What are we to do when the place where films are born ceases to be? A film can be made by people, but it merely gestates in the ether until it is released into the world and exists as it is in the only right place: the theatre.
Currently, COVID-19 restrictions here in Western Australia and Australia are slowly beginning to ease up, allowing friends to see one another, outside activities to resume, and soon restaurants and social places to fill up once again with at least some of the life they once enjoyed. But the theatres are still closed, and will be until at least July. “It’s important to empathise it’s not just cinemas or the film industry, but all the community that are going through hard times”, said Ian Hale, managing director of The Backlot Perth, and the end of those hard times relies on how well the United States is doing, so of course there is nothing we can do in that area.
But what about when the cinemas re-open? Who will go? Will people go? Questions are being asked by industry professionals and those in film-centric social media circles on Facebook, Twitter, and Reddit about whether or not people will actually want to go back considering that before a pandemic stopped the world, a movie theatre has never exactly been the most hygienic place in the world. Ideas of checkerboard seating plans, temperature checks and plexiglass screens installed for the box office have all be floated around, causing many to talk back and forth about whether or not even July is too soon, that we should all wait until a potential vaccine is created.
Again, all of this is really out of our control. We can only talk about what it will all look like in the future, so instead I ask a deeper question, one that has given me the most anxiety since the start of lockdown: what will cinema itself be like?
Right now, a war is starting between the U.S.’ biggest theatre chain AMC and Universal Studios over Universal cancelling a massive international rollout for Trolls World Tour in favour of a sudden release on digital stores. Reports have come in that the film made around $100 million in U.S. domestic dollars, more than the first movie made in 8 weeks of release. The big point of controversy is that the digital release was far more profitable for the studio compared to a traditional theatrical rollout, with 80% of profits going straight to the studio instead of the standard 50% or so. AMC responded by banning all of Universal’s upcoming films including No Time to Die and Fast 9 from its theatres. This might be a situation like the “Spider-Man leaving Marvel” story from last year where the media runs with the story for a week before everything being sorted behind closed doors shortly afterwards.
The damage, to some, may have already been done to theatres, but there are many factors to consider. This is an emergency situation unlike any that cinema has ever faced, a delayed release would have been crammed too close to other movie releases pushed until late 2020 or into a now-crowded 2021, and it’s not the kind of movie that everyone in the world wanted to see. Universal probably saw an opportunity with families being in lockdown just like everyone else and knew that a light and fluffy kids movie released now would be opportune. They didn’t care about theatres because at the end of the day a studio is like any business.
The digital release model itself may seem highly profitable now to studios, but realistically it’s not. In the age of the internet and social media, piracy is only increasing, and straight-to-digital releases will make some money but logically most audiences would be watching it for free because they can. It is far easier to do so than ever. Will that stop studios from still doing so? I don’t know. Will the day come when the next MCU movie is seen only at home? Will an entire generation grow up not even knowing what a theatre is like until they’re 16 and their Literature teacher takes the class on an excursion to watch Batman Gets a New Belt, Chapter V: The Reawakening of the Dawn at a massive theatre where each ticket is $150. Okay that idea is a bit far-fetched but I think you get the point.
It’s a fact that less and less people have been going to a theatre not in the last 10 years but in the last 60. Television’s inception cut audience attendance numbers dramatically, decreasing the amount of films made accordingly. Gimmicks and experimental eras were made after to varying degrees of success, and the modern cinemagoing world has been on a razor’s edge of what the theatrical experience really means beyond the larger tentpole films. The so-called “Golden Age of Television” is still going, and some audiences are more inclined than ever before to sit at home and watch 5 hours of Ozark season 3 than see something of equal darkness and energy like The Lighthouse or The Invisible Man. Those two movies were successful relatively, but Bad Boys For Life didn’t reach an estimated 90 million households worldwide in the first 4 weeks like Extraction did. People can praise the lightness and fun of Crazy Rich Asians but other Netflix-made rom-coms like To All the Boys, Set It Up and (<shudders>) The Kissing Booth blow its success out of the water.
The problem I have is that cinema had one of its best years last year (my personal top films of 2019 were close to hitting 100 because there was just so many good movies I saw) and 2020 was on track financially to do better, but people just seem to forget all of that when utter trash like The Kissing Booth and Shaft is available instantly for your own sick pleasures. If Netflix was the home for trashy films that would have filled video store shelves back in the day, fine, but Netflix is also posing itself more and more commonly as a home for filmmakers, even though the films they make there are giving one-week promotions then subsequently buried forever unless The Criterion Collection comes in like guardian angels. Netflix does not do physical media, it thinks it’s digital library is better in every way and doesn’t care about proper curation, because if they did they would be putting all the silent and classic films other studios have abandoned on there as well as Murder Mystery.
That question of what cinema will be comes back to me. Will movies, like TV production houses now, start to cater towards audiences at home, knowing that people will be interested for the first 20 minutes of a movie, get bored through the middle, but then perk up at the end when some cliffhanger ending happens? Will studios actually mourn the death of theatres, should that day come?
What is most important, beyond all these box office numbers and profit margins and content libraries, is the theatrical experience. Nothing, not your expensive at-home projector, 7.1 surround sound system, dimmed lighting, 8K HDR TV or recliner chairs, can replace the true majesty and earthly magic of sitting in a massive darkened room with a dozen or even a hundred strangers and watching helplessly as twists and turns happen upon you and you begin to care about what you are witnessing. It’s the reason why I saw The Irishman twice in a theatre. It’s the reason I got a job at a cinema. It’s the reason I’m a cinephile today. It is unparalleled, and that experience is in danger.
Art is the storytelling of ancient humans, music, literature and architecture is the storytelling of developing humans, and film is the storytelling of modern humans. Movie theatres, unlike records, paintings, books, or buildings, have only been around for just over 100 years. It is still a new medium that needs to be save and preserved for the benefit of those who have yet to come. As Ian Hale says:
Whilst there will no doubt be considerable pain for not just cinemas but the whole community during this period of closure, I do believe that people will embrace the opportunity to again frequent not just cinemas but all entertainment and hospitality when we all come through this.
People can still enjoy the home-viewing experience as much they want, they have done so for the last 30 to 40 years, and digital media isn’t going anywhere, but while the pessimist in me says it will be the only way people watch movies, the optimist is still alive. Theatres are a completely different way to see that which you are excited for and are bound to love. The next Christopher Nolan film, Wonder Woman 1984, Black Widow, Dune, The New Mutants (I will not let that one die) and so many more upcoming films are ONLY meant to be witnessed in the awesome and mighty visual palace that is a theatre. As Suzie Worner, General Manager and Communications Director at the Revelation Film Festival, says:
Films are made to be seen on the cinema screen – period. To truly appreciate the work, the cinematography, the sound, the design, the performance and so much more, you need to see it on the medium for which it was created. Sure, you can watch on a home device, but you’re the one missing out.
Let studios, theatre chains, and also our own government know that you will support cinema when this crisis has abated. Find hashtags, buy gift cards and premium memberships to your local cinema, sign petitions out there to let our government know that you stand with the arts industry as well so that not only can the experience be preserved, but there can still be work being made to fill up those spaces.