The turn of the millennium has sparked as much deep thinking in cinematic circles as in other areas of the arts.
What's different is that film is such a newcomer to the cultural arena.
Its future may be unbounded, but its past is hardly there at all - dating only from 1895, when the first paying audience watched motion pictures on the wall of a Paris cafe. Some historians think cinema is truly a child of the third millennium that happened to be born a few decades ahead of its time.
More widely agreed is that everything we've seen so far, from the earliest silent flickers to the latest surround-sound extravaganzas, is just the beginning. Cinema is an infinitely flexible beast, and it's morphing into new shapes and formats that will change its impact, its popularity, and its meaning in our lives.
What forms is it likely to take in years to come? Three predictions are currently in vogue, although the third - perhaps the most widely circulated - is being hotly contested by some sharp-eyed observers:
1. Living rooms, not movie theaters, will be our prime viewing places. It isn't likely that theaters will fade into oblivion any time soon, since a hefty portion of film fans enjoy getting out of the house.
But the long-term prosperity of the home-video market, now receiving another boost from the popularity of DVD releases, proves the enduring appeal of living-room viewing. This will grow even more as video screens become larger and as elaborate "home theater" setups become cheaper and easier to install.
2. Internet distribution will make more movies available to more viewers. Expanding opportunities to download new, old, and unusual films will turn every home computer into a library of world cinema. Just as important, freshly made productions not picked up by theaters will be able to bypass the entire theatrical system and make their pitch directly to downloading viewers.
This is happening already with the "straight to video" cassette and DVD market. But the growth of Internet convenience promises to enhance the symbiotic links between computer technology and motion-picture entertainment.
One early sign was the March premire of Mike Figgis's unconventional movie "Time Code," which took place on the World Wide Web rather than a theatrical or DVD outlet. More recently, a 40-minute fantasy called "Quantum Project" debuted on the Internet, billed by its producers as the first feature produced specifically for that medium. Acknowledging that theatrical features are expected to run 90 minutes or more, one of its distributors told a reporter that such requirements don't hold for the Internet, since there's no need for a large quantity of "product" to justify the time and expense of a trip to the multiplex.
3. Even in theaters, movies will be projected by digital equipment via signals beamed directly from high-flying satellites. No more faulty projectors, scratchy images, or damaged film.
This scenario is being eagerly touted by theater proprietors as well as digital-video marketers. Viewers of some theatrical movies - the futuristic "Stars Wars: Episode I - The Phantom Menace" is the best-known instance - have already seen the possibilities with their own eyes. Clearly the future is here.
Or is it? In a recent article, no less a pundit than critic Roger Ebert makes a good case that film's future is going to be ... film, unspooled through projectors from a booth behind the audience, just as it always has been.
Reasons include the high cost of retooling to new systems; the need to "compress" digital images for storage and transmission, which reduces their quality, already a bugaboo for DVD buffs; and increased possibilities for piracy of new pictures, which is reason enough for Hollywood to drag its feet.
The real future, Ebert concludes, lies with a new film technology called MaxiVision48, which projects motion-picture frames at twice the current rate with more clarity and less jiggle than standard systems provide. Whether this prediction is right or wrong, it suggests that reports of celluloid's demise have been exaggerated.
Looking beyond techno-talk, the best way to speculate about cinema's future is to consider its rich history. It's longer than one might think, stretching over a large portion of the past millennium.
While some historians date the movies to 1895, when the Lumire Brothers presented Europe's first display of moving pictures projected on a screen, others note that American inventor Thomas Edison was already in the business, offering films through individually operated peep-show machines. Looking further back, the 19th century saw a flowering of visual entertainments like the panorama, a huge picture that spectators walked past, and the diorama, a huge picture that spectators walked around or through. In both cases, the display was designed so that the viewer's movement gave a sense of life and motion to an otherwise still image.
Also anticipating cinema were magic-lantern slide shows dating back hundreds of years, some featuring multiple projectors carried by stagehands in precisely choreographed movements. These weren't movies, but they were certainly close.
The great advances that full-blown cinema provided were the illusion of genuine movement and the ability for many spectators to enjoy the same spectacle at the same time. The coming of "talkies" transformed the medium in the 1920s, and developments like color photography and stereophonic sound have helped it thrive ever since. The most revolutionary change has been the birth of home video.
Looking at this evolution, it isn't hard to spot the overall drift of moving-image entertainment. Two trends stand out. In one, cinema has moved toward ever-more-lifelike representations of our world.
In the other major tendency, cinema has become steadily more accessible to - and controllable by - its audience. In the early 20th century, you could see a film only if it happened to be playing at a nearby theater. By midcentury, TV showings provided a second line of availability. In the 1980s and '90s, home video and cable TV made an enormous range of movies watchable at the click of a button, and increasingly sophisticated TV equipment made increasingly sophisticated images an everyday pleasure for ever more spectators.
New developments in DVD technology, Internet communications, and the like are direct continuations of these longtime trends, which is why the future of cinema may not look so different from its past.
Hollywood wizards like George Lucas and Steven Spielberg will keep up their high-tech tinkering. Inspired reactionaries, like Denmark's influential Dogma 95 group, will keep valuing human drama over audiovisual pyrotechnics. And the majority of worthwhile screen artists will keep laboring between these extremes.
As long as their ideas stay fresh and exciting, the new millennium will be as productive and engrossing as the last.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society