On an isolated island in the North Sea, one cinema goer will sit alone in a lighthouse, watching films. As a statement on the impact of COVID-19 on cinema, Göteborg Film Festival have captured the sense of desolation, but also of innovation, that cinemas across the globe are experiencing. The ecosystem of film distribution, whereby visual art is packaged for an audience and exhibited in a physical space, is perceived as being under threat. In recent days we have seen the new Bond film pushed back further. But with programmes like Göteborg’s seven-day event on the windswept rocks of Pater Noster, there is a break in the tempest that points the way to a new model of sustainability for cinema.
The potential for traditional cinema-going to recover ground has been obscured by the alarm over the continuing delays surrounding blockbuster studio pictures. Even superspy James Bond has not found its way back and the latest entry in the franchise, No Time To Die, is subject to further disruption from the pandemic we could see Bond’s latest outing released as late as October as announced.
To compound this, the largest cinema chain operators in the UK, #Cineworld and #Picturehouse, announced in October 2020 that they were closing their venues, for the second time that year, until further notice. Without physical spaces to screen films, the sustainability of cinema for public engagement appears to be endangered.
Streaming services have sought such an opening to continue their disruption of the traditional release model. Netflix debuted big budget studio pictures such as Michael Showalter’s The Lovebirds and Aaron Sorkin’s The Trial of the Chicago 7, which were originally slated for cinematic release in 2020. Disney’s #Mulan was premiered on the company’s own streaming channel, Disney Plus, rather than distributed through cinema venues. This has proved the start of Disney choosing to bypass cinemas in favour of its own streaming platform.
Christopher Nolan’s much-anticipated time-bending sci fi thriller #Tenet did receive a cinema release in 2020 but that was during the easing of lockdown restrictions and may well have experienced the same delays as No Time To Die if it had required a later release date. As to Tenet’s box office success, its $350 million global gross is considered by studios to be underwhelming though, given the general lack of confidence in audiences to return to cinemas, Nolan argues this is a fair return. He refers to a “new reality” in cinema exhibition and it is here where streaming services have seen an opportunity to make their mark.
Streaming services have offered studios a place to screen their films as cinemas remain closed. Yet there is a reluctance from Hollywood to eschew the big screen experience altogether and the progression towards a dual-platform release of their films is an expected trend for 2021. For example, Warner Bros announced that all seventeen of their theatrically released films this year will also be screened on streaming platforms simultaneously. Titles such as The Matrix 4, Dune, Godzilla vs Kong and Judas and The Black Messiah will all debut on HBO Max in line with their cinema premiere date.
Netflix, ever challenging the established ecosystem, released several of their own productions to cinemas during December 2020. The films included David Fincher’s Mank and August Wilson’s Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom. Netflix have also taken the step of purchasing a cinema, ostensibly to screen their own ‘Originals’: the acquisition of New York’s Paris Theatre could set a path for streaming services to dominate the distribution model post-pandemic.
The loss of the traditional screening event does not appear to be as inevitable as some people predicted. With streaming services now, a fundamental part of immediate studio distribution strategy, the onus on catering to chains that support blockbuster films almost exclusively is being revised. Adaptability is always the key to survival, and it could be that independent films, accustomed to finding innovative ways of programming to attract cinema lovers from the multiplexes, will benefit from the shift.
Altitude Film Distribution, working with #Netflix, had the space to promote their indie drama Rocks; a film that may have been overlooked previously if the studio release schedules hadn’t been disrupted. The Watershed cinema in Bristol pronounced Rocks a hit and confirmed the venue had hit its financial target for September 2020 while enjoying encouraging advance sales for October’s release schedule. The UK chain #Curzon, which has several venues across London specialising in art-house and indie film, reported several Netflix and Apple-produced films are coming their way.
The trends point to a boom in independent cinema box office: these venues have implemented social distancing measures to allow audiences to escape from the seemingly endless hours spent locked down. For independent cinemas, it’s not just about Bond. HOME in Manchester has innovated by retrospectively releasing streaming hits, like Kitty Green’s The Assistant, that viewers wanted to see on the big screen. Also, restorations of art-house classics like La Haine and Memories of Murder have also performed well, with HOME citing La Haine as a particular success. This suggests variety is what a large part of paying cinema audiences want to have available to them.
This brings to light the importance of independent cinemas in the ecosystem: they were ready for industry change long before the virus struck. Curzon have specialised in a dual-platform approach prior to the pandemic while Glasgow Film CEO Allison Gardner, who oversees the running of major independent cinema Glasgow Film Theatre, reported a policy of never looking at release ‘windows’ which allows for broader programming and a more inclusive distribution model that does not push out films on relatively small budgets. There is evidence here that independent cinema, like streaming services, has the foresight and creative thought to re-shape the distribution ecosystem by embracing change and seizing opportunity.
A trip to the cinema has become a treasured experience due to the effects of lockdown. Throughout 2020 and going into 2021, film fans have been isolated on the rocks, trapped in an empty lighthouse. Cinemas provide a social aspect to an essentially introverted experience: they’re a place for companionship, discussion, and mutual appreciation of the big screen, surrounded by immersive sound and compelled by thrilling visuals. The spectacle is part of the fun.
What the pandemic has truly brought to cinema is an examination of the ecosystem that brings films to our table: we want variety on our plates to keep us sustained. Many hope that the appeal of the cinematic experience will be back in a big way as there is still on one place for the big blockbuster releases: are times to watch a film alone and there are times to head for a local cinema: but the boat has been rocked and the industry is now knee in water and some elements of the film eco-system will survive and get bigger while for some there is huge uncertainty with the second lockdown cinemas like Picturehouse will may not re-open. By working together, streaming services and physical venues can broaden programming and find the best of both worlds for the people that really matter in cinemas: the filmmakers and their audience. For Phil Clap CEO UK Cinema Association, the new Bond date gives a glimmer of hope for cinemas despite the “disappointment”. He says. It “underlines the need for ongoing support for the UK cinema sector”.
#KEEPTHEMAGICALIVE #BOND25 #Bond
WRITTEN BY DAVID WOODS