A cinema programmer on the changes 2020 has brought to the industry – and why change may now be a good thing.

On the evening of March 23rd 2020, Prime Minister Boris Johnson delivered a televised address telling the people of Great Britain to stay at home to combat the spread of COVID-19.

In the early hours of March 24th 2020, the new streaming service Disney Plus launched in the United Kingdom.

Two events which seem quite separate on the face of it – yet those 24 hours will likely have an impact on the UK cinema industry that will resonate for years.

On the very morning that the world’s largest entertainment conglomerate launched its long-in-the-works streaming service, the people of the UK were experiencing the first few hours of a nationwide lockdown. A lockdown forcing them to stay in their homes and soon look for ways to entertain themselves and their families. And what better way than to do that than by signing up to a new streaming service featuring some of the most widely loved and popular films ever made, from Pixar to Star Wars to Marvel?

It sounds intensely cynical to say it in the face of a global pandemic that has killed over a million people, but the higher-ups at Disney couldn’t have asked for a better launch date in the UK. They were gifted a literal captive audience. And whilst it might seem flippant to worry about the state of the entertainment industry considering what’s happening elsewhere in the world right now, the rise of streaming and the challenges it brings to cinemas have a real world effect, one which could affect livelihoods in the world of film exhibition.

The onset of online streaming and its impact on cinemas has been furiously debated over the past few years, as companies like Netflix, Amazon and now Disney have battled for dominance of the streaming and digital download market.

More and more material is becoming available online, and the feted ‘theatrical window’ – whereby films are given a specific amount of time to screen at cinemas before they’re made available for home viewing – has been getting shorter and shorter.

A whole generation has been brought up with movies and TV shows available on their phones, an ease of convenience that has people wondering whether cinemas will become yesterday’s news.

And now the pandemic has come along to potentially speed up that process even further, as major distributors look for other ways to recoup their investment with the usual avenue of cinema screenings not currently available, what with multiplexes closing their doors and audiences wary of venturing into enclosed spaces with others.

At this point, it’s worth disclosing that the person writing this article has a vested interest in all of this.

As the cinema programmer of the Midlands Arts Centre (MAC) in Birmingham, I have an insider’s view of recent events in the world of film exhibition, as well as a commitment to cinema that comes from obsessing about movies since I was a teenager. As it slowly dawned on me in mid-March that the cinema I programme was about to be closed for a very long time, a barrage of thoughts went through my head and an avalanche of online negativity about the industry left me worried not only for MAC cinema’s future, but the future of cinemas themselves.

But that was March, which feels like a lifetime ago. Now we are nestled in the ‘new normal’, and there has been plenty of time to take stock of things.

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Christopher Nolan’s Tenet was the first major release to hit cinemas during the pandemic and either did very well or rather poorly, depending upon who you ask. Live action adaptation Mulan skipped cinemas, went directly to Disney Plus and either did very well or rather poorly, again depending upon who you ask. Saint Maud took advantage of a quiet release schedule to do very well indeed, and that’s according to everyone you ask.

And as I look at how the traditional model of film exhibition has crumbled, how the theatrical window has practically disappeared and how the old way of doing things has been crushed into the dirt in just a few short months, I think to myself…

…it’s about time.

In all honesty, everyone in the cinema industry knew this day was coming. Nobody knew it was coming so quickly, but we all knew that the landscape was shifting. The pandemic was the fault line crack that brought the house of cards tumbling down.

The system was broken already, and there’s no bigger signifier of that than the entire Cineworld chain choosing to close its doors in October largely because the new James Bond film was being delayed until next year. How can the fate of one bloated multi-million dollar spy movie be the deciding factor in a chain of multiplexes choosing to close? It’s almost pathetic. There were likely other aspects at play, but make no mistake – Bond was seen as the ‘saviour’ of cinemas, and Cineworld had its hopes pinned on it.

But if your entire business model is wrapped up in the release of a single film, and you can’t even fathom a future without it, then there’s something very rotten in Denmark.

As the Marvel and Star Wars films have spilled out of Hollywood, multiplex cinemas have relied more and more on the billion dollar blockbusters. They are seen as ‘sure things’ and thus a guarantee that you can fill all of those cavernous screens. But when cinemas are so reliant on so very few titles, the balance shifts too far. The focus is on the top end of the scale, with no room for smaller films or even mid-range titles. Everything else gets shunted aside to make way for the big hitters, and that’s not a system that can survive in perpetuity.

It’s a system destined for catastrophe.

The cinema industry has to once again adapt in the face of great change, and yes, there will be casualties. The current landscape in the UK will look very different in a few years’ time. Those at the top need to radically revise how they see ‘day and date’ releases (films released in cinemas and online simultaneously), and start to live with the fact that streaming is here to stay.

They need to be more adventurous and maybe swallow a few financial hits in order to restructure their business model, because the day will most certainly come when Disney just decides to bypass cinemas entirely with its latest Marvel movie, and then where will the industry be?

Let’s be clear, though – streaming is not the death of cinema. Whether SVOD, PVOD or just good old fashioned VOD, the two worlds can live together. But once the pandemic has relented, cinemas need to innovate and not just expect audiences to come out regardless.

The competition is tougher than ever. I write as somebody fully aware that I am in a luckier position than many, programming a single screen indie cinema at a nationally renowned arts centre. I don’t have to fill 20 screens. I just need to fill the one, and audiences certainly don’t come to us for Star Wars films. But there are lessons for the bigger cinemas to learn from indie cinemas like the one I programme.

We have a loyal audience who want a curated programme, a cinema that has a voice and wants to hear the voices of the people who buy tickets. We strive to make audiences feel like film-lovers, not consumers on a pie chart. Make their experience a worthwhile one and they will return, something proven again and again.

Cinemas can serve an important post-pandemic role in the time of streaming, and to my mind, that role was hinted at by last year’s BFI release of the film Bait.

A fascinating and hard-to-describe British film about the gentrification of Cornwall that had a very limited marketing budget to work with, Mark Jenkin’s Bait would have been completely lost in the endless menu scroll of a Netflix or Amazon Prime.

Yet put on a pedestal in indie cinemas across the country who shone a spotlight on its brilliant eccentricities, Bait became a sleeper hit that invited packed houses, which simultaneously gave it a cachet that ensured Jenkin and his production company could get a far better streaming deal after its theatrical release.

Cinemas need to learn from that.

We can give focus and attention to these kinds of unique films – push them forward in the crowd and give them a chance.

Risky? Perhaps, but risk is more necessary than ever. We need to make cinemas an inviting proposition to both filmmakers and distributors – highlighting the care and attention cinemas can provide to their films, as opposed to offering them up to the mystical Netflix algorithm and hoping for the best.

Of course, cinemas rely on the support of distributors, whether that be major movers like Warner Bros, smaller outfits like Dogwoof or those in between like Studiocanal. Without films, cinemas are just buildings with chairs in, so any amount of innovation is only effective with the support of distributors. And there will be those who eventually come to see cinemas as secondary to streaming, likely the bigger dogs in the hunt, such as Disney. Nothing we do can change that.

But there will also be those who still see the huge benefits of cinemas, both financially and culturally. Companies like Altitude and Signature have been supplying fresh films during the pandemic to help keep cinemas afloat, even as restrictive government guidelines force cinemas to constantly open and close. Their commitment has allowed more exposure to smaller films which might otherwise have been lost in the noise of a jam-packed release schedule.

As for audiences, some people will be forever happy to watch films at home, seeing the pandemic as a chance to double down on that attitude. You will never get those people into cinemas, and it’s a waste of time to try. But there are plenty of people who want to venture out in the evening, to immerse themselves in a new world, and to share an experience with other people. And that includes younger people, many of whom are too often written off as fixated on their iPhone screens. Just because the younger generation have plenty more options about how to watch something, doesn’t mean they’ve written off cinemas completely, and it also doesn’t mean they don’t understand what cinemas can offer.

As we face the challenges of 2021, when cinemas reopen and begin rebuilding audiences, we stand at a fork in the road. We can try and hang onto the old methods of doing things and face extinction, or we can think inventively and embrace reinvention.

Change has been forced upon all of us – but the truth is, for the cinema industry, change was always coming.

But rather than herald our destruction, change can be the making of us.

Select images from BigStock

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