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Once upon a time, people watched movies in movie theaters as a collective whole. We paid a few pennies for silent films with cowboys hijacking stagecoaches and the thrill of watching a man fire a gun straight at us, worrying, if only for a second, that the bullet might be real enough to fly off the screen and lodge itself into our heads, hearts or other tender body parts. We wanted the illusion to be real and soon, the addition of sound brought another sense into play, uniting the visual medium of film with the auditory dynamic from radio, which was the first in-home entertainment delivery system.

Then, along came television, which gradually became a staple in the home with its own constantly expanding program development. Before the advent of cable networks, movies on television existed as late-night options or were reserved for exclusive weekly broadcasts that augmented basic network programming. We were a solid decade or more away from the notion of movies playing on television within less than a year from their release in theaters.

Now, we are in the midst of an exponential, compounding explosion of options for the distribution of filmed product. Expanded ancillary markets (a variety of DVD contact points, iTunes, OnDemand, premium cable and even basic cable) have shortened release windows to such an extent that studio executives have experimented with simultaneous releases across all formats, which would provide audiences full multi-format access to, say, the final installment of the Harry Potter series (“Deathly Hallows: Part Two”) on its opening day next summer. Choice, the greatest privilege of all, would be in the hands of the consumer.

The use of the word “consumer” should be carefully noted because this paradigm reduces the “community” of filmgoers down to individual “programmers” or “users” in the language of “Tron: Legacy.” And the audience gains much from this new configuration, especially those in the flyover divide between New York and Los Angeles. Each year, countless films play either coast for weeks, while, for instance, cinephiles in the Midwest must settle for the multiplex fodder or the few “art house” breakouts that trickle down the distribution pipeline.

But thanks to the likes of OnDemand services like IFC and Sundance, audiences can program their viewing from a wider selection and enjoy highly defined digital images on flat screens with surround sound. Yet, whether through streaming, downloading, Redboxing, or demanding control, we face the reality of isolation as we happily pursue these digitized dreams.

Is access the freedom we truly seek through this technological revolution? Is it better to be able to see “Medicine for Melancholy” (which played Sundance two years ago) or “Mumbai Diaries” (a gem from this year’s Toronto International Film Festival) in your home because you read about them here or would it be better still, if we had the opportunity to experience these films together on the big screen like we used to?

The modern rationale says, why not catch as catch can, but where does that leave “us”? (tt stern-enzi)