How Will Cinemas Survive?
After a world in lockdown and with social distancing becoming the new norm, what will happen to cinemas, galleries, and the ways we interact with the arts?
In a recent episode of the Making Sense podcast, Sam Harris and his friend Paul Bloom discussed the handshake. Bloom’s tentative idea was that, at some uncertain point after the COVID crisis has passed, certain groups will readopt the handshake a show of manners or friendliness, while others will forever cast it off in favour of elbow bumps or bowing. What’s fascinating is his notion that these gestures could also bifurcate along partisan political lines. Harris and Bloom were speaking in the American context, and so they thought Democrats might be ridiculed by the opposition for being “latté-sipping coastal elites” who bow effetely, while the handshake would identify a person as a hardcore Republican in the same way a MAGA hat does.
This is an astute take on the situation because it recognises one of the two main facets of large cultural shifts. The first is that even the most seemingly novel changes often follow some established pattern. The handshake is a global gesture that has existed at least since ancient Greece (as evidenced by a depiction of two soldiers shaking hands on a fifth-century funerary stele). That the handshake might partially vanish seems unprecedented, but Bloom’s picture of this paradigm shift falling in line with the way everything else in life gets co-opted into party political feuding strikes me as, if not certain in the specific, at least assured in general.
The second truth is that such changes often emerge from established preconditions. As will be affirmed by any student of history (which I am not, and I barely qualify as someone sitting in the corner taking notes), no major events occur ex nihilo by popping into existence with no lead up. The clumsy yet disastrous assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand did not cause World War 1 on its own; it was a notably thick link in a chain already established and winding throughout European history. Shifts in values and schisms within social groups can exist just beneath the surface of a society until a dramatic, largescale event like a war or a pandemic brings them to the fore, and the culture changes seemingly overnight.
In imagining what might come out of this world in lockdown, I take as guides those principles of novelty emerging from the established and following patterns. And my gaze into a hypothetical future has been largely concerned, unsurprisingly, with the arts. The products of artists themselves will engage with this crisis in a variety of ways. Literature will be less affected in its ontology than stage performance, though both will deal with the human experience of this period as both have addressed the human condition for centuries. Where I think we will see widespread and drastic change is in how we interact with those arts, from the individual ways we consume them – will we share books as indiscriminately as we once did, and will we buy physical versions of movies, books, and music when we can get them in digital, coronavirus-free formats? – to the places we enjoy them in, from galleries to theatres.
Right now, I am preoccupied with the future of cinemas. Could social distancing, piled on top of such a long and economically negative shutdown, spell the death of cinemas as common places for the public to visit? Could cinemas become as rarefied outside of the largest cities as theatres have been for so long now? Might cinemas be reduced to one per town or small city, with even higher costs of entry, playing fewer movies, and patronised largely by the elderly and middle-class? Well, one more time – who the hell knows? None of us possibly can be certain. But we can notice the patterns of the past and follow sequences leading from yesterday through today, and get an idea of where they might go tomorrow.
The so-called streaming wars (because every social conflict apparently must be discussed in militaristic terms; see the wars on coronavirus, drugs, terror, etc.) have been waged for much longer than any of us knew what an R number is. For a while now, it has been as clear as such things can be that Netflix, Disney+, et al. are going to be the winners. The losers are going to be the cinemas and, so we cinephiles argue, the viewers.
A casual observer to the conflict can calculate which way things are going simply by noting the disparity between the two sides. On the one hand, there’s the convenience of staying at home and choosing your own showtimes, as well as drastically reduced costs – it’s possible to stream a superfluity of movies over a full month for half the price of a single cinema ticket; on the other hand, you have overpriced cinemas that often feel like they’ve been reduced to stuffy rooms with big screens and loud speakers. No ushers to guide you to your seat or ensure noise is kept down and phones switched off, no members of staff who obviously love movies and want to discuss them with you as you buy a tub of reasonably priced popcorn. No magic.
Great cinemas obviously still exist, but the movie-going experience in the main, for the majority of audiences at the average cinema, is in decline. On the up, however, is the VOD (Video On Demand) market, which has gone from strength – stepping on the weaknesses of conventional cinema – to strength. Traditional cinemas and their champions have fought various battles to maintain a status quo that keeps the cinemas floundering but able to breathe while offering their opponents in Netflix, Amazon, and the rest, no great advantages. Take, for example, the most recent strike-and-parry in this clash, which may prove to be a mortal blow against a failed defence:
At the start of this year, Universal Studios released their latest offering for children, Trolls World Tour, simultaneously in American cinemas and on PVOD (Premium – or Paid – Video On Demand). This was marketed as a necessity arising from the pandemic, but it was also the latest volley in a studio-wide campaign to shrink the theatrical window that delays home release. Following the financial success of the Trolls World Tour PVOD experiment, the head of NBCUniversal announced that all future movies would be released both in cinemas and on PVOD on the same date.
In response, AMC Theatres – the largest cinema chain in the world – said they would no longer play any Universal films in their cinemas. Those upcoming movies, for those not following such things, would include the latest in the Jurassic World, Minions, and Halloween franchises. Art? No. Tentpole pictures that keep the vast majority of audiences attending cinemas? Undoubtedly.
In contrast to the desperate need cinemas have for these blockbuster films, studios get only 50 – 60% of the revenue from movies that play in cinemas, while they get 80% from movies that play on streaming services. And that is 80% of however many people pay for it on streaming services rather than pirating it in the interim between cinema and home release. Cutting out that theatrical window means cutting out the vast majority of piracy. The bottom line is that cinemas need Universal in a way Universal does not need cinemas.
This is the direction the wind has blown for a few decades, and the current pandemic has increased that breeze to a strong gust, and many of us watching closely sense an inevitable gale coming. It’s increasingly difficult to see why the studios will continue to carry cinemas, when all the major advances in technology have been in favour of home viewing. Many of us use a streaming service, HD large screen televisions are increasingly common, and surround-sound speakers have never been cheaper; meanwhile, few care about 3D movies anymore, and while IMAX can be incredible, it’s a technology from the sixties that has only made tweaks in its own quality over the years.
Anecdotally, I know of three groups of people regarding cinemas. There is the smallest category of cinema nerds, to which I belong, for whom the experience of being at the cinema is its own feature of our love affair with movies. Then there are those for whom the right movie on the big screen is worth the cost and effort of going to the cinema. They won’t take big chances on indie films or see many movies each year, but they will be at every new Marvel release or Spielberg movie. Then there is the final group, who can’t stand the crowds and resent the cost of a ticket and who ask on leaving the cinema, every time they are dragged into one, “Does it have to be so loud?”
The success or failure of cinemas depends on the people who make up these categories combined. Without audiences, cinemas will shut down. Cinemas were already sliding downhill; recent developments have simply greased the slope. Given the broad decline in the quality of the movie-going experience, the main draw to cinemas was exclusivity. They could show you the movie you were excited for months before you’d get to see it at home. So what will happen when that is no longer something cinemas can boast?
Of course, everything I have just written is, to some degree, superseded or catalysed by the methods with which we wage our epidemiological fight when we venture back into the world. How many of us will be willing to sit in rooms with strangers or to patronise places we don’t deem essential, at least in the short-term? That is a salient and unanswerable question. So far, proposed social distancing measures for theatres and cinemas will only be useful for the month or two of shows they feature before those same distancing measures shut them down.
For example, the suggestion I’ve heard most is keeping some number (usually three) of seats empty between patrons. Of course, this is pointless if you have people sitting directly in front of and behind you, and so a practically useful guidance would also include keeping one seat in front and one behind empty. This means that a single movie-goer would require, at minimum, five seats. Who will shoulder the financial burden of this absurd set-up? Either the cinema will lose the income on those empty seats, or ticket-buyers will pay extra for them, further disincentivising anyone from going to the movies.
Mandatory mask-wearing has also been suggested. Not the worst thing in the world for a viewer, perhaps, but it must be weighed against prior investment in attending the cinema. If eating and drinking are out – as seems likely if masks must be worn – but are in abundance at home, where you also don’t have to breathe the muggy air collected behind a face mask, how can cinemas remain enticing?
This additional consideration of how people will stay, or at least feel, safe from infection in cinemas mean there are two broad paths through the future, either of which we might take. Without social distancing affecting cinemas too negatively, they still have everything I wrote of above going against them. With the burden of social distancing, I don’t see how they survive this pandemic at all. At least, not as we recognise them now, which leads me to more hopeful speculation...
Having mongered some doom, I’ll admit that I can envision some good being snatched back from the abyss. The threat of mass closures and the subsequent need to innovate could bring improvements to the movie-going experience. (This is reckoning without the negative burdens of social distancing.) A return to some of the seemingly quaint and yet sorely missed aspects of cinemas is long overdue. Too many now go without ushers, so let’s reintroduce those angels of enforced silence and phone-light shaming to the anarchic wilds of the audience experience. Fewer advertisements could entice more people back through the doors. I know from being an ardent movie-goer and having worked the box office of a local cinema that many can’t stand to sit through commercials, at an obnoxious volume, that they would leave the room for at home. And it would be great to see billings in chain cinemas that include far more classic movies in addition to the latest blockbusters.
While we’re at it, how about touching up the aesthetics of the whole experience? Let’s see our cinemas giving us some feel-good nostalgia with art-deco stylings, or at least interiors and staff uniform that aren’t interchangeable with those of a McDonald’s. Cinemas could evoke the magic of film with stylised tickets proud of what they grant entry to, rather than looking like a receipt lost in the bottom of a pocket for six months. And, for the hell of it, why not dramatic red curtains that are pulled open operatically to reveal the screen at the start of a movie?
Outside of traditional cinemas, it doesn’t seem a stretch to imagine guerrilla drive-in cinemas appearing. These might be vestiges of the “old way” catering to the same kind of people who still pay for vinyl records or take swing dance classes. It wouldn’t be difficult practically, with modern technology putting Borgesian video libraries in our pockets and producing cheap projectors and decent sound systems. Find an out-of-the-way location, maybe on the outskirts of town or a disused warehouse, throw up a crisp white sheet or a coat of white paint on a wall, download the latest film release (splitting the negligible cost between the aficionados hosting the event or your audience), and screen the movie for anyone to attend. As long as your set-up remains relatively “underground”, there’s little reason to worry about the big studios finding out and suing. Such outdoor and in-your-own-car entertainment would also circumvent concerns about virus transmission.
Similarly, people might host “cinema nights” at home, kitting out a spare room to invite over a group of friends to watch a new movie projected onto a wall. A film rented through PVOD for £20 is a fraction of the total cost for a cinema ticket when divided between a group of people. What parent would voluntarily pay £10 for each of their children to see a kids’ film at the cinema when they can pay £20 on PVOD, invite the kids’ friends over, and split the cost between three or four families? Not to mention what might end up being the greater draw in this scenario – leaving the kids in one room with the film while the parents share a glass of something adult in another room. Those of a more creative or exhibitionist disposition might go further in replicating a traditional cinema experience, with a tightly calibrated sound system, “tickets” required at the door, and buckets of homemade popcorn for the audience.
There is, finally, another direction cinemas may move in. They may become exhibition galleries for studios. Currently, anti-monopoly laws block the studios from owning their own cinemas because producing and distributing a product, while described as “vertical integration” by studio executives, is known as an infringement of competition law to everyone else. But these laws are being challenged in the States, and a favourable verdict for the studios would likely influence laws in other countries. With the economic crises emerging from the COVID crisis, lawmakers may decide that the time has come to give a bleeding-out sector of entertainment a final shot of adrenaline to see if it can get back on its feet.
This opportunity may well have to wait until after we have a vaccine, or until we live in a world that has inventively addressed social distancing. But I suspect the studios can wait. It might even be that after a year or two without cinemas, the public will flock faster and in greater numbers to the Amazon Cinema or Netflix Theatre recently opened in their town.
There are more than a few complicated tangles of artistic, logistical, and corporate natures that will bunch up around the otherwise clean vertical structure that studios are hoping for. I can’t begin at this point to think clearly about what this set-up might look like. It does, however, suggest a tiny innovation that I wouldn’t mind seeing – studio-owned cinemas playing short runs of their series-programming. Netflix put out a brilliant short series called Maniac that would look incredible on a big screen, Prime’s Tales From the Loop would bring me back for every screening at an Amazon Cinema, and I’m sure there are more than a few people who would be eager to Stranger Things in a cinema with a bucket of popcorn and all of their friends.
The point to all of this is: Nothing is certain. Possibilities abound.
There is an interesting question still to be raised, one which I am in no position to even tentatively answer: How will films change to adapt to the new landscape?
In 2018, the chief content officer for Netflix, Ted Sarandos, revealed that his son (a film student) had only ever seen Lawrence of Arabia on his phone. I shudder at the idea, and I suspect that the Lawrence of Arabia we know and love would have been made very differently if it were being made in this tomorrow-world of straight-to-small-screen movies. The widescreen vistas of countless figures wandering open plains, the minute figure of the solitary Lawrence searching the oceanic desert for a missing man, and that famous scene of a mirage in the infinite distance slowly approaching Lawrence at the well – none of these would have been imagined as filmable by David Lean if he were anticipating the inadequate canvas of a computer- or phone-screen.
Those questions and countless others are still to be answered, and they may not be for quite some time. There are still yet other issues surrounding other places involved in the arts, from galleries to bookshops. Somehow, I am less worried about the outcomes for bookshops. I don’t see this pandemic and social distancing having effects that are quite as widespread as they are for cinemas, nor as threatening. Granted, second-hand bookshops tend to be cosily cramped spaces with stacks of books browsed by dozens of other readers every day, but for the most part this can be surmounted by not having too many people inside at once – a normal situation for many bookshops – and by taking a few personal precautions regarding gloves and/or disinfectants and even leaving new books on a shelf at home for several days to be sure that any virus on them has died.
These might seem like burdens most customers would not be willing to place on themselves for most other businesses, but we book-buyers, and especially those who patronise second-hand bookshops, are used to going out of our way for books. We eschew the “ease” of online shopping to travel to bookshops and spend whole days perusing haphazard stacks and disorganised shelves of books for unexpected gems and long-sought-after novels. What’s a little disinfectant and social distancing on top of that?
That said, bookshops, like cinemas, theatres, art galleries, music halls and concert venues, dance classes, and a hundred other places where the arts live, will continue to suffer the fallout of hard economic times during and well after our lockdowns. I don’t intend to simply wait to see what happens to them all; the moment it is safe to do so, I will take any and all opportunities, however small, to support these venues. It’s not enough to passively hope they make the appropriate changes, and it would be damned ungrateful if we let them fight for their existence while we complacently wait to see who (streaming services or cinemas, Amazon or bookshops, online exhibitions or physical galleries) will offer us the most convenience.
The future is uncertain, but we need not be passive observers to history. We can have a hand in shaping it. All of us can have a say in what kind of world we live in tomorrow.
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• #198 – April 16, 2020, Making Sense [podcast] (2020)