As we approach the anniversary of COVID-19 reaching pandemic status, Caragh Medlicott recounts the reasons to be optimistic about cinema’s ability to outlast the current health crisis and recapture our imagination when movie theatres finally reopen.
When I was thirteen years old, I got my foot stuck in a fold-down chair at my local cinema. It was a school inset day, and a group of us had trotted into town to catch a viewing of that immortal, cinematic classic… The House Bunny. As it turned out, releasing my foot was something of an ordeal; one of my baby-pink Converses had to be removed, two friends humiliatingly tried to crane-lift me from above, and a bag of overflowing popcorn got spilled in the mayhem. Luckily for our fellow cinema-goers, we’d arrived before the trailers had even started playing.
I’m not trying to say that getting your foot stuck is synonymous with – or even common to – the cinematic experience. But, it is true that for most of us the cinema is an event. There’s ceremony to it; chocolate stuffed into bulging coat pockets, extra large buckets of popcorn and teeth-rotting bags of Pick ‘n’ Mix. And it’s not just the food and supersize Tango Ice Blasts, either. Cinema has seen me through many phases of my life – from hyperactive kids’ parties to nervous hand-holding on teenage dates. It’s versatile; as apt to be popular on a rainy Sunday afternoon as it is on New Year’s Eve or Valentine’s Day.
It has also weathered a lot of adversity.
Classical Hollywood cinema first got started over a hundred years ago in the early 1910s. In so many ways, it couldn’t have kicked off at a worse time. The first half of the twentieth century just didn’t stop coming; World War I, the Spanish Flu Pandemic, the Great Depression and World War II followed one after the other like epochal dominos. And yet, against the odds, it was the magic of the movies which came out swinging, trailblazing the ‘Golden Age’ which embedded cinema into the fabric of our culture.
Or did it? It’s true that people have been foretelling cinema’s demise for a long time. The would-be usurpers – television, VCR and streaming services – have popped up every few decades like a continual game of whack-a-mole. Yet no contemporary event has been so successful in derailing the big screen’s reign as the coronavirus pandemic. Last October, the further postponement of the latest James Bond film led to Cineworld, the world’s second largest cinema chain, temporarily closing its doors. This news came after a tumbleweed summer period; despite many cinemas attempting to reopen safely, the dearth of major blockbusters (which had all been invariably postponed), paired with general public disease, predictably spelled disaster.
Now, nearly one year on from COVID-19 reaching pandemic status, we’re still far from a return to the cinema days of yore. Most of the interim solutions – such as simultaneous cinema/streaming releases – compromise the first-dibs policy which has long given cinema its edge. The sad irony is that, prior to the pandemic, the box office was booming; 2019 was a record-breaking year for cinemas across Europe. In the time since, the streaming world has only tightened its grip, and a diversification of the platforms available has heated competition and led to more entertainment brands vying for our attention than ever before.
There is cause for concern. Putting general financial challenges aside, even if cinema does make it out of hibernation, will there still be an appetite for it? The arguments against hinge on the altered behaviour of the general public. If anything, our entertainment addiction has only intensified in lockdown months. It’s not just our hours of streaming which have increased, but our tendency to juggle multiple screens at once. Maybe our fractured, itty-bitty attention spans are just too flimsy to carry the weight of a one-sitting feature length film? Maybe trudging out of the house and paying for a single viewing of something we could watch in our dressing gown is too much like effort? Maybe the pandemic has sped up cinema’s inevitable decline in the face of streaming? Maybe, maybe, maybe… but I doubt it.
The pandemic has taught us many things about ourselves, one of the primary lessons being that we are pack animals. Even the most introverted of us (and I count myself in those ranks) have withered and yearned without the opportunity to see friends and family. And it’s not just about the people we know, either. It’s the broader sense of community generated in public spaces. The buzz you get sitting in a crowded movie theatre, laughing and reeling in sync with the audience surrounding you; that vibrating, intangible thing which draws humans like a moth to a flame: atmosphere.
Of course, we’re drawn by the films themselves, too, but those extra little glints of drama – a giant screen, blaring surround sound and adjacent audience members munching on nachos – give cinema viewings a lot more flair than watching Netflix in your jim-jams. Last year, researchers from University College London found that attending the cinema can count as a form of ‘light cardio’. We’re not imagining the heightened potency of a film enjoyed under the projector lights – it’s something we’re experiencing on a physical level. If anything, that all-consuming escape from the continual ding!-ding!-ding! of our notifications is something we’re craving now more than ever.
Naturally, good films can also be enjoyed at home. There’s no doubt about that. But just as home cooked meals don’t negate the need for restaurants, both experiences can peacefully coexist. Cinema is an art form, it’s no surprise that it blossoms and blooms in front of an audience. As it happens, my optimism for the future of cinema is in good company. Writing for Empire, Steven Spielberg says: ‘Of all the things that have the potential to unite us, none is more powerful than the communal experience of the arts.’
We might have to wait a little longer to see it brought to fruition, but I have no doubt that our itching to regroup in front of the big screen – whether for a hearty indie flick or junk food blockbuster – will outlast this pandemic as surely as we will. We’ve just got to keep our enthusiasm rolling.
Caragh Medlicott is a Wales Arts Review senior editor.