Cinema has been through the Spanish Flu pandemic so Covid-19 has produced a challenge for film exhibition that is comparable to other earlier pressures on cinemas. But, at the same time, this moment is historically distinctive explains Dr Julie Lobalzo Wright from Warwick’s Department of Film and TV Studies.
Throughout the history of cinema, the movie theatre has been under threat, whether from individuals moving away from city centre cinema palaces or the increasing popularity of television. More recently the rising cost of attending cinemas and our ability to recreate the cinema experience with home entertainment systems, have also had an impact and now there is a global pandemic which has shut cinema doors. But they have been there before.
A previous pandemic
Theatres in the United States were closed during the Spanish Flu in 1918-1919 for a few months, leading to the takeover of many independent exhibitors by American studios. This led to the vertically integrated system that dominated the Hollywood industry for decades wherein studios controlled every aspect of the industry (from production to distribution and exhibition) until the studios were forced to relinquish their ownership of theatres in the late 1940s and 1950s.
While this new pandemic shouldn’t restructure the entire industry in the same way as it did during the Spanish Flu, it is evident that studios and exhibitors are concerned about how to they will get audiences back into theatres, especially while the pandemic is ongoing.
From the mid-1970s onward, Hollywood has focused on big-budget, high-concept franchise cinema driven by visual and audio spectacles that necessitates an audience to receive films in the technologically superior cinema space - and with a crowd. At the same time, the more intimate home viewing experience has risen, first through home videos and, more recently, video-on-demand streaming services (most notably, Netflix and Amazon Prime).
Blockbusters will still pull an audience
Technology and community drive many audience members to the cinema - not only to experience films as intended by filmmakers (such as, in the correct aspect ratio and sound quality), but also to share the experience with others. It is unsurprising that last year's top grossing film was Avengers: Endgame, a franchise film that merged various fan bases through the multiple Marvel comic characters into an event film where audience members mourned the ending of The Avengers franchise.
These types of larger-than-life films will remain in the post-pandemic world as Hollywood continues to seek out proven material to delight established fan bases through large budget spectacles. Hollywood’s first international release into the cinemas was the eagerly awaited new Christopher Nolan film, Tenet, specifically made to be viewed in a theatrical presentation. It was met with mixed reviews and box office receipts. The fact that Hollywood did not follow this film up with any more major releases, even postponing the 25th James Bond film for the second time, indicates that these tent-pole releases are being held back for when they can truly cash in with cinemas open all over the world.
What will happen to smaller budget films?
More likely to be affected by the closing of cinemas will be the smaller budget films made for, what Hollywood considers, niche audiences. The streaming services have already become a space for independent, experimental, and small budget films to be seen, with Amazon and Netflix more active in acquiring distribution rights for films screened at film festivals. For example, Netflix acquired the worldwide rights for the transgender representation documentary, Disclosure, which screened at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, while Amazon acquired distribution rights to the science fiction film, The Vast of Night at last year’s Slamdance Film Festival (both films are currently streaming on their respective sites).
With more people at home due to lockdown, subscriptions to streaming sites have risen; however, the CEO of Netflix is cautious, noting that streaming content online will ease as countries (and cinemas) open back up. While guarded about these subscriber gains, Netflix and Amazon Prime have energetically strived to collapse the cinema exhibition window in recent years with many of their films released to cinemas and online either on the same day or within only a few weeks. For example, Netlfix's The Irishman had limited release in cinemas for three weeks before it premiered on the online service in 2019. It can be suggested that this has led to more individuals consuming diverse films beyond what is exhibited at the local cineplex; however, it cannot be ignored that viewers must possess a good internet connection to stream these productions, a luxury not everyone is afforded.
Films in cinema will remain big – smaller productions will seek an alternative home
There will be delays in content due to the industry-wide pause on productions that took place in March and April and the opening and then closing of cinemas this year. The film industry will endure, as it has done for over 130 years, but I expect that the divide between big and small budget films will continue, exacerbated by the desire for 'tent pole' productions in Hollywood that drive audiences to the cinema, while independent and experimental films will be relegated to online exhibition.
1 July 2020
Updated: 6 October 2020
Dr Julie Lobalzo-Wright is a teaching Fellow in Film & Television Studies. Her main research interests are in film stardom, popular music and cinema, musicals, masculinity in film, and animation.
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