Cinemas are reopened and the film world is full of new release dates, personal festivals, an accelerating Oscar race, a string of Covid-19 protocols, and fearful predictions. Is this the death of cinema (again) or its glorious rebirth? Or has it mutated into something completely new, a two-headed Disney Netflix monster with art somewhere in its genome? Our main film critics, Manohla Dargis and AO Scott, have some thoughts on these issues. They also asked some industry veterans to interfere.
MANOHLA DARGIS Hello friend – it’s been a while. I recently returned from a book vacation and after not winning the lottery I’m back (happy!). I ignored most of the movie news in my absence, but was saddened to learn of the closure of my favorite theater here in Los Angeles, the ArcLight Hollywood, which the lockdowns had brought down. It felt like the beginning of the end of something, but here we are in a new season that looks more like 2019 than 2020 – even with a request to see our Vax cards. What did i miss
AO SCOTT You haven’t missed much other than a couple of episodes in the ongoing discourse – part soap opera, part séance, part tech seminar – about the future of film. From the list of upcoming releases alone (some withheld from 2020), this future looks very similar to the recent past. New work from Anderson, Wes and PT Jane Campion’s first feature film in more than a decade will be released this fall. A new James Bond. The dominance of well-known directors and stars together with freshly minted authors (like Chloé Zhao, after her best film win for “Nomadland” with a Marvel spectacle) creates a reassuring feeling of continuity. Cinema as we know it still seems to exist.
At the same time – if not for the first time – there is a general fear that her life is in danger. Part of that fear is Covid-specific. Nobody knows when and how this will end and whether audiences will return to the cinemas in sufficient numbers to revive the old business models. The pandemic isn’t the only factor, and the future of movies and admissions may depend less on virus mutations or consumer preferences than on corporate strategy.
If Covid continues we will lose more art house theater, resulting in less box office revenue. At some point there won’t be enough movie theaters to generate enough income to warrant a theatrical release. When you consider how viewing habits have changed over the past 18 months, it looks even worse: the art house audience is more mature, and this audience has not wanted to return to theaters so far.
– Richard Abramowitz, founder and managing director of the distributor Abramorama
DARGIS That we’re social animals made me think we’re going to be back in theaters and there is too much money at stake. Going to the cinema has always been an ups and downs. But for decades the big studios have been undermining the exhibition – the cinema habit itself – with a business model based on a handful of youthful tent poles and a few monster weekends. Your audience flocks to the theaters for a while, and everyone else is waiting for home video (or maybe not). I looked at the numbers for the last “Avengers” movie: It opened in American theaters in April 2019 and played through September, but it absorbed more than 90 percent of its domestic volume in 30 days.
I imagine a lot of people have been waiting to see it, just as previous generations have been waiting for something to appear on TV, cable, video – all once seen as a threat to the cinema. For a while these different paths seemed to be quite complementary. But the habit of watching on-demand anytime, anywhere has proven overwhelming, which is bad for the exhibit, but good for the multinationals that own the studios because they also own the companies that get things into their homes. So maybe these multinationals will switch to streaming only. Maybe they’ll embrace theater again or buy them all up. In the end, I am much more concerned about non-industrial cinema and whether its audiences will return to theaters.
Sure, there is the occasional blockbuster that they might want to see as an Imax experience and have that shared community experience, but like everything in the world, with the multitude of choices available and the time, labor, and cost involved to get around Going to the movies, most choose to watch movies from the comfort of their own home.
– Marcus Hu, co-founder of distributor Strand Releasing
SCOTT The small screen is definitely getting bigger whether we like it or not. Subscription income is unlikely to ever match blockbuster box office numbers, but for many independent-minded filmmakers, streaming provides cash for projects the big studios no longer do. For a long time, the big studios concentrated their resources on franchise and IP-controlled entertainment at the expense of stand-alone features aimed at an adult audience. Streaming has caught up some of this gap.
The result is that what you and I and others in our rapidly aging population mean by “going to the movies” may have been replaced by a different set of choices and practices. What I mean is the idea of the cinema as a destination regardless of any particular film that may be shown. Most of the time you just went and looked at whatever was there and there was always something – art, trash, or in between – worth the price of the ticket, which wasn’t too much. A movie habit was easy to pick up, and many of us did.
Kids haven’t developed it quite that way these days. You have more screens, more options, and different reasons to buy a ticket. I’m not moaning, just watching. What I wonder is the impact of these changes on the art form we still refer to by the anachronistic names cinema and film.
The studios stopped making the kind of films that I do when we were done “Money ball” – I remember a manager telling me he would have passed it on if it had come to him at the time. In the years it took to make this film, the world has turned for this type of film.
– Rachel Horovitz, producer
DARGIS Let’s look back in 50 years to see how streaming affected cinema, which is always a moving target. To be honest, while it’s interesting to see how the big companies deal with the latest normal, the work I love has long had an ecology of its own, with its own way of doing things, its own community and Relationships. In 1991, Julie Dash’s “Daughters of the Dust” took slow release, critical love, and word of mouth to make a dent, and that goes for most of the films we care about today. As a friend asked the other day, would Bong Joon Ho’s “Parasite” be “Parasite” if it had just been streamed? We both think the answer is no – it would still be great, but not a cultural sensation.
Unlike branded entertainment, films have to live in the world, not just on personal devices. This is not about the supposed romance of going to the cinema, but about how people experience art and culture, because while we are talking about infrastructure, we are also talking about pleasure – the joy of the cinematic object and the joy of your company and your conversation. It’s frustrating that people keep writing lazy obituaries for cinema that they have no feeling or interest in. I don’t love everything that has happened in film history – the move from film to digital, the loss of technical competence – but I remain confident through the persistence of art and how its ecologies adapt and persist.
Nonetheless, and I think I’ve said this before, the area of the film world that I’m most concerned about is becoming increasingly jazz-like. It’s something that is usually valued by a niche audience, but that takes new blood – the kids you mentioned – to really keep it going.
Movies will have exclusive windows in cinemas, but these windows will be shorter and more flexible. But films that matter and have a cultural impact will again be exclusively in theaters for some time, probably 45 days.
– Tom Rothman, Chairman and CEO of Sony Pictures’ Motion Picture Group
SCOTT I guess I’m always optimistic about the persistence of the artists and the curiosity of the audience, and I know that the good work is mostly done against the grain of the system at a given moment. But it is important to be critical of this system nonetheless, and it is reasonable to wonder how its current iteration might prevent some kinds of originality and encourage others.
There’s no going back to an earlier golden age, and the gold rubs off pretty quickly on closer inspection. The old studios, whose products were labeled “classic”, were built for exploitation and robbery and were ruled by autocratic moguls. Ethically or politically, it wasn’t much better in New Hollywood in the ’70s or in indie in the 90s.
Nevertheless, then as now, great and strange films were made. But I fear many of them will perish in the streaming algorithms or on the fringes of microdistribution, alienated from even the small publics who may have discovered them. One cause for concern – unrelated to streaming per se – is the mass extinction of the local newspapers and alternative weeklies that fed local movie scenes across the country. The health of films is linked to the health of journalism.
[I worry] that the economic challenges will push the arthouse cinemas away from the smaller titles, which contribute significantly to diversity and inclusion in our film landscape. In addition, the reduction in newspaper and media coverage for smaller films will force theater owners to make these decisions.
– Dennis Doros, co-founder of Milestone Films
DARGIS The pandemic has brought specific issues to the fore – at least, improved theater ventilation may put an end to watching multiplex feed in a miasm of desperation and stale popcorn. On your final point, I think that what the pandemic has done is mainly underlining that we are all still navigating the internet-created world that has changed the way we work, play, read, see and think. The film industry has a history of various production, distribution, and exhibition models that work until they stop, but during these shifts, films continued to be made and people watched, and I imagine they will continue be made and we will keep watching and talking about it.
SCOTT Let’s hope so! Otherwise, we may both be on permanent book vacations.