Artillery Row

Is this the end of cinemagoing as we know it?

Will compulsory face-masks, social-distancing and an air of paranoia drive audiences to online streaming once and for all?

In a parallel and rather more welcome world, last weekend would have seen the second frame of release of Christopher Nolan’s new film Tenet. The hugely anticipated blockbuster would have been expected to have made a vast amount of money upon its opening, but as ever with Nolan’s films, word-of-mouth and sustained excitement would have been expected to drive continued box office success for weeks and months afterwards. Yet despite Nolan’s avowed intent to stick to his original release date of July 17 for the film, the consistent spread of covid-19 throughout America and its major cities has meant that virtually all cinemas continue to be shut. Thus, Tenet and every other significant film that should have been released this summer, autumn and winter, have been delayed indefinitely.

At the beginning of the pandemic, it was generally believed that the whole miserable saga could be wrapped up in around three months, and that Hollywood would still be able to have its hugely lucrative summer blockbuster season, albeit with a couple of alterations: the James Bond film No Time To Die was delayed until November, for instance, after the studio rejected a panicked idea to rush-release it early at the end of February. Now, however, it seems unlikely that any major mainstream film will be released in American cinemas for months, meaning that 2020 could well be the year that sees the complete cessation of the cinemagoing experience. Even as studios bump their expensive products to far-away dates – summer 2021 will be a particularly strange experience, as films held over from this spring will be jostling for space with pictures that have completed their lengthy post-production schedules in time for their planned release – there is a single question that every exhibitor is asking: will people ever want to come back to the cinema?

One can hardly blame the average film aficionado for deciding to skip going to the cinema and waiting for films to appear on Netflix or similar video on demand services

The last film I saw in public, at the Curzon in Oxford, was Parasite in early February. I have therefore not entered a cinema in nearly six months: the longest period that I can recall in my life that I have not done so. Theoretically, I could have visited my local film theatre at any time from July 4, when the government decreed that they might open once again, but none of them are operating, thanks to the paucity of new pictures to show. My nearest Picturehouse cinema, the Phoenix, is theoretically planning to show films again from this Friday, when Tenet was originally delayed to, but I suspect that its owners will be less than desperate to incur the expense and effort of reopening when the major attractions will be re-runs of old films and an Eva Green drama called Proxima. And for those intrepid moviegoers who are desperate to once again sit in the dark and watch something wonderful unfold on the big screen before their eyes, it will be a less than happy experience, thanks to compulsory masks, social distancing and the general, lurking air of paranoia that will persist in any public space amongst strangers. One can hardly blame the average film aficionado for deciding to skip going to the cinema and waiting for films to appear on Netflix or similar video on demand services.

Yet, with directors like Nolan insisting on the primacy of the cinema-going experience, a problem has arisen. If the likes of Tenet do not open, there will be absolutely no incentive for the average person to venture to their local independent or multiplex, which means in turn that they will find themselves without any means of financial support. Lucrative food and drink offerings such as the immense tubs of popcorn, suspiciously rubbery hot dogs and Titanic-sized barrels of Diet Coke that are de rigueur in many of the nation’s cinemas have not been on offer for months, and probably will not be at any point in the future. Their pick and mix stands sit empty and forlorn, free from grabbing childish (and adult) hands and garishly coloured bits of sugar and gelatine. It is extremely likely that, come the autumn or winter, many cinemas – independent and chain alike – will simply be unable to reopen, meaning that, even if one wanted to watch Tenet, there would be no opportunity to do so. Film studios are then faced with the necessity of releasing their expensive and high-profile products via video on demand services, and taking a huge financial loss as piracy cuts into their opportunity to make money out of them.

Yet there is another issue, too. Until a few years ago, the primacy of America in any film distribution pattern was taken as read. Pictures would be released there first, allowed to screen for weeks, even months, and then there would be a belated worldwide release thereafter. The advent of piracy and spoiler culture on the internet largely put a stop to this, but it would still be an exceptionally rare film that would have any kind of major international launch before it appeared in the United States. Even the odd nod to local sensibilities, such as the James Bond films traditionally being released in Britain a week or so before they made their journey across the Atlantic, was designed as much with an eye on staging high-profile premieres and publicity opportunities in two major markets with breathing space between them as it was an attempt to reward the domestic audience for their fidelity to their much-loved characters.

With American filmgoing now in disarray, it is China that has become the largest international market for cinema: a neat summary of the global situation that we seem to be about to enter into. The film Peninsula recently made $21 million on its release in China, while the most high-profile recent American opening, The Rental with Dan Stevens, made a distinctly unimpressive $421,000 from 251 cinemas. And so, with the once-mighty US market in the doldrums, filmmakers are trying to come up with previously unthinkable solutions. A desperate Warner Bros, Nolan’s studio of choice, are apparently mulling releasing Tenet in markets that are thought to be robust enough to respond warmly to it, including Britain, France, Spain and Asia – although the recent soar in coronavirus cases in Spain might well put a stop to that particular country being allowed their treats – and using them as test cases before a planned American release at some point this year, if such a thing should be possible.

The obvious reason why such an action seems wildly foolhardy is that, within a matter of a few hours of Tenet’s release, there will be a full and detailed plot summary available on Wikipedia, closely followed by low-quality pirated versions of it appearing on a number of shady websites. Given that Nolan’s central aim in marketing his films is to give away as little as possible, this would be anathema to him, and one can see that it would undoubtedly damage its financial success. Yet the alternative – an online simultaneous release worldwide – is also entirely unacceptable. Nolan, who makes a virtue out of filming his grand blockbuster spectacles with IMAX cameras and who insists that they should be seen on the largest screens imaginable, is caught between a rock and a hard place, just as international exhibitors are. Either way, it seems that a significant financial hit is inevitable.

Nolan is caught between a rock and a hard place, just as international exhibitors are

Yet if the film is released in Europe and Asia long before it appears in America, and it is a commercial success, it will represent a course correction to traditional ideas of film distribution. Already, foreign markets have proved far more lucrative; Nolan’s 2014 science fiction film Interstellar ended up with a considerable total gross of $677 million, of which $188 million came from its American release and nearly half a billion arose from its overseas distribution. There is even the possibility for a critically reviled film that has flopped in America, such as Duncan Jones’s video game adaptation Warcraft, to be partially or wholly rescued by a strong international performance and end up successful. The all-important Chinese market, it would appear, is one less concerned with excellent reviews and thought-provoking thematic material and more with grand spectacle and special effects-laden excitement. One could argue that American cinema, with its endless parade of superhero films, has been going that way for some time, but we may now be at a point where what we have traditionally seen as the intrinsic merits of film are no longer considered as important as they have been.

In a truly dystopian future, we may be about to see the end of cinema as we know it, replaced by a mixture of straight-to-Netflix pictures of hugely varying degrees of quality and occasional hugely expensive blockbusters that are designed for exhibition on vast IMAX screens. If there are no other cinemas for people to go to, because they have all closed due to financial pressures, there will be little point in making the kind of interesting and unusual pictures that, still, make it into public distribution now and again. Filmmakers will adapt, especially with the apparently limitless budgets that streaming services now boast; nobody would argue that Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman or Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma were in any way compromised by being distributed primarily through Netflix, though Scorsese, ever the cinema purist, insisted on and obtained a theatrical release for his film. But in the future, such a desire might well be an impossibility.

Like so much else in the world of arts, culture and entertainment, the ‘new normal’ that we seem to be on the verge of enduring is a poorer and more depressing version of reality. Let us hope, then, that Tenet does manage to escape into cinemas and that, if it is a success, it gives the entire beleaguered industry a much-needed shot of adrenaline in these grim and disappointing times.

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