From the file

Year of the Screen | From Zoom calls to gaming sessions, from Netflix binges to smartphone-led protests, this is how 2020 panned out

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Friday 11 December 2020

Carol Morley on whether this is the end of cinema as we know it


In 1895, Louis Lumière allegedly said that cinema was “an invention without a future”. If he said it at all, perhaps he was merely referring to the apparatus itself, his pioneering co-invention of the cinematograph, a combination of film camera and projector. He could surely not have imagined how the history of cinema would unfold; the ideological and cultural impact it would have; that film industries around the world would grow from it; how it would become a shared language; and how it would become a wonderful and eventful place to go to – in the real world and in our minds.

Once, of course, the only way to see a film was inside a cinema. I wish I had been alive to go to the grand, art deco Troxy, still standing as a gig venue near where I live in East London, which opened in 1933 to a full capacity audience of 3,420 for King Kong, starring Fay Wray. It now seems almost fanciful that in 1946 there were 1.64 billion cinema admissions in the UK. After that, attendance gradually declined, reaching an all-time low of 54 million in 1984, before rising again to 150 million by 2000, where it has steadily remained. Until now.

The Troxy, now an events space

The pandemic has been a threat like no other, leaving cinemas spookily in the dark and silent. And while some cinemas have, if permitted, reopened with new, virus-safe measures in place, many have not – because they don’t have the audience-luring blockbusters they need to pay their overheads, as studios have held back release dates in anticipation of the return of “normal” times.

The measures taken to stop the spread of coronavirus have meant that the global cinema box office has suffered billions of dollars in losses. Many people who make their livings from cinema, particularly in distribution and exhibition, have lost their jobs or face an uncertain future.

Since the passing of the golden age of cinema, the idea that it would die is nothing new; there were those ready to write its obituary when televisions began to dominate living rooms, or with the advent of home video, or when the digital world took off.

A cinema in Wuhan, China, reopens with virus-prevention measures in place.

Mark Cosgrove, cinema curator at Watershed, a multi-arts venue in Bristol, says, “Digital was supposed to be the big disruptor, but in a way the pandemic is the real disruptor. This is a big existential moment for cinema. Do we really need it anymore?”

When Warner Bros last week announced that they were putting their entire 2021 slate of movies online in the USA at the same time as in cinemas, Deadline Hollywood called it a “Seismic Windows Model Shakeup”. These windows, a long-established gap of many months between a film playing at the cinema and it being released to DVD or streaming, have been held onto dearly by exhibitors, as a kind of leverage to draw in audiences. After all, the thinking goes, if someone can watch a film at home the day of its release, why would they bother to make the journey to see it elsewhere?

“If your business is built on that window model, you’re vulnerable,” says Cosgrove. He sees that there is an overreliance by cinemas, certainly multiplexes, on the blockbuster film. And even though Warner Bros promise that they will return to the old release patterns, will that really happen? And if cinemas don’t have an exclusive hold on the money-spinning, big titles, is this finally the death knell for cinema?

Dune is scheduled to be released on HBO Max at the same time it is released in cinemas

The availability of films on online platforms simultaneously with cinema releases seems like an egalitarian move, in that everyone can access the film at the same time. Jason Wood, artistic director of film and culture at HOME in Manchester says, “There is no escaping the fact that we are now in an entirely different landscape. We need to treat the new online environment as an opportunity rather than a challenge to be fought against.” He adds that most independent cinemas now have their own online platforms to show films: “It’s a way of broadening our outreach and of contributing to a wider, vibrant film culture.”

But what of streaming sites that aren’t curated by cinemas themselves? Clare Binns, joint managing director of Picturehouse, which runs a chain of cinemas and a distribution arm, warns, “Don’t get fooled into thinking that streaming platforms are about choice. Some have turned into dictators of what we can and can’t see. There should be choice on when, where and how people chose to watch films.”

Ava DuVernay, the filmmaker behind Selma (2014) and A Wrinkle in Time (2018), has discussed in the past how the theatrical cinema release is a privilege, and that while she would prefer for people not to watch her work on their phones, she’d rather them see it that way than not see it at all. As an independent filmmaker, I agree. I cherish the idea of my films being seen in a cinema, with a wonderfully large and precise image, with great sound, and a collective audience. But I am equally of the mindset that if someone encounters my film another way, it has reached them – and I’m happy it has.

Ava DuVernay’s Selma (2014)

But how does an independent film get noticed in the first place? For many independent filmmakers, who perhaps don’t have an A-list cast, releasing their films straight to a streaming platform, if they are lucky enough to achieve that exhibition platform in the first place, could mean that the work never gets a proper airingm, as the films can become buried on the sites. When an independent film does have a cinema release, it receives a kind of focused attention from audiences and the critics, which is very important to its subsequent life. 

Cosgrove says about Watershed, “We’re in the business of culture, not the culture of business,” and sees their role, with strategic investment from the British Film Institute, as building and sustaining audiences for cinema outside of the big blockbusters. He reveals that Sarah Gavron’s Rocks, which was released during the lifting of restrictions after the first lockdown, brought in great audiences. And he was delighted to see Rose Glass’s debut film St Maud securing many more slots in multiplexes that it would have done if the big franchise films were playing.

Rocks (2019), directed by Sarah Gavron

So if the blockbuster films will no longer continue to dominate our cinema screens for any significant amount of time, finding they can scoop up their vast investments and profits by streaming routes, is there a space opening up for a more diverse range of films to play on cinema screens? Binns says, “Perhaps there is an opportunity for more cinemas to show a bigger variety of films. We have to be optimistic. When we return to the new ‘normal’, the challenge will be to figure out a sensible economically and sound way to write, direct, produce, distribute and show great films.”

It is perhaps a naive suggestion, but what if there were some kind of government act meaning that studios, who have dominated cinema exhibition with their bloated budgets and whose talent often emerged from independent films, were required to create a fund for independent films to be distributed and exhibited in the cinema? Hell, why not even a fund towards the making of these films? This would not be so dissimilar to the results of an act that required American studios in the 1930s to finance British films to balance out the dominance of US films exhibited in UK cinemas. It would be a wonderful way for a range of original films to be made and shown on the big screen. Call it the “Blockbuster Recompense Fund”!

Cosgrove says, “the future of cinema is in the past,” referring to the vast catalogue of world cinema we have at our disposal. And if we look at the history of cinema, we see it has somehow always survived challenges to its existence, and that it continues to be of great cultural and social importance. While many people may not be tempted to go twice a week, as British audiences once did when there was no other way to see moving images, the cinema is still a vital place to visit and to be part of a collective experience that so many of us have craved during lockdown.

A queue outside the London Pavilion cinema in Leicester Square, 1960

Perhaps we have asked too much of cinema, to expect it to supply such economic riches, but let’s not kill it off because the blockbuster releases decide they don’t need it so much anymore. Cinema may not be in its heyday, but we must nurture it during its time of need. This complicated, far-reaching technological and artistic invention that took on a life of its own, that introduced us to our screen-based world, deserves to be protected. 

So when you are ready to visit and support your reopened cinema again, and you are plunged into darkness, into the frisson of the communal experience, and the projector illuminates the big screen, and the stories and characters and sounds and images move you elsewhere, please say a little prayer to celebrate cinema and all that it has given us and all that it is still capable of giving us. And don’t forget to switch off your phone.

A member writes…

Having read Carol’s article, a Tortoise member – or, technically, the grandson of a Tortoise member – got in touch to describe their efforts to start a local cinema in the village of Slindon. Here is 18-year-old Joe Cornick’s letter.

One of the earliest Tortoise ThinkIns took place in the local village hall in Slindon, West Sussex. That’s the same village hall where, before the pandemic struck, I set up a small cinema. I did so because I spotted what I thought was an opportunity.

What was that opportunity? First I’ll need to give a potted history of small local cinemas. It used to be the case that these cinemas, in villages and towns around Britain, were very popular. After all, they were, in the middle decades of the 20th Century, many people’s only practical way of watching the biggest, latest movies – close and cheap.

But then the local cinemas were hammered until they collapsed. The culprit? In its way, technological advancement. First came the television, which gave people a reason to stay at home. Then came the sorts of sophisticated projectors and sound systems that only the out-of-town multiplexes could afford. Many small local cinemas were unable to compete, and most fell into disuse.

Something was lost. Something major. We often talk about the social aspects of cinema in general: gathering to have the same filmic experience under the same screen. But at local cinemas the social aspects are more, well, social: there’s the mixing before and after, or during an interval, over an ice cream or a drink. Everyone more or less knows each other. This is a communal experience precisely because it’s rooted in community.

Anyway, this was the opportunity. It’s what was missing. I decided to look into whether local cinema could be resurrected – starting in Slindon. I acquired a high-quality (but unused) 35mm projector at no cost and, with neighbourly support, installed it in the village hall. I then set up a monthly programme of two evening shows. An interval was crucial to my plans, with a bar, and a traditional ice cream seller walking the floor. Many performances sold out.

Unfortunately, the programme was ended earlier this year by – what else? – the pandemic. But we have reopened just before Christmas with all the necessary precautions in place, which greatly reduces capacity, but with matinees to spread the load. What are we showing? It had to be the classic It’s a Wonderful Life.

I am told that the cinema has brought a new focus to the village, sadly lacking in recent times. Long live the screen!