Af­ter coro­n­avirus, cin­ema may never be the same again

Iran Daily - - Arts & Culture - By Cather­ine Shoard*

Ever since the first cin­e­mas were built, film has been the great egal­i­tar­ian art form. Wealthy peo­ple went, the mid­dle classes didn’t sniff, but you could also take a date if you weren’t rich and wanted a night out. Film’s cul­tural func­tion is in­ti­mately al­lied to price. If it wasn’t cheap, its power would di­min­ish. This is one of the things that drew me and many oth­ers to it: Go­ing to the movies is for ev­ery­one.

That’s over. Maybe not quite yet, maybe not en­tirely, but it’s hard to foresee a fu­ture in which film-go­ing as we know it doesn’t be­come an elite ex­pe­ri­ence. Poorer peo­ple will be priced out be­cause the best way to in­su­late your­self from risk is with dis­tance. And – as with houses or air­planes or iclouds – space is ex­pen­sive.

Cin­e­mas in Eng­land will re­open on Satur­day, July 4, and chains have been ea­ger to re­as­sure cus­tomers of the safety mea­sures they’re tak­ing: Stag­gered screen­ings, staff in masks, deep clean­ing each evening in­volv­ing an “an­tivi­ral fog­ging ma­chine” – all com­pletely suf­fi­cient, ac­cord­ing to gov­ern­ment guid­ance.

Even so, strangers will still be sit­ting, faces un­cov­ered, one me­ter apart, in an en­closed space for a cou­ple of hours. Per­haps this will be fine. Per­haps not. Peo­ple aren’t al­ways on their very best be­hav­ior at the movies. Did a cou­ple chat­ting in the next row used to ir­ri­tate you? Imag­ine how you might feel if they coughed as well. In the past, peo­ple have been shot dead for tex­ting dur­ing the trail­ers. Nerves post-lock­down are likely to be yet more frayed. Com­plain at your peril.

So will mul­ti­plex cin­ema-go­ing be­come the pre­serve of the young and the blithe, peo­ple for whom a rowdy crowd isn’t a deal breaker? Only if they’re rich, too. An­tivi­ral fog­ging ma­chines don’t come cheap, and to mit­i­gate these costs, as well as the losses that come from re­duced ca­pac­ity and in­creased staffing, chains will need to up their prices. And if that means a fall in trade, they’ll have to adapt their premises, prob­a­bly by chop­ping them up.

The sole sort of film-go­ing likely to sur­vive is the sort of up­scale ex­pe­ri­ence al­ready of­fered by high-end art­houses. If you have £40 to spend on a ticket, you can likely buy your­self enough seclu­sion and se­cu­rity to di­min­ish the risk of stray par­tic­u­lates. Less lux­u­ri­ous so­lu­tions will pop up, such as out­door screen­ings (which are a bit weather-de­pen­dent) and drive-ins (tricky in cities or on your bike), or another, tra­di­tional cin­ema ex­hi­bi­tion is doomed. And this, of course, will im­pact the sort of movies stu­dios make. Noth­ing big-bud­get or risky will be green-lit un­less it has a sub­stan­tial, guar­an­teed small-screen au­di­ence.

If this pre­dic­tion is cor­rect, it will make for a sad fi­nal reel for cin­e­mas. But not, nec­es­sar­ily, for cin­ema. Rather, it may of­fer an op­por­tu­nity for film to em­brace a new form of egal­i­tar­i­an­ism – or, per­haps, to re­turn to it. When peo­ple started mak­ing movies, the con­tem­po­rary in­dus­try we’ve been em­bed­ded in wasn’t nec­es­sar­ily the ideal they had in mind. Di­rec­tors to­day are, by and large, be­holden to back­ers, stu­dios, dis­trib­u­tors, ex­hibitors and a huge host of other in­ter­ests to get their film in front of peo­ple.

Hap­pily, it doesn’t have to be this way. There’s never been a bet­ter time for movies to di­vorce from the world of com­merce. Mak­ing a film was de­moc­ra­tized by tech ad­vances a decade back; all that re­mained were the tra­di­tional gate­keep­ers block­ing the path to dis­tri­bu­tion. As they col­lapse, new chan­nels will emerge: Vimeo with bet­ter cu­ra­tion; Tiktok with crowd­fund­ing add-ons. Au­di­ence ap­petite for orig­i­nal, user-gen­er­ated con­tent is sky-high, as tes­ti­fied by Youtube’s mush­room­ing view­er­ship dur­ing the pan­demic.

New for­mats will be pop­u­lar­ized. The usual two-hour run­ning time for a film is based on the idea it’s an evening out. If ev­ery­one is in, no such re­stric­tions ap­ply. New tal­ent will tri­umph, un­fet­tered by pre­vi­ous prej­u­dice. New cur­ren­cies of ap­pre­ci­a­tion – mi­cro­pay­ments, sub­scrip­tions, likes – will ma­te­ri­al­ize as cin­ema emerges from un­der the thumb of big busi­ness. These may be more ed­i­fy­ing all round. They will al­low au­di­ences and film­mak­ers to feel they’re not be­ing ex­ploited by peo­ple with an eye on profit rather than plot.

There will be much to miss if many cin­e­mas are even­tu­ally shut­tered. But maybe there’s also a lot to be ex­cited about, too, if the doors to the closed shop of the film in­dus­try are abruptly blown wide open.

*Cather­ine Shoard is the Guardian’s film editor.

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