Can cinema survive the pandemic?

Once upon time film studios reigned supreme in their control of theatrical movie presentation. With many of the biggest names in Hollywood owning prestigious theatres to ensure their films reached the largest audience possible. However, by the late 1940’s the system that had helped create Hollywood was slowly dying. As new laws in America came into place that instructed studios to dispose of the cinemas that they had once held dear. While here in the UK three major cinema operators dominated the market, ODEON, ABC and Granada. Each one tied to a media empire, from Rank to Associated British Pictures and Granada Television. Ensuring the link between entertainment, audience and filmmaking sat central to the cinema-going experience.

However, as cinema companies grew larger and the link between media, entertainment and theatrical presentation diminished. Many cinema chains found themselves brought by companies who had little interest in filmmaking or distribution. The need for financial profit finally placing the nail in the coffin of the large picture palace in favour of the cheaper multiplex. The link between directors, filmmakers and presentation extinguished by large combo meals and pick n mix.

In recent years, while large chains have continued to embrace the 1980s multiplex model with ever more elaborate gimmicks. There has also been a resurgence of independent cinema, where staff are passionate about film, presentation and customer experience. While equally ensuring diverse film programming, alongside a vibrant cafe culture. With companies like Curzon not only embracing the 1930s model of being both a cinema chain and distributor. But also combining this with streaming opportunities in the home.

As COVID 19 hit, the landscape of cinema experienced the biggest and most challenging crisis in its history. As projector lamps went cold and the cinema auditoriums fell silent for the first time since the Second World War. Causing the equivalent of a cinematic cardiac arrest, as both studios and cinemas rushed to apply CPR. Their ability to adapt and change suddenly pulled into question as they struggled to find answers to the immediate closure.

This shockwave has hit all cinemas no matter of their size or model of delivery. But it’s the big chains that have the most to lose, lacking the dedicated and passionate customer base of the smaller indie cinemas. While also lacking the ability to adapt and change their model to embrace home entertainment and social media. For example, while Curzon has used its innovative ‘Home Cinema’ platform for new films while providing cinema snacks through Uber Eats. And BFI brought film festivals into the living room with ‘Flare at Home’. ODEON, Cineworld and Vue have remained quiet, neither embracing new technology or their customers at a time of social change.

While for studios distribution ground to a halt, their most prized upcoming assets forced into hiatus. As the distribution and theatrical presentation model suddenly collapsed. The reliance on the big beasts of the cinema circuit suddenly proving a huge weakness. As they pondered the best way to continue earning revenue with cinema doors closed. For some, this led to the once unthinkable move of straight to streaming. Most notably Universal Pictures, who chose to premiere ‘Trolls World Tour‘ online. While for others like Disney some upcoming releases such as Artemis Foul found themselves shifted to Disney +. But despite this, many studios and filmmakers remain committed to the big screen. The often turbulent relationship between cinemas and studios essential in the survival of the wider industry.

However, just as cinemas and studios should be working together through the crisis. AMC/ODEON and Cineworld declared a ban on Universal films once cinemas reopened. Their understandable anger and frustration at straight to streaming masking the much bigger issues facing the future of cinema. While publicly pulling into question whether the current model of theatrical presentation, distribution and filmmaking are any longer fit for purpose. Meanwhile smaller independent cinemas and chains have got on with the job of celebrating film while adapting to a new landscape. Their passion for filmmaking and celebration of filmmakers shining just as brightly in lockdown.

In this new landscape one thing is beyond doubt, the conveyor belt model of cinema embraced in the 1980s must change. But that does not mean cinema is over? The answer is no, even though the reset button has been pushed. meaning cinemas and studios must find a new way of working together; both learning from the past and embracing the future. In turn, combining the glory days of the 30s and 40s cinema experience with modern streaming technology. By using the home as a gateway to the big screen theatrical experience. While also ensuring that diversity in programming pulls in new audiences and new voices in filmmaking.

In order to achieve this our model of cinema entertainment will need to once more embrace the wonder of the 1930s picture palace. Where cinemas stood proud in local communities, providing an escape from the real world. By combining luxurious and affordable big-screen entertainment with live performances, documentaries, kids clubs and more. However, this model will also need to embrace the home streaming market by allowing customers access to live Q&As, behind the scenes documentaries and interviews both before and during a film’s release. Rebuilding the relationship between studios, distributors and cinemas for a modern age. With a love and passion for film sitting at the heart of every cinema visit. Something independent cinemas and small chains fully understand and should be supported in developing further by the studios who benefit.

As both studios and cinemas attempt to navigate the dangerous financial precipice before them. The future of cinema will require them to work together, while also embracing and supporting the creation of more flexible independent cinemas/theatres and localised services. Putting aside their differences in searching for new and innovative ways of ensuring the survival of cinema. And while the future may still be in flux, the past offers some important lessons in making this a reality. By once again embracing the theatrical big screen experience, through companies that live and breath film.


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