E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial opened in theaters on June 11, 1982. It was still playing in theaters one year later. On one hand, that kind of theatrical run is unthinkable today. Too many things have changed in Hollywood: The rise of home video as a cultural phenomenon and an economic necessity, the frontloaded release schedule that values opening-weekend gross over anything else, the rising ticket prices that have essentially eradicated any incentive to see a film more than once in theaters. But in a sense, the modern moviegoing experience isn’t so different. People saw E.T. one year and were still talking about it one year later. Today, the equation has flipped: First, we talk about movies for a full year in advance; then, we finally see the movie, and the conversation essentially stops.

It helps to remember that, in a weird way, the biggest movies of summer 2011 aren’t coming out until 2012. The internet has regularly buzzed all summer with leaked images from next year’s The Dark Knight Rises. Some of these images have been official: The famously secretive Christopher Nolan decided to grant sneak peeks at the villainous Bane and the maybe-villainous-but-probably-just-amoral Catwoman. Some of the leaks were less official: TMZ just posted video footage of Anne Hathaway’s stunt double accidentally crashing into an IMAX camera. Meanwhile, next year’s Spider-Man reboot dominated the conversation at Comic-Con. And two of the biggest movies of the summer — Captain America and Thor — were essentially advertisements for a film that isn’t coming out until next year.

Pause on that last point for a second. When I saw Captain America in theaters, the crowd enjoyed the film. They laughed at the right points; they were silent during the remarkably somber climax. But the loudest reaction by far came after the movie, during the teaser for Avengers. It was, I think, an uncannily perfect freeze-frame portrait of the nature of modern movie fandom: Forever forward-looking, forever debating movies that we haven’t even seen yet.

Now, there’s nothing wrong with any of this. (Remember: I’m the guy who wrote a freaking prose-poem over a nonsensical minute-long Dark Knight Rises teaser.) But that the whole culture of leaks — both official stage-managed Comic-Con leaks and unofficial long-lens TMZ leaks — is beginning to radically change the way a generation of moviegoers talk about movies. We have become obsessed with pre-release minutiae — casting announcements, plot points, set design. All of this has, I think, taken the focus off the most important thing: The freaking movie.

This is why the blockbuster season of 2011 has felt so particularly uninspired. It’s not that the movies are necessarily worse than they were 10 years ago (although nothing released 10 years ago was even half as bad as Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides). It’s just that very few of the movies were even half as interesting as the chatter that led up to their release. Take, for example, The Hangover Part 2, a film which dominated the news cycle one year ago — remember the Mel Gibson flare-up? Now, the movie was a massive success at the box office. But the only conversation we ever really had about Hangover 2 — and we all had this conversation many, many times — was: “Wow, they really just remade the first one.”

It might sound funny to say this, but the film with the longest cultural tail of summer 2011 didn’t even technically come out in the summer. I’m talking about Fast Five. Yes, it’s a silly film — but for a few weeks in May, it was also the silly film that everyone was talking about it. Part of that can be credited to the film’s surprisingly pitch-perfect over-the-top tone — best exemplified by the sequence when Vin Diesel and Dwayne Johnson wrestle each other through multiple walls like a pair of shaved grizzly bears. But I would argue a different theory: People were genuinely surprised by Fast Five. It was not a film that had been sold for a year in advance. The film was not at Comic-Con. The trailer did not debut one year in advance. There were no TMZ photos of Vin Diesel and Dwayne Johnson hanging out off-camera rubbing oil on their biceps, even though God knows that would have torn up the internet.

I realize that what I’m talking about here — “the cultural conversation” — sounds very abstract. But I ask you: Were people still talking about Transformers: Dark of the Moon weeks after it came out? That film isn’t so far removed from Fast Five tonally, and it certainly exploded at the box office, but I don’t know anything in the film that was half as interesting as the Great Megan Fox Hitler Recasting Scandal.

Or am I wrong, PopWatchers? Do you think that the culture of leaks has radically altered the way we watch movies? Do you miss the days when people generally waited to see movies before they talked about them? Or do you enjoy the aspirational quality of modern movie chatter — the fact that we all have a stake in the hoped-for quality of films that aren’t coming out until next year?

Follow Darren on Twitter: @EWDarrenFranich

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