On march 22nd 2020 cinema celebrated 125 years. Since the lumiere brothers premiered their short film, workers leaving the lumiere factory for an audience of 10 people at a private screening.
This screening marked the start of an industry that has been through and survived many turbulent times, including two world wars. Ironically within a week of this anniversary.
Last year the UK went into lockdown in response to the pandemic following and followed by most of the world. For the first time in film history on a global scale cinema simply stopped.
To answer the question of whether covid has killed cinema, i first need to define what i mean by cinema. Because as a catch-all term. It covers a wide range of content it includes but is not limited to film making. I.e. Pre-production production and post-production film distribution such as in theatres, festivals and on streaming services. All aided by film advertising.
Finally, what i will call film appreciation such as awards ceremonies, reviews blogs, reddit threads, written essays and video essays such as this one.
The pandemic impacted every one of these parts of cinema. Filmmaking halted particularly for those films in pre-production and production. Post-production occupied a special place as one of the only areas still able to deliver new content. It was faced with the questions of how and when to proceed, given that the next stage of advertising and distribution was also at a standstill.
Theatres closed and some of them were forced to face the possibility of permanent closure and even bankruptcy. With the prospect of reopening burdened by the fact that people were less likely to go out.
Initially film festivals were also cancelled, release dates were pushed back and the cinematic schedule for 2020 and beyond became an uncertain mess.
Uncertainty is a common theme of the pandemic with every industry affected for cinema. It led to what Richard broody terms the end of buzz with no new productions.
There was no gossip with no new releases. There was no need for advertisers to gather hype on the plus side. Film festivals and awards shows found a way to continue online. But even then, the excitement was lacking. The 2021 academy awards had the worst viewership in the show’s history and dropped 59 percent from the viewership of 2020.
Similarly, the 2021 golden globes had experienced the worst viewership for 13 years and also dropped a massive 63 from the 2020 golden globes.
These awards show by no means represent the industry as a whole. But given that they are the most famous ones. The numbers do give a good indication of a lack of interest in the general public. However, this cannot be said for streaming services which have experienced unprecedented growth during the pandemic.
Amazon added another 50 million prime subscribers on top of the ones that he had projected for the year. Netflix also surpassed his expectations totalling 37 million subscribers for 2020. Disney plus which launched the start of the pandemic in November 2019 outperformed expectations getting 73.7 million subscribers within a year.
Well into its goal of achieving 60 to 90 million subscribers by 2024 this sudden increase in streaming service subscriptions. As a result of the pandemic is sombre news for cinephiles who don’t want to see the medium forced onto small screens in our homes.
Netflix in particular has long been blamed for a decrease in people going to see films at the theatre. But streaming services have also done a lot of good for cinema even before the pandemic.
Buying up not only big star-studded films but also smaller ones allowing their massive audiences to experience a variety of content. This is because they do not rely on a handful of blockbusters to make their profit. They can afford to buy up some riskier films ones that would have never been shown in theatres.
Ones that may not appeal to the majority of their audience but are still valuable in the appeal of the minority. They have also invested in making their own productions and these have received increasing praise with Netflix.
For example, winning seven awards at the Oscars this year more than any other studio. It is not the first time in film history where the survival of cinema has been questioned at various points in history. There have been situations people and technologies blamed for supposedly ending cinema.
CINEMA AND THEATRE HISTORY
The first such death of cinema happened during the 1950s when tv came out. This marked the biggest drop in film history for theatre admissions.
The numbers haven’t changed much since cinema had another death in the 1980s. When VHS was introduced making it cheaper to rent out a tape rather than going to the theatre. Numbers were somewhat revived in the northeast. However, when technology such as 3d and digital Imax made the experience of seeing films on the big screen unable to be reproduced at home development.
Technology have often been the triggers for changes in the industry be it the arrival of sound and color or the change from film stock to digital.
Certainly, the technology required to make a high-quality experience at home has become increasingly affordable with 4k TVs and projectors and immersive sound systems.
The screen may not be a colossal size but the ability to control room temperature noise level toilet breaks and the price of snacks makes it quite appealing. This is partly the reason why more and more people are choosing to stay at home and subscribe to streaming services during the pandemic.
In fact, the decline in theatre admissions did not start with the pandemic but has been steadily declining for 20 years especially in the most important age bracket for the industry, teens and young adults.
What is interesting about these statistics is that they are predominantly felt by the tail end. The more independent end of the box office.
The top 25 titles have actually seen a relatively similar number of tickets sold per capita over the course of these 20 years. Furthermore, most of these 25 titles have become increasingly occupied by franchises with big studios.
Gradually investing more in these types of films it would certainly suggest that franchise fatigue is a myth. The pandemic is merely delaying releases.
So, has covid killed cinema?
No, in the most basic terms cinema is a form of storytelling that uses motion pictures has not lost its allure, especially in the case of blockbusters.
However, covid has accelerated a natural period of change in the way that people consume this form of entertainment. What type of content the industry needs to make in response with cinemas close.
Streaming services have provided a much-needed source of joy amongst the sadness and excitement amongst the loneliness. That said a common feeling that has arisen due to the pandemic is a need to be outside. Again, to experience things that you may not have prioritized before.
This gives great hope that the theatre experience is not quite extinct. But it certainly feels like theatres need to change the way they do things.
In order to survive perhaps they need to step back in time a little and move away from identical multiplexes. Instead focus on providing unique venues with unique experiences.
There are many independent cinemas in the uk that have survived happily throughout the years by predominantly showing older films. Others have gone down the wine and dine.
Route providing table service with the screenings drive-ins have proven a perfect place for covid safe cinema with households neatly confined to their cars.
Other unique experiences such as secret cinema who combined theatre and film by bringing film worlds to real life have also recently opened for shareholder investment and are planning on expanding worldwide.
Netflix have also invested in the theatre experience buying up two famous theatres the Egyptian in Hollywood and the Paris in New York. Partly this is an order to appease directors such as Scorsese who agreed to have their films on the platform as long as they are also theatrically released. And also, because they need to be theatrically released to qualify for awards.
But business aside saving these old theatres is investing in film history. So it looks like the pandemic merely pushed cinema towards a direction it was already going.
The destination is still a little uncertain but the outlook remains hopeful. At least for people willing to accept that streaming is here to stay and for theatres that are open to getting creative.