Cinemas, like most other business ventures, reopened on 4th July. For how long, it remains to be seen. With talk of a second wave of the virus, it may turn out to be more trouble than it’s worth for cinemas to reopen – especially as there isn’t much to put on.
The independent cinema industry in the UK took a severe beating after the opening of multiplexes in 1985. But despite the dire predictions emanating from streaming-service scaremongers, the number of cinemas in the UK rose slightly between 2002 and 2018 – a small victory for the theatrical experience. A Screen Daily article from 2018 highlighted that the three biggest chains of independent cinemas – Everyman, Picturehouse and Curzon – had expanded outside London and were seeing a commensurate rise in box office takings.
Netflix and Amazon’s increasingly tight grip on distribution may have had an impact between 2018 and 2020, as original scripts and big-name dramas increasingly turn to streaming for the creative license and money they offer. In exchange, shorter theatrical runs and a quick streaming release compromise the cinemas. Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman is an example of the kind of cinema-to-streaming model that Netflix is pushing: it ran in cinemas for just 26 days before being transferred online, to the chagrin of chain owners. In protest at the projected four-week theatrical window, about a third of the length of a typical run in cinemas, Picturehouse, Vue and Odeon refused to show The Irishman at all. It played on only 80 screens nationwide.
An established tension with streaming services does not augur well for the exhibition industry during the coronavirus. A survey by the Independent Cinema Office of 340 respondents across the exhibition industry found that 21% of cinema workers have had their contracts terminated with no immediate hope of renewal since the virus hit. Lockdown might have been an opportunity for the quarantined to discover (or rediscover) their inner film buff, but streaming services have tightened their grip on our pockets as we search for diversion. The heady mix of bingeable TV shows and classic cinema to be found in Netflix’s back catalogue is hard to beat. It remains to be seen whether the draw of the big screen will be enough to tempt audiences back to the cinema.
The risk of infection is still high in big metropolitan centres, and the government’s hazy advice leaves the public in the dark about the future of the coronavirus. At the same time, reopening businesses after months of isolation will inevitably be tempting enough that people will risk their health for the thrill of human society. But cinema, unlike pubs and restaurants, is not an experience that facilitates socialising. Unlike barbers and shops, it doesn’t answer any immediate needs (that is, if you sympathise with the long queues outside hairdressers at 8am on Saturday). Many are worried that the safety measures proposed by cinemas will be inadequate to stop disease from spreading. And as home projectors become more and more widely available, it might not even do anything that you can’t do at home.
But there will always be something magical about going to the cinema. The pure joy of turning off your phone and sitting for two hours in a darkened room is hard to explain. Cinema audiences are less smug and sycophantic than theatre audiences, whose laughter always seems designed to reach the ears of the performers. In the cinema, as perhaps nowhere else, you can react to art in real time and with other people, but also almost completely unobserved. There’s also an element of risk – when you buy a film ticket, you commit symbolically to the experience, and deciding to walk out takes more initiative than skipping to the next autoplay suggestion. There is much talk, all commendable, about how to save the theatre industry from collapse during and after the crisis. Let’s extend the same thought to cinema – we would suffer just as much from its loss.