Farewell cinemas (for now?)

After my last post, I was optimistic (cautiously, anyway) that despite the huge impact of COVID-19 and lockdown on cinemas, venues were doing what they could to make the experience safe, and I hoped  upcoming new releases would bring people back.

As someone who loves going to the cinema, only being able to go twice since March has been rubbish to say the least, and with a whole host of blockbusters planned for the end of the year, I was hoping to return a fair few times before the end of the year. Safety measures were strong, I thought, and it was really the lack of new films and the rising case numbers that have understandably kept people away. Two things I had hoped would subside and improve in the next few months.

A hammer blow

However, as a result of No Time To Die (the new Bond film) being pushed back to April 2021, Cineworld closed every UK cinema and essentially made all 5,000 staff redundant; Odeon closedmany venues except for weekends; and Vue duly followed in a similar vein. As my only local venue is a Cineworld, this is a huge deal personally, but all three chains closing venues ought to ring alarm bells for anyone who enjoys cinema.

In my opinion, and that of a lot of people in the film world who know a lot more than me, this is a moment from which we could see the beginning of the end of cinemas – it sounds dramatic, but that really could be the case.

If the country’s biggest chain has decided that there’s no point staying open for six months – and with there being absolutely no guarantee of a vaccine that works full stop, or for a good while yet; plus winter (when viruses thrive) and potential further lockdowns alongside more studios moving films – it could be a long time til we’re back and regularly so.

Streaming services have been able to capitalise on millions of people spending months in their own homes – but they existed anyway, pandemic or no pandemic, so there’s no point blaming them for anything that might happen. They’ve merely been lucky – but they’ve shown big studios a more profitable way forward that I’m concerned they might take.

As with football (which even if you don’t care about it, is facing a similar problem right now) the way the film industry works and makes money has meant this situation was fairly likely from the start.

Studio control

The problem is that you have an unequal balance between studios and cinema chains. We can complain about the cost of cinema tickets forever, but studios share cuts of admission profits with cinema chains, so when you fork out for a trip a proportion of that money goes to Disney (for example), and some stays with the cinema. This means that the studios need to sell A LOT of tickets to make back budgets, while cinemas demand (rightly) that there’s a certain length of time between a cinema release and a home release. Otherwise, why bother going!

Studios have been taking the piss with independent cinemas for a long time in a precursor of what might face chains – a lot of indies can’t show potentially lucrative screenings of popular/cult films because it’d cost them too much to do so (Disney particularly are arseholes for this, as since they bought Fox they’ve stopped any cinema anywhere from showing Fox films as well as their own). So the more idiosyncratic venues (for Oxfordians, think the Ultimate Picture Palace) are often least reliant on blockbusters, but more reliant on the kindness of studios and the flow of independent or global movies.

However, the big chains seemed fairly safe – blockbusters get people in, the experience is much richer than on your own sofa, and everyone profits/makes back their budgets. Then COVID happened, and some studios realised that releasing films onto video on demand would make them more money than releasing them in cinemas (and they didn’t know when they would ever be able to do the latter profitably).

Universal did this with the now destined to be infamous Trolls World Tour, which made the studio so much money that it declared it would release films at the same time digitally as in cinemas. And as a result of the pandemic, Disney has accelerated a move towards considering films going to streaming instead of the cinemas at all (see here) – taking its latest Pixar film Soul from cinemas and putting it on Disney+ for free at Christmas.

Unsurprisingly, Odeon’s parent company AMC (the biggest US cinema chain) lost its shit at the first of those two developments, saying it would not show any Universal films unless they backtracked. The two companies then signed a deal, but this cut the window between a Universal film being shown in a cinema and releasing online/to disc by a fair amount – something that’s been happening slowly but surely for a while (you may have noticed this if you buy DVDs or blurays – the time between the two has shrunk to about three or four months).

What I can see happening now and into 2021 is a perfect parallel to football’s current struggles, if you’ll pardon the comparison. If you can’t have people attend a cinema or a stadium, then nobody makes any money from attendance, despite the film being shown or the match being played.

Where football is different is that regardless of the league level (whether Cineworld or your local independent cinema), you can still watch matches at the moment, from home – it’s not perfect, and there’s still a big chance that smaller clubs will go out of business without help from the bigger leagues, but money flows through remote viewing. The recent misguided foray into pay per view however shows that money is king.

However, with cinema the big films/matches are being delayed, showing that the studios do still want cinemas to survive. The key thing here is the US/rest of the world divide – Hollywood is obviously in California, but the film industry is so devoted to its American base that the lack of cinema openings in its two biggest domestic markets (LA and NYC) means the studios weep at how “little” money is made from cinemas across the rest of the country. They don’t seem to care that the rest of the world wants to see and is paying to see their films – because they make most of their money from the US markets, most of the time.

With every studio on its way towards or already having a streaming service, how long will they wait if they can make more money for themselves/make budgets back by releasing something digitally, rather than at a cinema where they’ll make less money? When will they take the plunge sport has reluctantly taken, and will it be for good? All of this depends on how the pandemic goes from here – and viruses don’t give two shits about the economy, as you’ve no doubt noticed.

This is the dangerous bind cinemas find themselves in, and what probably alarms me more is that some studios won’t even give a second thought to helping cinemas out if they can make more money without them. It seems completely anathema to how a social activity like cinema works, but big business never really has a moral side when more money is to be made or saved.

One potential solution

Sadly, one potential fix for this is for the studios to buy cinema chains. But this would probably mean the end of independent or interesting cinema. If Disney bought Cineworld, for example, you might think “awesome, the cinemas will stay open!” – which would be true.

However, that would inevitably lead to the mad situation whereby you have your local Disney cinema – but it will only show the newest Marvel or Star Wars films, so if you wanted to see the new Bond you’d have to go to whichever company had made that to see it (just for clarity, Bond films have been made and released by United Artists, Sony and Universal, so far).

This is not sustainable for those of us who love cinema – the Unlimited card and other services like it meant you could go and see whatever you wanted for a set monthly price. How much more expensive will it be to travel who knows how far to see the latest film from a certain studio, let alone how much it might cost to see it at that studio’s cinemas?

This might sound ridiculous, but the American legal system recently removed a covenant that had been in place since the 1940s that prevented studios from owning cinema chains. With that now gone, there is nothing to stop them from hoovering up a chain and releasing their own films at their own, branded locations there – and who’d stop them here?

Safety is paramount

Of course, the virus shaped elephant in the auditorium is behind all this. Cineworld is a flawed, poorly behaving company – but it made one excellent point in its farewell email, in that not one outbreak or case of COVID was attributed to a cinema trip in the three months its chain was reopened.

I can absolutely, categorically understand why people wouldn’t feel comfortable going – but as I said in my Tenet review, it was really impressive to see how careful they were being, especially given my experience in a local pub/restaurant a week or two before, where distancing and masks were not bothered with.

This is the horrible catch-22 of this entire shitshow – the cinemas were safe, and would have remained so. And you can’t blame people for not feeling, at the same time, like the risk was worth it. But this is a large part of why they’ve shut – because the studios wanted bums on seats, and while they got them, they didn’t get enough of them for these companies to feel like releasing blockbusters would be a good idea in 2020.

Christopher Nolan’s zeal in getting Tenet released was misguidedly dangerous in many ways – but the irony was, the film performed outside of America. It’s made its huge budget back, in a pandemic. But for the studios, its obviously minimal haul in the US was enough to frighten them into thinking of their wallets – and so the parade of rescheduled releases continues.

Other nations who’ve handled the pandemic far better than the US and UK are paying the price too – their cinemas are open, safe and hold potential audiences for global blockbusters. But the insular, US focus of Hollywood has meant that cinemas everywhere are being affected – something that may boost local film industries for sure, and certainly is in China so far. But here in the UK we get the double shit sandwich of cinemas closing and no new films – our local film industry is far more indie focused, as while blockbusters are regularly filmed here, they’re US films and not UK productions.

Arguably, I am culpable in this. I’m a huge film fan (you wouldn’t be reading this if you didn’t know that!), but I went back twice. I should and could have gone more. But the problem for me was exactly what I’ve been saying here – I didn’t want to go and sit and watch a film I own. I wanted to see something new, big and exciting – Dune, No Time To Die and Wonder Woman 1984 – on the big screen.

Sad times

All this really makes me wonder what the future of film will be, and how quickly we might see it happen. The cinematic experience is what people pay for – if it’s a great film, you remember being wowed or shaken by the movie and the visuals, as well as the booming sound. Equally, if it’s shit you still remember the audience reacting, and it remains an experience to remember that you’ve shared with others – as with so much else, COVID’s impact on social activities hits hardest here.

I decided to go and see Tenet again on the final night the cinema was open. It was genuinely sad to witness staff packing things up, not knowing when they would open up again or when – and knowing this was the last night they would have a job. The auditorium only had about 10 people in it (just like my first viewing), but the film distracted me from all this and 2020 for two and a half hours – because that’s what cinema IS FOR.

Leaving was the grimmest part – the credits began to roll, and as we walked out it hit me that I might not be back there again until April 2021 at the earliest – if again, given the financial straits Cineworld is in, and the fact that it’ll likely ditch smaller locations like Witney before it leaves a city.

I hope the studios help the cinema chains out, and that this doesn’t go the way it could. I would rather be able to blog that I’d seen No Time To Die at my local Cineworld next spring than to have to watch it at home – yes, it might be more convenient and will still be safer, but as with anything we’ve taken for granted that involves going somewhere to watch something, it just will not be the same.

I really hope I can look back at this post in a few months time and realise the reality was thankfully not as drastic as my fears. But something tells me I might not be wrong.

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