“It’s just the flu” cried a thousand uneducated people before the most serious health crisis in a century arrived, and the governments of many major countries around the world ordered its citizens to self-isolate.
Yes, this is somewhat a heavy subject to cover, but one which is nearly impossible to avoid. The world is different now; we’re in the middle of a global pandemic. No longer is Steven Soderbergh’s Contagion a fiction film, but a documentary. Covid19 has already directly or indirectly affected nearly everything in our world.
Films that were once destined for the cinema have found themselves stripped of their potential and hurtling towards a home release for On-Demand services, and most major films have had their release dates pushed back. So far the list of delayed releases includes: A Quite Place Part II, Mulan, The New Mutants, No Time to Die, Antlers, Peter Rabbit 2, Black Widow, Spiral (from the book of Saw), F9 and Wonder Woman 1984.
What does this mean for the world of cinema and traditional film exhibition?
Recently there has been some lively discussion over what cinema means these days, thanks in part to three Netflix films gaining massive amounts of awards credits, without the traditional theatrical release that normally befits a “proper” film.
Now that much of the world can no longer leave their homes due to the threat of coronavirus, and the film industry looks at itself and what it can do as many film productions have halted, perhaps it’s time to look at the traditional snobbery that films need to be seen on a cinema screen for any form of legitimacy.
Famously, Spielberg stated that Netflix films should be considered TV Movies and not Academy Award material, while Scorsese pleaded with users not to watch The Irishman on their iPhones, and of course Alex Garland bemoaning the international Netflix release of Annihilation by saying he “made it for cinema”.
But now that many cannot leave their homes, and people are looking for new entertainment, maybe it’s time that the film industry comes to accept that there simply isn’t a world in which cinema screens are the be-all and end-all. There is a gulf between filmmakers and film exhibitioners. For every Prince Charles Cinema, where film is king and it is treated with love, there are a thousand Odeons which are nothing more than profit-making companies.
The truth is, perhaps Patty Jenkins or Alex Garland or Jordan Peele do believe that the cinema is the best place to see a film, but it speaks more to their insular viewing circles than a love of the medium. Let’s take a personal story shall we?
Two weeks before Covid19 turned cinemas into ghost towns, I took someone to see The Invisible Man by Leigh Whannell, a film hailed for its subtext and genuine scares. I wanted to see it simply because it looked good. My enjoyment of the film was hampered by a woman behind me asking her partner questions the entire time. I wanted to (but refrained from) turning around and saying “he knows as much as you do, shut up and you’ll find out”. Fast forward a week, and in a screening of Fantasy Island and people were talking non-stop.
You see in this modern age you can turn your home into a cinema for relatively cheap, most big TV screens cost relatively little comparatively and a decent sound system isn’t much more. This snobbery, and the ongoing argument currently of “support your cinemas” is a problem. Yes, by all means support the independent cinemas where there is a passion for film, but generic chains don’t actually care about film. They don’t have dedicated projectionists, are overpriced and only play films that are guaranteed to get people in the house.
Case-in-point: Parasite only got shown in bigger cinema chains AFTER it won Best Picture. Given that everyone has a streaming service these days – Netflix, Amazon Prime, Disney+, AppleTV – hell give it a year and NoMajestyDemand will be a thing (original programming? maybe), why should we pay twenty pound a go to see a film we’re not even certain we’ll like, and that might have bad sound, poor projection and someone talking all the way through?
Independent cinemas: The Prince Charles for example, or The Phoenix, deserve our patronage, and should be sought out as often as possible, their re-release, themed and exclusive interview nights are fantastic, the staff are always friendly, the seats are surprisingly comfy and they actually give a damn. But it’s time for big chains like Odeon, Vue, Cineworld and others to look into their methodology. Once upon a time Odeon’s slogan was “Fanatical About Film”, but that’s given way to whatever slogan will promote their next popcorn deal.
Cinema chains need to see this as a warning sign that people can survive without them, and that – when necessary – the industry will seek new avenues to find profit for their work. If recent years have shown us anything it’s that film wins out every time, and if you have a passion for it, people will seek it out. No one is looking to their nondescript chain cinema with misty eyes in this time, but if CEOs and everyone below them on the ladder began to actually think about how to make the experience great for film fans, they could really see a surge year-round.
Likewise, the film industry needs to remember that if the work is good, it’s good wherever we watch it. The Box Office isn’t everything. The Shawshank Redemption did not make money on release, and yet people return to it on TV and DVD year-on-year to enjoy the story. In contrast, consider how many people return to Avatar. Films like Avatar or Gravity that “have to be seen on the big screen to appreciate” are the films that Martin Scorsese should have been insulting late last year, as opposed to an Avengers film which outperforms most other films released that year, whether on a laptop, on a TV or in your local cinema.
People thought that streaming would be the end of traditional network TV, but instead thanks to Netflix, every other channel had to up their game and we’re now in a golden age of TV, and that is in part down to streaming. People feared Kindles would end traditional printed books, and yet the two exist side-by-side. Many believed Live streaming theatre into cinemas led many to fear that this would end the theatre experience, and yet you still can’t get a seat in most plays, and you can forget about trying to go see the ballet.
If every other artistic medium can adapt to the modern age, why are movies and those who make them clinging to this outdated idea that it’s only legitimate if it’s in the cinema. Your cinema window is weeks, if that, few make it past a month, fewer longer, and if you tank you’re gone by the next Thursday, and yet the likes of Tarantino, Scorsese and Nolan consider it to be the only way their work is considered legitimate.
It’s time to move with the times, if you can get funding for your film does it matter if people can see it on Netflix or in a local cinema? After all, if the film is good, it’ll be shown everywhere. To return to The Prince Charles Cinema, they managed to get a showing of Snowpiercer, not only after Netflix got the rights to stream it, and Film4 began showing it, but years after it was shown in the US, and it sold out. A film people could see for free, people paid to see on the big screen. If it lasts, it lasts and people will go.
Support your local indie cinemas, yes, but force the industry to remove their snobbery, and embrace change. They can do it, so they should.
Paul Klein is a Film Studies Graduate from London, former writer at The Metropolist.