“The death of Cinema” has been a sentence uttered rather frequently in the past few years. Like a succession of funeral hearses, with drivers announcing the death of the exhibition practice, it is understandable as to how this sentiment has spread rather easily. From opinion pieces, to directors such as Steven Spielberg sharing the same view, it has been a topic of contention to many. But is this this the case? In a post-pandemic landscape, cinemas are fighting back with new, inventive methods to change this rhetoric. With tour films, and cultural moments such as ‘Barbenheimer’, it seems that a full resuscitation attempt is taking place or, more so, emphasising what was already there. Impact’s Ed Farley explains.
The pandemic. People were locked in their homes and, by implication, locked out of cinemas. With cinemas audience-less, they suffered. From bankruptcy filings, to job cuts, it looked as if the sites of a long-beloved tradition were on their way out. Though there were hopes for a recovery, or a boom once things brightened up, the cinema still suffered, with news outlets and publications such as the financial times breaking down how blockbusters were released, but tickets and the box office weren’t meeting the hopes for a revived demand.
Soon, the argument wasn’t focused on how the pandemic had killed cinema, but how streaming services dealt huge blows and, to a degree, how cinemas self-destructed. Why pay upwards of £10 for a one-time viewing when you could pay a monthly fee to watch unlimited content? Why leave your home when you could just stay, avoiding petrol costs, cinema over-talkers, and loud candy-packet scrunchers?
moviegoing was once seen as monolithic
It highlighted how sitting down and watching a new title wasn’t enough. Streamers increasingly made original content for a fraction of the cost. So how could cinemas reel back audiences? The answer was both simple and complicated, boiling down to the need for spectacle. Moviegoing was once seen as monolithic. You could only watch films at home months later, after a DVD (or even if you’re THAT old… VHS) release.
Going out and participating was the draw. Something seen in sports games, concerts, theatres. The history of spectatorship has spanned hundred and thousands of years, from Shakespeare’s Globe in the 17th century, to the first iteration of the Olympics in antiquity. In today’s context of viewing habits, the commonality of these things reiterated that, to a degree, it wasn’t what they were seeing, it was how they were.
From years of evidence as mentioned above, all the way up until the pandemic, viewers got used to staying at home, because they lived in a context where it felt unsafe to leave the house. How they watched the film in this example determined their viewing practices, and in the process, seemingly nailed cinema’s coffin shut just a little tighter. Obviously you have to like what you’re seeing to want to spectate. It would be ridiculous to devalue the hard work of filmmakers and crews.
the act of leaving the house, and being motivated to do so, is a huge part of entertainment viewing
However, as many filmmakers agree with arguments over the state of the industry, people aren’t as simple as passively watching content. Whether you watch a sports game, a play, or a film, the act of celebrating it, the act of leaving the house, and being motivated to do so, is a huge part of entertainment viewing.
Take Christopher Nolan’s Oppenheimer and Greta Gerwig’s Barbie. Both are fantastic, applaudable films. However, it was the seismic event that was ‘Barbenheimer’- the event of both being released on the same day- and many watching them as a Double bill, that also vastly attracted ticket sales. Almost akin to the ‘double feature’ events of the 30’s and 40’s; watching a film wasn’t just a process of sitting down and seeing it on the screen but seeing it with a purpose, an intent.
‘Barbenheimer’’s draw and fun, accessible marketing strategies turned great films into a great event. Though the physical experience was the same as before, the symbolic value was new. The films as texts were elevated into tangible experiences that allured audiences to melt and immerse themselves into viewing the films’ messages and social importance.
This momentum started again, fast forwarding a few months to Taylor Swift: The Eras Tour. Here, cinemas were turned into mini stadiums. Fans gathered to watch a tour that was hotly anticipated and sold out, singing the songs so loudly– to the detriment of other cinema goers.
Again, it was the recontextualization of the space that made the cinema attractive again. Perhaps the ongoing SAG-AFTRA and now resolved WAG strikes emphasised the loss of new releases – something Swift cleverly worked around with SAG’s consent, bypassing major studios to distribute it herself directly to the cinemas– showing how cinemas were a malleable tool, and an ever-synonymous source in providing audience enjoyment.
Of course, this isn’t the first-time people have released tour movies, and it isn’t the first time that cinemas have tried to change how they show films- with the introduction of IMAX screening experiences, HyperSense or the short-lived 3D cinema movement. IMAX especially is another physical change to watching a film. Seats move, water spits; it makes audiences’ spectatorship part of the film’s world building, similar to Barbenheimer’s marketing or being part of a fanbase.
These examples increasingly give viewers agency. With so many choices, what makes someone choose a certain thing? What makes your film, or your exhibition site, so different from the (almost infinite) others? These moments mentioned are individual-based, how viewers outside of studio monopolies find meaning in what they watch and where they watch it. Though it is outside of these power structures, businesses should take these questions; and take note.
I believe cinema will always be magical, as well as immortal
Watching a Film without the bells and whistles isn’t redundant, the need for added element isn’t the dominant need held by all audiences. I believe cinema will always be magical, as well as immortal. People find joys in immersing themselves in the storytelling, which is obviously the most important part; the foundational component that makes the ability for cinemas and audiences to be audiences possible.
Cinema-going isn’t the same as how your parents or grandparents did it. Cinemas were popularised in the first place because it took the classism and hegemony of theatre away – and turned it into a mass-produced mass-scale event that all could unite for – something new to the established order of what being an audience member once meant. The same applies here. The draw to what made film going and cinemas popular and special hasn’t changed in theory, it has just expanded in scale and options; options like genres, attractions and technology, which have also expanded.
If you want to sit and watch a film like a cinephile – in the classic way – it is just the same as partaking in new, immersive ways that revaluate the space. It is just another reiteration of watching. But it is a noteworthy case study as to how perhaps this is the gateway to get people back in cinema seats. The attention isn’t just on how cinemas can make different routes to tailor audience experiences, but also how this tailoring (or… in the case of The Eras Tour Movie– Tayloring) is another expression of love for cinema.
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