There was once a time where film studios reigned supreme in their control of theatrical movie presentation. Many of the biggest names in Hollywood running prestigious theatre chains, ensuring their films reached the widest audience possible. However, by the early 1950s, the system that had helped create Hollywood was slowly dying. With a studio system in collapse as they grappled with the impact of TV, out of control movie budgets and a desire to create new content—many at the time forecasting the death of cinema. In turn, heralding in a new age where art deco theatres slowly and unfortunately became obsolete.
The effect of this was a rush to divide big theatres into multiple screens or ditch the existing structures in favour of smaller venues. Moving to a multiplex format, where auditoriums were attached to shopping centres and out of town developments. But even as it reinvented itself for a new age, questions remained over the long term viability of cinema—the VHS era, like the TV era before it threatening to dethrone the theatrical experience. But once again, cinema survived, just as it would through laserdisc, home theatres, DVD and Blu-Ray.
However, as COVID 19 hit, cinema experienced the biggest and most challenging crisis in its history. With projector lamps cold and auditoriums silent for the first time since the Second World War. Causing the equivalent of a cardiac arrest, with both studios and cinemas rushing to apply CPR. Their ability to adapt and change suddenly pulled into question as they struggled to find answers to their closure.
The shockwave that followed hit all cinemas no matter their size or delivery model, with independent cinemas hit by zero takings and little wriggle room in financial recovery. At the same time, larger chains closed their doors with little planning on keeping customers engaged. In fact, while independent screens suffered a considerable loss, they did adapt to ensuring their dedicated and passionate customer base remained at the heart of their work. In contrast, larger chains struggled to adjust their delivery model in embracing home entertainment and social media. For example, while Curzon 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 remained largely quiet, neither fully embracing new technology or their customers at a time of social change.
At the same time, studio distribution ground to a near halt, their most prized assets forced into hiatus. The distribution and theatrical presentation model collapsing into an ocean of doubt. However, many distributors excelled as they embraced streaming while ensuring a flow of new content, with Vertigo Releasing and many smaller distributors keeping audiences engaged. For some larger studios, this led to the once unthinkable move of straight to streaming. Most notably, Universal Pictures and Disney both choosing to premiere films online. While for others like Warner Bros. upcoming releases suffered delays, the result of which would be a nearly blank slate during 2020 except for Tenant and some more minor releases.
The new landscape has allowed streaming to flourish, the conveyor belt model of cinema embraced in the 1980s on life support as customers stayed at home. In fact, even as cinema’s slowly reopened with Tenant, box office takings remained subdued. But does that mean that the public has fallen out of love with cinema? The answer is no, even though the reset button has been pushed. And just as cinema has reinvented itself in the past, it must now reinvent itself for the future.
But what will this new model look like in practice? Well, one answer may involve looking to the past. Returning to the ‘experience’ led cinema of the 1930s and 40s. While, at the same time, embracing streaming technology. In turn, ensuring the foundations of the theatrical experience are embedded within the new online landscape. To achieve this, cinema’s should embrace access to Q&As, behind the scenes documentaries and interviews as part of the ticket price. At the same time, ensuring audiences can supplement their big-screen experience at home, both before and after a screening. While at the same time returning to a sense of escapism and wonder.
To achieve this, cinema must return to a model where experience and presentation trump large combo meals and small auditoriums. The big screen once again sitting at the heart of a cinematic journey, with large panoramic screens that eclipse the home. In addition to this, diversity must sit at the heart of choice, with cinema’s embracing the wealth of filmmaking talent on offer. This means more local cinema’s in town centres, more variety in programming, and an end to blockbusters occupying every screen in a cinema. It is essential to state the positive steps forward some cinema chains have already taken in recent years. With ODEON again investing in its crown jewels at Holloway, Swiss Cottage and Leicester Square. While at the same time, Curzon has continued to embrace a model that dovetails high presentation standards with online access.
Finally, as both studios and cinemas attempt to navigate the dangerous financial precipice before them, the future of cinema will also require them to work together. Embracing and supporting the creation of a more flexible theatrical window while ensuring theatres remain the premiere location for initial release. This will mean enhancing online access to materials that supplement the theatrical release of a film. While at the same time embracing a model that enhances the diversity of content reaching our screens.
The future may still be in flux, but the past offers some important lessons in ensuring the survival of the theatrical experience. The cinema once more standing proud within a local community, with enhanced customer service working alongside a love of film presentation. And when looking to a future where streaming and cinema co-exist, the importance of union will be paramount. Both media formats working together in ensuring success while also opening up a world of global film to new audiences.