The question of when to return to cinemas is a quandary with large ramifications
We’re devoted film fans. We mark time, not by the hands of the clock, but by release dates. We view history, not in terms of human experience, but in terms of the way it is reflected in cinematic evolution. Some might call it obsession but, to us, it is passion; a love of the art form; a chosen way of life. That chosen way of life — like all others — has now been irrevocably changed by the arrival of something for which the most apocalyptic of dystopian movies failed prepare us, apparently.
This gives rise to a dilemma of epic proportions. When cinemas re-open, will we attend, or will an abundance of health-based caution keep us away a little longer?
At any given time, every film fan has a list of currently anticipated movies. In some cases — in this era of ‘tentpole’ studio films, announced well in advance — these movies have been anticipated for years. Though many of them have now been delayed by months, there will come a point later this year when we must decide — is it worth the risk?
My own dilemma centres largely on Wonder Woman 1984
Technically, I — like millions of other people — have been waiting for that film for three years. But, in many ways, I’ve actually been waiting for it my whole life. Wonder Woman 1984 isn’t just a movie that has the potential to be great. As the sequel to a movie that was a game-changer in itself, it cements the successful status of its important predecessor. It’s a film that has the potential to further impact the evolution of cinema — and we have the opportunity to watch that unfold, on the big screen, with other fans.
When it arrived in 2017, that predecessor, Wonder Woman, had a seismic impact. It was a big budget, high profile comic book movie and was directed by a woman. It was a conversation-starter. It was the first live-action movie about a comic book character that is equal in history to the oft-adapted Batman and Superman. It was a hugely popular comic book movie that also skewered the absurdity of patriarchy with outstanding precision. It achieved all of these things while also being outrageously entertaining, and brilliantly crafted.
Knowing that certain quarters of the internet and studio system would use any perceived underperformance as an excuse to keep big budget woman-led projects thought of as rare and ‘risky,’ I went to see Wonder Woman three times in my local cinema — giving my financial support to that business, as well as to the movie I loved so much. The point is, however, not everybody has the means to do that — or indeed the means to see it in the theatre at all — regardless of how much they love the movie in question when they finally get to watch it. This is why the emphasis on opening weekend box office is a corrupt system — even without an ongoing pandemic to worry about.
What are the chances that Wonder Woman 1984, and Black Widow, for that matter, will be given the benefit of the doubt with regard to box office receipts, due to Coronavirus anxiety, when they are released later this year? Since the incredible Birds of Prey (And The Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn) did not receive such understanding — despite being released in February, as concern about Coronavirus began to take hold, and the U.K began to move toward lockdown — I am sceptical about such courtesy being extended.
I’ve been patiently awaiting the arrival of Wonder Woman 1984. I tuned in for the live global premiere of its first trailer, and cried when my favourite superhero rode the lightning. Sebastian Bohm’s orchestral rendition of Blue Monday — used in the trailer — has been my constant earworm. And yet — despite my concern about box office interpretations — I find myself thinking that if I’ve waited this long, what difference will another three months make to watch it in the safety of my own home?
This choice between theatres or home lies at the heart of the dilemma. Before the Coronavirus pandemic, film fan communities were regularly immersed in debate around film distribution — people and corporations arguing for the protection of the theatrical window, and the sanctity of the cinema experience, clashing with those advocating for greater flexibility and an approach more inclusive of streaming platforms when it comes to performance measurement. Technology, it seemed, was precipitating an evolution in the consumption of media — including film — and should we allow this to threaten the traditional theatrical distribution model?
Has Coronavirus resolved this debate for us?
The story of film distribution is one of the epic love-hate relationship between art and capitalism. Audiences have been captivated by the artistry of the moving image and its ability to provoke thought and emotion, ever since Eadward Muybridge’s Horse In Motion in 1878, and Louis Le Prince’s Roundhay Garden Scene, in 1888. Such achievements created competition in the advancement of film technology, which received a huge boost from the financial and intellectual investments of Thomas Edison. It was Edison who held the patent on the Kinetograph, which led to the development of the Kinetoscope in 1891 which, in turn, eventually brought the phenomenon of moving images to Penny Arcades, and the general public.
When The Nickelodeon opened in Pittsburgh, USA, in 1905 — creating a new, stable business for the exhibition of motion pictures — that business model quickly spread across America, Europe, and much of the rest of the world, creating a substantial increase in the demand for films. Thus, ‘Hollywood’ was born — birthed from the economic model of price determination, known as supply and demand. While that relationship between film studios and movie theatres — indeed, the process of film distribution — was very quickly subject to legislation that has itself continued to evolve, it has been a generally productive relationship that has endured global war, economic depression, and terrorism.
Prior to the pandemic, that film distribution argument focused on capitalist concerns. Studios today produce juggernaut movies, taking up the majority of space in movie theatres and often pushing smaller productions into more limited releases. Meanwhile, theatre ticket prices (plus concession stand prices) continually increase — placing the cinema experience out of reach of many lower income families. In addition, those wishing to watch movies with limited releases often find the movie is inaccessible in geographical terms. For example, there are at least six cinemas of various sizes within 45 minutes of my home, but I once spent three hours on the road for Richard Linklater’s Before Midnight. Consequently, for the general movie-watching public, the home cinema and movie streaming experience has gained ground. It’s just cause and effect.
But, now that capitalism has caused the home cinema and movie streaming audiences to grow in this way, those same capitalist forces wish to freeze the frame and halt the encroachment of personal film consumption on the mass audience model. Capitalism is great when it works for the producer, but not so when it allows for changes in the behaviour of the consumer, it seems. To that end, the Coronavirus pandemic is potentially a giant, unavoidable reset switch for something that was proving to be unsustainable in modern society.
Movie theatres around the world have now been closed for many weeks because — apart from being deemed ‘non-essential’ — their very nature is contrary to the social distancing measures we are all now having to adopt. Everything about them is designed to maximise both profit, and up-close social interaction — from seats placing audience members elbow-to-elbow, to the serving of popcorn from giant vats; from touch-screen ticket collection points, to shared condiment stations. So, if cinemas are required to make changes, such as removing seats to reduce the number of people per screening, will a greater proportion of the cost of screening the film be passed onto the customer, by way of further price increases?
Such outcomes, coupled with general, ongoing Coronavirus anxiety, will inevitably lead to a further boom in home cinema and streaming services as die-hard film fans are faced with the dilemma of how to feed their passion, while protecting their own health, and that of their loved ones. It is a situation that necessitates a whole-system change — shifting to a model that measures the success of a film by the reactions of a broad cross-section of audiences, not just white male critics, and by its income generation far beyond opening weekend. Rather than audience members feeling incensed to show support for an excellent movie that is erroneously perceived as an outlier by purchasing over-priced tickets for multiple viewings, studio assessment of a film’s performance needs to follow the consumer to their preferred viewing situation, and factor home viewing and streaming popularity into future film funding decisions.
The next chapter
I don’t know if I will see Wonder Woman 1984 at the cinema — with pandemic conditions changing all the time, it is a decision we will all have to make for ourselves closer to its current August release date. What I do know is that this important woman-led film is arriving at a time of great change, and could well be one of several spearheads in the establishment of a new, consumer-led method of success measurement. I’ll be disappointed to miss out on that theatre experience for this film, but these are the choices left to us in this strange new world, and I look forward to the inevitable leaps in home cinema and streaming technology that this situation creates…
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