CORONA AND THE DEATH OF CINEMA (AGAIN)
WHAT HAPPENS ONCE THE DUST SETTLES?
‘Cinema is an invention without a future,” said Louis Lumiere who, along with his brother Auguste, invented the Cinematographe in 1895. From its birth, cinema was convinced of its own death. From the very beginning, cinema predicted its own eventual demise. And that was before the two world wars, the advent of home video, laser disc, DVDs, Blurays, terrorism, mass shootings, Netflix, and now the coronavirus, the latest scourge that has sealed shut cinema houses around the world.
History proves that cinema could withstand most of those threats (remember when doomsayers pronounced that VHS would replace movie theatres?). However, against the latest and viral one, the scores have yet to be settled.
The damage so far has been severe: most movie houses around the world have gone dark in the past weeks, including in such cine-polis as Paris, LA and Bombay. In Thailand, the closure is expected to last at least until April 12. Opening dates for blockbusters, and for Thai films, have been pushed back, in some cases indefinitely. James Bond, Black Widow, Mulan — all have bowed to the wrath of Covid-19. Film shoots have been cancelled, including for new Netflix productions. Film stars have retreated to their expensive villas while film crews suffer unemployment. In barely a month, the cinema-going ecosystem, like most systems that spin the wheel of the world, is upended by a great disruptive force whose consequences will continue to be felt for months, if not years, even if the virus were soon defeated.
“It’s probably the worst I have ever seen in my career,” said Prawit Taengaksorn, film scholar and critic who has been writing and lecturing for over 30 years. “The virus situation doesn’t spare any countries. Everyone is affected; even wars don’t always have such a wide-reaching impact.”
“No movies in the cinemas!” he added. “I don’t remember that ever happened before in my generation.”
Last week, the Cannes Film Festival announced, after long speculation, that it would postpone this year’s edition from mid-May to late June or July. As the numbers of sick keep climbing in Europe, Cannes’ fingers have never been crossed with more pressure — imagine sexy actresses gracing the red carpet wearing face masks. The storied film festival was cancelled only twice in its 73-year history, first in 1939 when Hitler invaded Poland and started World War II, and in 1968 when mass social protests and radical filmmakers forced the festival to fold.
It should be noted that Cannes’ main screening venue is called Grande Theatre Lumiere, named after the pioneer who was full of doubt about the future of his great invention.
Thus the virus has inflicted wounds on two major fronts of the cinema sphere: Hollywood, the factory of mass-market American movies, is reeling with delays and uncertainties; and Cannes, the epicentre of world cinema, will have to push its luck to actually conjure up the July festival (even the Olympics committee have admitted defeat). And while we’ll get to see the new James Bond and other adjourned blockbusters eventually, the Cannes hiccup spells trouble for filmmakers and companies hoping to launch their new films at the festival, the world’s biggest platform for film professionals. The calendar of film festivals and marketplaces has run like clockwork for decades, with Cannes more or less at the centre, and its postponement has already shifted other interlocking pieces in the picture. Venice, the next major film event usually held in late August, looks set to be the next casualty, given the distressing news coming from Italy.
“Because Cannes is so important to film professionals around the world, this postponement, or even cancellation, will have a severe repercussion,”
said Panu Aree, director of acquisition at Sahamongkol Film International, a major Thai studio and distributor of foreign titles.
“Independent film projects use Cannes as their launchpad. So when Cannes is moved, small producers won’t be able to pre-sale their new films, which means they won’t secure a guarantee to take out a loan to fund their movies. That’s only for starters.”
When Cannes or Hollywood is mentioned, people tend to think about stars or directors. They think about fame, glamour and excess. They think about an industry run by commercial agendas and sometimes artistic ambition. But a film industry is just that, an industry. The coronavirus doesn’t only ruin the opening date of a new Scarlet Johansson vehicle or scrunch up Cannes’ fabled red carpet; it also hurts thousands of crew members whose jobs have been cancelled and whose livelihoods endangered, at least temporarily, and it means hundreds of smaller films are deprived of a platform that may help bring a spotlight on them.
In Thailand, at least 10 new Thai titles have been delayed. Foreign film shoots, a sector that brings in huge
revenues and provides employment to thousands, have shuttered. The closure of multiplexes has also affected job security of a large number of people. The impact is real and present, and it will worsen if the authorities extend the shutdown beyond April 12.
But now you ask, why all the fuss when the global regime of self-isolation means an unprecedented opportunity to watch more films? We have thousands of hours of cinema on our TV and phone screens, courtesy of, tada!, Netflix, YouTube, Amazon, Mubi and other streaming services. In fact, some of us had never watched more moving images in our lives than we have in the past two weeks. What’s that joke again? Netflix and other streamers are teaming up with coronavirus to alter our movie-watching consciousness! No more of that good-old communal experience sitting in dark, probably germ-filled rooms where images are beamed onto a screen. Isolationism has reaffirmed to many that film can be personal.
Wisdom on the street, or among cinema advocates, is: Not so fast. The score is not Streaming 19: Movie theatres 0. The distinction isn’t even that clear-cut, or even that necessary. And just because this unruly pathogen has wreaked havoc for three months doesn’t mean cinema as we know it has been lost, nor has Cannes been vanquished and the good old communal experience consigned to its deathbed. Not at all.
“The current situation means people don’t have an option,” said Panu. “But when people have options again — either to watch films online or to go to the movies — then it’s different. People will go out again, I have no doubt about that.”
This is not a romantic projection of purists averse to the personal-screen viewing habit inculcated by Netflix and co. It’s a realistic reading of what’s happening. The outbreak of Covid-19 won’t drive cinema houses to extinction and in fact the situation has prompted a realignment of that sometimes awkward relationship between cinema as a collective experience and the personalised algorithm of streaming viewership. Shuttered cinemas have driven filmmakers to screen their movies online, either for free or for fees, while prepping their next films intended to be released on the big screen when things have resumed their due course. Distributors, too, are re-releasing some of their theatrical hits online to capitalise on the free time of a quarantined population. Film archives around the world — usually the guardians of pure, collective cinema experience — are also streaming classic films and archival clips online while their cinematheques are closed (see sidebar).
The ecosystem that comprises movie houses and streaming services — or of major Hollywood studios and Netflix — is the present and future of cinema, either with viral disruptions or not. And so while the big screen has gone dark and workers suspended, the personal screen will keep the wheel turning as long as we keep watching. It may seem like streaming is winning, but that’s only for now.
“Cinema as we know it will come back,” said Panu. “And probably with all the pent-up frustration bred by abstinence, it will come back big time.”
ISOLATIONISM HAS REAFFIRMED TO MANY THAT FILM CAN BE PERSONAL