Cinema during a pandemic: The survival of film theatres
It has almost been half a year, maybe more depending on where you live, since the reality sunk in that we are, indeed, surviving a pandemic. Like many other sectors of our society, the film industry was hit hard by the virus as well. Film theatres were designated as ideal environments for the spread of the virus and were immediately shut down, along with other areas meant for social gathering. The dynamism of the modern world screeched to a halt and we found ourselves confined to our rooms, either hunched over our phones and laptops or sprawling on the couch and binging whatever Netflix threw at us. Streaming services were on the rise even before 2020 with Netflix becoming a $125 billion company in about 20 years, making 6.14 billion dollars in the second quarter of 2020 alone. All of this begs the question: Will cinema survive?
The release dates of some of the biggest films of 2020 have either been pushed back or delayed indefinitely like Wes Anderson’s highly anticipated The French Dispatch. Christopher Nolan’s Tenet, on the other hand, has finally been scheduled to open internationally, after multiple postponements, on 26th August before being screened in select US theatres over the Labour Day Weekend in September. IMAX CEO Richard Gelfond said that Christopher Nolan is adamant about his film being the one to reignite the cherished tradition of going to the cinemas for quality viewing, “Chris [Nolan] really would like to be coming out with the film that opens theatres,” he said. “I don’t know anyone in America who is pushing harder to get the theatres reopened and to get his movie released than Chris Nolan.”
Of course, with cases rising exponentially and social distancing becoming the new norm, cinema will have to adapt to this new world just as everything else has. The National Association of Theatre Owners has begun internal distribution of a major safety document, the NATO Proposed Health & Safety Guidelines, to its membership which mandates the use of masks for employees and audiences alike, sparse show times to avoid crowds and disinfecting the auditoriums before and after screenings among other safety measures. For many, this will come across as a huge ordeal when they can just order takeout and stay home to watch films with their families without risking the possibility of being infected but can this really replace the spectacle of cinema? The immersive experience that theatres provide have been substituted, albeit necessarily, by disrupted viewings where the pivotal scenes of cinematic masterpieces are subverted by phone notifications.
Ben Roberts, chief executive of the British Film Institute said, “For many people this will have forever shifted their perception of access to film at home, and that’s great. I also think we are going to value everything from a cup of coffee to the price of a cinema ticket in a different way. The nation will be poorer, experiences will have to justify the cost, which is why subscription models and memberships are so popular. However! The cinema experience is unique and I’m confident that audiences will start to cautiously return.” He is absolutely right in his evaluation of the importance of cinema but the execution leaves a lot to be asked for. I doubt that even the most hardcore cinephiles, myself included, would be willing to risk catching the virus in closed spaces like movie halls where conditions are extremely conducive for such an infectious disease to spread. Cinema should be a psychological battleground, not a real one.
Although it seems like streaming films at home is the lesser but safer option, it’s not the same, no matter how vehemently one argues for the superiority of streaming platforms. David Lynch famously said, “Now if you’re playing the movie on a telephone, you will never in a trillion years experience the film. You’ll think you have experienced it but you’ll be cheated. It’s such a sadness that you think you have seen a film on your fucking telephone. Get real.” So what do we do? A more popular solution has been the call for bringing back drive-in theatres, to go old school when the world is rapidly becoming unrecognisable. Sure, it won’t be the same as watching a film in a theatre equipped with surround sound speakers and perfect acoustics, but it is still more of an experience than the algorithmic avalanche of streaming platforms. It will also ensure that the social distancing guidelines are followed. The Big Screen will always be a phenomenon whereas Netflix is a convenience.