema is art and deserves to be respected as the art it is, and whether it’s the latest Marvel offering or a newly restored Orson Welles movie, it can’t just be lumped together as a thing you might put on if you’re bored.

As Scorsese himself points out, it’s up to us to help the younger generations understand the legacy of cinema. “Without a sense of history and value,” he says, “how can they make their way through all that content?”

Images: TCM

Kyle Anderson is the Associate Editor for Nerdist. You can find his film and TV reviews here. Follow him on Twitter!

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