2020 has been a shit hammer of a year for cinema. Fuck, it might spell some kind of End. That outsized canvas upon which the dreams of the world’s most imaginative visual artists are thrown could be in jeopardy. The tea leaves may spell D-O-O-M for the boys and girls of the silver screen.
A yearly comparison of global box office receipts paints a high contrast picture with politically unsettling overtones. The top three hit movies of 2019 were Avengers: Endgame ($2.8b), The Lion King ($1.7b), and Frozen II ($1.5b).
2020? The Eight Hundred ($461m), Bad Boys for Life ($427m), and Tenet ($362m).
Nothing comes close to breaking a billion. Shit, nothing is close to half a billion. That’s to be expected. The theatres were closed—weren’t they? But what, you ask, is The Eight Hundred, sitting atop the global box office as the year is drawing to a close?
Well, it’s an "epic war film" set in 1937, following brave Chinese soldiers fighting tooth and nail while under siege, surrounded by Japanese invaders. So, yeah… it’s kind of a nationalistic Chinese propaganda war film? It took $460m of its $461m in China, where it opened in August.
Christopher Nolan’s Tenet, the biggest thing to come out of Hollywood since the pandemic took hold, didn’t come close to that, despite expectations that it would perform well in almost every major market around the world. The traditionally vibrant film markets around the world have been near-silent.
The machine that makes Hollywood magic needs tens and hundreds of millions of dollars to get moving, and is not going to be fed those dollars until studios see a bustling market with an appetite for fresh produce they can release into. For now, streaming platforms are the only such market, which means more deals like the one Warner Bros. just struck, to simultaneously release 2021 films in theatres and on HBO Max, may be inevitable.
By the time the fog of pandemic has cleared and people are free to visit cinemas as before, a couple things might be gone: the same desire in the public to go, and theatres with a constant supply of desirable, exclusive content. If that's the case, cinema could be no more likely to return to its previous cultural status than videogame arcades were in the mid-1990s, after home consoles had passed the requisite threshold to provide, for many, a viable alternative in the home.
For gaming, that threshold was when console games went 3D, and the versions of arcade games being released at home became close enough that arcades could no longer enact the same pull on players they once could—a pull strong enough to get them out of their homes and traveling to arcades to pump coins into machines. Arcades still offered a vastly superior experience, but no longer one without comparison.
For film, a similar threshold, where movies in the home would offer enough of what makes people go to the cinema, might be reached when new films are released on streaming platforms and theatres at around the same time. Viewing technology is a factor, too. Cinema essentially offers every person who can afford a ticket the best screen and sound money can buy. It’s an everyman art form. That gap is closing, though. These days, everyman has a pretty sweet TV in his living room.
If cinema can't return to the status it held in Pre-COVID Times, it will occupy the same space, more or less, as the theatre and other performance arts that revolve around sitting in a chair watching something.
And that might be fine: but it sure as shit changes the formula for success. Generic spaces with seats and screens won't cut it. Cinemas have already anticipated that being the case, with reclining & rumbling chairs, 3D, fancier food options, etc. The pandemic may just accelerate something that was already happening, kicking off a reinvention that would have been necessary, sooner or later.
What possible, unseen configurations could the medium of cinema take? It is the most sweeping, all-encompassing art form around. The projection of storytelling, or literally anything that can be seen and/or heard, onto large screens. On a basic level, cinema is something that cannot die—though, as the films of authoritarian regimes have historically shown, its cultural role can be politicised and perverted. It is primal. Our latest version of projecting shadows onto the cave wall, people crowded round the fire, after the sun has set.
The timing for a major reinvention would be interesting. Filmmaking skills are, more and more, becoming The Subject of Choice amongst autodidacts, much like coding skills have been for the last two decades. Content Creator is becoming the buzz word of a new generation, and filmmaking lies at the heart of it all. As the number of filmmakers around increases, financial barriers of entry fall as technology improves, and platforms like YouTube become increasingly omnipresent, the production and consumption of video content is going to sky rocket. It's going to mushroom cloud.
Cinema, at heart, is simply video content selected for special presentation.
The possibilities are as vast as the video dream machine could be expected to proffer. Imagine a new wave of small, independent, uniquely-furnished theatres, each catering to its own audience, playing an ever-shifting selection of brilliant, obscure films, both from the past & present, with live introductions from filmmakers & cineastes. Short films from local artists, playing in theatres where you might never be able to see them again, book-ending a meal. Cinemas as video mixtape curators, cultural meeting points. Venues of unique presentations that you cannot find elsewhere, even if they are published on one of the various channels and platforms online, because so much content will be lost in the noise. Cinema as something hyper local, independent. A level of special presentation all filmmakers can aim for. A lofty but achievable dream lying above the endless, undistinguished oceans of content on YouTube and Vimeo, but without the need to strike global distribution deals with Netflix or Amazon.
There are soon going to be more "good or great" new movies made each year than can be seen by any viewer. Presentation will need to change, and cinemas should be at the centre of it all, as reliable, knowledgeable, specialised curators of film.
In the 1940s the forced sale of US theatres, which had been owned by the studios themselves, led to the end of the old Hollywood system, out of which came the New Hollywood and a fresh, more independent-spirited kind of filmmaking. Some of the most creative and exciting films ever made. It’s now odd to consider the alternative, where cinema kept on with the old traditions that had governed it for decades.
The pandemic might spell an end to cinema as we know it. A new change of equal import, with equally exciting possibilities, could also be afoot.
This post is also available on Medium.