If you go by the legend, the first public film screening took place in Paris on December 28 1895, in the cellar of the Grand Café. The famed Lumière Brothers sold tickets on the door to thirty-two unsuspecting Parisians, who reportedly screamed in terror during Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat as the train hurtled towards the camera. The screening was over in a scant twenty minutes but the shaken attendees were “speechless, surprised and indescribably amazed.” History had been made. If you ignore the legend, in reality no one thought the train was going to run them over, the terror is a persistent urban legend. Even more damningly, it wasn’t even the first public film screening. A rival sibling duo, a couple of Germans with the unfortunate name of Skladanowsky, had beaten the Lumières to the punch by almost two months with a screening on November 1st. Unfortunately, the Skladanowsky camera was no great shakes compared to the Lumières’ and thanks to canny marketing the Skladnowskys were squeezed out of history in favour of the neater story that the winning model was the original. From the very first, filmmakers understood that the truth can never be allowed to get in the way of a good story.
Whilst 2015 saw a whole plethora of events take place in homage, last year saw no celebrations for the 125th anniversary of the Lumière screening thanks to that plucky little virus COVID rendering 2020 a cultural (and occasionally literal) wasteland. In a world overflowing with industries decimated by the realities of lockdown, few have been hit as hard as cinemas. Hollywood, already reeling from the streaming explosion of the last decade, turned tail and ran after Christopher Nolan’s Tenet, the prophesied saviour of the cinematic experience in the pandemic, brought crushingly low commercial and critical returns. Rather than blame the fact that Tenet was impenetrable dreck, film studios panicked and delayed their entire slate of upcoming blockbusters till the end of 2021. This meant that even when cinemas were able to open their doors, during that halcyon if doomed period between lockdowns, they had nothing available to screen apart from bargain-basement Liam Neeson actioners or bizarre failures like New Mutants which the studios were eager to put out whilst no-one was paying attention. As a result, most cinemas were a ghost town during the brief periods that their doors weren’t chained up.
Even before the pandemic there was much stroking of beards over the future of the cinema experience. The profit margins had already declined to the point where cinemas clawed most of their profits out of the eye-wateringly overpriced concessions available. But thanks to the vertiginous drop in profits massive chains like Regal and Cineworld have effectively battened down the hatches by laying off thousands of staff and desperately praying that they can ride out the pandemic without going completely bankrupt. Industry pessimists have been prophesying the death of cinema since television became widely available in the fifties, but between the shift to streaming and the unprecedented losses of the pandemic the future of cinemas is looking bleak.
Or at least it’s looking bleak for the Western market; on New Year’s Day China saw box office revenue hit a new record as moviegoers flocked to cinemas across the mainland. Ticket sales hit a record high of £65,748,260 (with the previous Chinese New Year’s day record back in 2015 a distant £39,354,645). Of course, China has been ahead of the curve in reopening it’s economy thanks to getting an early handle on COVID, but still these numbers show that the already crucial Chinese market is going to be ever more on film studios’ minds. The only issue is that China only allows a small number of non-Chinese films to be screened per year and has a long list of topics, including depictions of homosexuality, which will see a film either aggressively censored or banned altogether. Already Hollywood have been shying away from producing content that might offend China; expect this tendency to skyrocket.
As a result of the sudden abyss opening beneath Hollywood’s feet, the Cold War between streaming services like Netflix and established film conglomerates has shifted. In the impossibly distant pre-COVID world the cinema industry would fight tooth and nail over release windows (the amount of time between when a film is released in the cinema and when it could be released on home entertainment). In the US the release window is 70 days, a number already shaved down greatly from Hollywood’s heyday and rabidly guarded. However, there are signs that the realities of the pandemic are seeing cinemas willingly sacrifice it: in July 2020, a historic deal between Universal and American Multi-Cinema saw the 70-day window cut to just 17 days with the companies agreeing an undisclosed profit-sharing deal. If this is a harbinger for the industry rather than a one-off it’s possible the post-COVID film world will see an influx of short windows or “day-and-date” releases (meaning audiences can see a film at home the same day as in the cinemas) for most new films. You’ll likely be able to see a new release online or on a streaming service on opening day, just with a large premium compared to the cinema ticket price.
Of course, even if the majority of cinemas were to trade away their release window privileges, it wouldn’t matter if they have to shutter their doors thanks to good old-fashioned bankruptcy. If they were already struggling before COVID, isn’t it possible that a large majority will simply close down for good, leaving the few remaining cinemas as quaint nostalgic cul-de-sacs? There is another possibility: that cinemas return to their studio-owned roots. As chains fail, studios such as Disney or Amazon could buy them out for full vertical integration. The US Justice Department recently overturned the 1948 ‘Paramount Consent Decrees’ that outlawed just this kind of corporate behaviour, so it would be entirely possible to see cinemas reimagined as primarily content showcases.
Whatever the outcome, it seems unlikely that cinema is going to be able to bounce back in a way that is seamless with what came before. However, even in a worst-case scenario that sees cinemas closing left and right, movies are going to be just fine. From the content-hungry streaming producers to ever growing foreign markets, the demand for film isn’t going anywhere. It’s just the way we watch them that’s subject to change.
Just over 125 years ago 32 people sat in front of a sheet in the basement of a Parisian café and were left speechless and awed by the recreation of an oncoming train. The cinema experience is a wonderful thing, but the death of cinema wouldn’t be the death of film, it would just be going back to its roots.