Cinematic Universe?

In this post, after a long break (thanks, real life, for nothing, says the writer part of me) I return to my roots here: sharing the thoughts I have that are just too long to fit in a tweet, in a format that’s just more…permanent. In particular, when building up my story and reflecting back on my latest spate of going to the movies, it strikes me just how dominant the cinema is as a means of entertainment in my science-fictional alternate history…and how not-so-dominant it is in real life.

Seriously, “Dune: Part Two” comes out, the sort of cinematic experience you get perhaps once or twice a decade, and at the Dolby cinema closest to me there’s nary a crowd. In a few showings I practically had the whole theater to myself, and even the Saturday evening showing was at the very least 80% empty seats. None of the other screens seemed to have much activity either…and the whole cinema is practically automated, with just a couple of guys at the concession stands to operate everything, including taking tickets and delivering our food. And it’s a perennial issue: the re-release of “The Abyss” last December was even sparser, and the re-release of “Dune: Part One” not much better. New, old, weekend, weekday, afternoon, late-night…the box office just isn’t what it used to be.

Not that I mind having free run of the place (that empty seat next to me sure came in handy when it came to coordinating that sandworm popcorn bucket, hehe), but I can’t help but wonder where the hell everybody is: it’s not located in a place where there’s much else to do in the evening. One teenage girl I know goes there all the time, a couple of elderly people go once in a blue moon, and the rest of the people I ask at the social dance venues there don’t seem to know anything about it. It’s just kinda sad compared to the glory days of the 1930s, when something like half of the entire United States population went to the cinema over the course of an average week.

Taking stock of my World: a World where Cinema is still King?

And, it hits me, it’s such a contrast to my fictional universe: there it seems that going to the cinema is the default mode people consume media in! Even the most podunk of space habitats have an IMAX-tier cinema. Notably, in “Orphans of Opry Tower”, it’s taken for granted that a serial is watched at the cinema, which is where the main characters go to look at it; in real life the sort of program they’re watching would be a streaming show (or, formerly, a network or cable television show), but there it’s made with cinematic level production values and watched in theaters.

Originally I envisioned the Golden Age of Hollywood as having persisted, studio-owned theaters and all, hence the continued prevalence of short subjects and serials, but only recently did I realize that television and home entertainment is…kinda not a thing in that world? Only once, in “The Christmas Rocket”, do any of the characters have a home television, and even then it’s to watch a live broadcast.

In the latest story I’m writing the characters watch a program on a “tablet” — what they call a smartphone; in that timeline the idea is that computers can place telephone calls, rather than telephones doing computing, so smartphones are thought of as a subtype of computer and evolve out of the personal computing lineage — which is similar to how people watch movies on phones now…only that too is a live stream, and in a situation where plunking themselves into a cinema would have been impractical in any event (it was an active storm chase on the road), assuming that such a stream would even be broadcast in a theater (unlikely, in my view). Really, it’s more comparable to YouTube than a streaming service.

A Timeline where Hollywood counterattacked too Well?

A key plank of my worldbuilding as far as the evolution of film goes is that television, streaming, the Internet, and home video all come on the scene at roughly the same time, the 1930s and 1940s in this universe, and the sheer onslaught of that scared Hollywood to death, causing them to up their game to truly epic levels. The fact this intersects with a general space craze means that big space operas in particular loom large over the film industry, perhaps on a permanent basis, though anything that can be best experienced in the theater should do well (in particular, after a few decades fantasy might be a big trend, as people get tired of their equivalents of “Star Wars” but still want something cool to look at).

We’ve seen shades of this with every wave of new technologies: with the advent of television Hollywood turned to epic movies, with the advent of home video Hollywood turned to the likes of “Star Wars”, and now with the advent of streaming Hollywood ups its game by tailor-making movies for IMAX and Dolby. But all of these factors coming together in a terrifying confluence? Especially with economic growth being in overdrive providing ample excess capital to invest in huge productions and theaters? Woo boy.

It’s possible that the film industry’s counterattack worked so well that the threat from home entertainment was entirely dispatched…and then some. In my universe might theater attendance have been kept at its 1930s heights indefinitely? Maybe even rising to a level higher than that?

I can’t help but wonder if the supercharging popularity of cinema would intersect with the perceived threat of social atomization introduced by new media such as the Internet (plus television and radio; even the latter of which is relatively new in the 1930s and 40s). Instead of everybody slipping into a default of spending their days and nights at home, perhaps the default becomes going to the cinema?

OMG it all fits together like a Watch!

It even would make a lot of my worldbuilding make a lot more sense: although the characters I write about might live in a bit of a bubble, my stories all certainly give the impression that social dancing is far more popular in this universe than it is in real life. Rather than a niche or the preserve of affluent retirees, learning ballroom, swing, and all the rest of it seems to be something just everybody does from a young age, a default means of socialization.

It might also neatly explain how nobody seems to cook in my stories: it’s a curious phenomenon that a house that entirely lacks a kitchen, such as the one Katenka is renting in Malibu from the 2020s onward, is considered so normal as to be unremarkable. Drone delivery being common explains this, but might it also be the case that so many people go out to eat all the time that home cooking largely falls by the wayside? It would certainly be a way to encourage some modicum of socialization, if you’re in a coffee house every morning instead of in your bed scrolling your phone (er, tablet).

On top of all that, it fits together like a watch with how shopping malls are far more prolific and vibrant in this timeline than they ever were in real life; they become much like entire downtowns were, the natural focal points of business and pleasure, destinations unto themselves, only more arcology-like than a traditional downtown.

It’s like society in my universe didn’t develop such a weakness and impotency to it; the response to most modern problems is just to attack them head-on with brute force. It’s explicitly mentioned in my latest story that the modern diet and chemicals are thought to encourage obesity, but it’s all been cloaked with the likes of amphetamines, steroids, cocaine, and DNP, which keep people’s weights down despite everything. The social pressure to look your best is widespread among the masses, rather than the preserve of the elite one percent or so like it is now (no doubt this has negative as well as positive effects, but let’s roll with it).

Much of this is just what appeals to the author (i.e. me), but a lot of it does fit together surprisingly well into a big picture. Though of course the way it’s presented it’s like women wearing pants, women cutting their hair short, any mention of the Christian religion, and any appearance of chicken or corn-based foods: they’re all just mysteriously absent, at least the vast majority of the time.

Popcorn? Maybe not…

Which, as a last aside, brings us to an interesting question: movie-theater popcorn is so good, I’d hate to let loose of it, but in real life popcorn was originally considered déclassé for the cinema, with it only becoming widespread in the 1930s when the Great Depression led to more interest in cheaper (but still tasty) snacks…and in this timeline the Great Depression never happens. So what becomes of popcorn?

It might seem that I have an animus against corn, but in this timeline there’s not the subsidy of and promotion of corn that there is in real life, so we’d certainly see a lot less of it. Meanwhile, quinoa takes over the diet of early spacefarers, its climatological requirements and nutritional qualities being supremely suited to the outer-space environment, lending it a cool factor, in addition to what it’ll likely gain anyway as, like in real life, it gains popularity among health nut types and effete elites, not to mention people who don’t have a good reaction to gluten. The quinoa supply is limited in real life, but offworld entities might try to pump it in in an effort to gain revenue and profit for developing spaceflight infrastructure…and they just might find willing customers on Earth.

So might theater-goers eschew popcorn as too lowbrow and instead munch on puffed and popped quinoa at the movies? It’s possible. As it is I sidestep it by having the characters in my stories who go to the movies get a full restaurant-style meal; even today we have dine-in theaters, and it stands to reason that in a timeline like what I write in they’d proliferate and become much larger and more sophisticated.

It’s even possible that these full meals might displace the concessions we associate with the movies as the go-to accoutrements, especially since as food fit into the picture better with the advent of sound (silent cinema eschewed any kind of food in the theater) and people have more money to spend than they did in the real-life 1930s, but I’m sure there would be plenty of demand still for lighter snacks…especially considering that an awful lot of market share will no doubt be taken up by restaurants that aren’t blaring a huge spectacle down at your face while you eat.

Most people are probably going to the movies once a day at most, so that still leaves two meals unaccounted for. With home cooking a thing of the past and the (no doubt drug-assisted) go-go-go city lifestyle being the norm — ironic, since the majority of the population is rural in this universe, albeit by dint of being able to commute in very easily with ultra-fast transportation — there’s more than enough of a market for restaurants and movie palaces to both be on every corner, even in the more remote areas in the deep countryside that might be next to a highway junction or some such.


It smacks of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Broadacre City coupled with a vision of the world that’s so Hollywood it almost seems like something the Nazis might have dreamed up (they loved cinema and its effects on the social life of the population; like the anti-smoking campaign that aspect of social policy might have just been ahead of its time, but I digress), but it’s not an unrealistic vision of how the future could have evolved. Not at all.

Heck, we might still end up with something like this if we see a New Age level social revolution, a vibe shift that’s like 1968 on steroids (not as far-fetched as you’d think); after all, America gets great awakenings every couple generations, and in a couple decades we’re due for a new wave.

But leaving all that aside, it really helps to put the “alternate” in alternate history, and it honestly intrigues me enough it might be fertile ground for exploration in a future story…or even my current story. After all, the next scene I’m to write involves a wayward girl named Henrietta who’s in a low-grade trip in…a shopping mall. Might she effectively live in the movie theater and in the restaurants and shops? Watch this space…

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