Why cinema is doomed: The picture house has weathered the storm of piracy, but the real cliff edge is still to come

 
Dougie Gerrard

In April of last year, AMC, on the verge of buying out Odeon and becoming the largest cinema chain in the world, announced it was considering allowing people to use their phones during screenings. Its CEO, Adam Aron, justified this by saying, “When you tell a 22- year-old to turn off their phone, they hear please cut off your left arm above the elbow.”

The response was as fractious and territorial as you might expect, with a chorus of think-pieces united in condemnation of Aron and his big, brave idea. It took only 48 hours for AMC to nix the proposal, releasing a statement clarifying that there will, in fact, “be NO TEXTING ALLOWED in AMC Theatres. Not today, not tomorrow and not in the foreseeable future.”

Amidst all the scorn and vituperation, however, there was very little actual discussion of the crisis of consumption that Aron was responding to. However gauche his solution may have seemed to cineastes, it’s worth asking why one of the most powerful people in the industry believes cinemas need to break with their most cherished tradition in order to survive.

And yes, there’s a long checklist of less noxious short-term fixes that a non-CEO might’ve proposed, chief among them a reduction in ticket prices. But they would be just that; short-term fixes, and the truth is that cinemas aren’t facing only the standard problems of demand, but the prospect of wholesale obsolescence.

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Another big idea that was unveiled in April 2016, and then quickly put on ice, was a start-up called “Screening Room”. It was the brainchild of Sean Parker, the self-described “industry disruptor” made infamous by Justin Timberlake in The Social Network. The idea behind Screening Room is simple, and ruinous; a streaming service that eliminates the traditional 90-day window between cinematic and general release, and allows people to watch new movies from their sofa. (This is an escalation of Premium Video On Demand, or PVOD, which previously had only threatened to reduce, not eradicate, the theatrical window).

Part of the reason Screening Room didn’t immediately get off the ground was the prohibitive pricing structure (people would pay around $150 for access, and then another $50 per film), but you’d expect such difficulties to be resolved in time. After all, Parker was previously at the vanguard of another media revolution back in 1999, with his music-sharing service Napster. Napster wasn’t the most successful online music service, or the most enduring, but its influence is everywhere, now reconfigured and commodified by Spotify and Apple Music.

Hollywood has been competing with streaming services like Netflix and Amazon Prime for years; it has been battling digital piracy for even longer (and cinemas are now reckoning with the consequences, in the form of dwindling ticket sales and a shift in cultural status away from cinema and towards prestige TV). PVOD is frightening, but it isn’t distinct from these threats – rather, it’s the full extension of their internal logic.

Once people become accustomed to streaming as a means of movie consumption, why would they accept two months wait as part of the package? In the face of this, cinemas have had no strategy, no grand plan; there has been no recognition, even, of the situation or its magnitude. Chains like AMC are now trying to fix with compromise what they have sundered through denial. Who, really, can blame them? It’s hard to look a terminal diagnosis in the face.

The other mortal problem assailing cinemas is that they’re not the movie industry. The movie industry will survive PVOD just as record labels survived Napster. Major studios are already preparing for it by cutting deals with streaming services; these may prove helpful, in time, in fending off the threat from these services’ own studios. But cinemas are an increasingly small part of the equation. They are the detritus of a new economy, and the studios know it. Just look at a list of Screening Room’s stakeholders: Steven Spielberg; Ron Howard; JJ Abrams; Peter Jackson. No wonder AMC is terrified.

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This story has a happier side, too.

Steven T Hanley started Deeper Into Movies after his filmmaker friend Michael Galinsky gave him a copy of his movie Half Cocked. It had never been shown in the UK, so Steven emailed Moth Club, a venue in Hackney, and asked if it would arrange a screening. It went OK, the next screening went better, and soon Deeper was a regular fixture, showing old films, new films, undiscovered films; whatever Hanley loves and thinks deserves to be seen.

“The romance of the big screen and the excitement around a big release date with people queuing round the block – that’s long over,” he tells me. Rather than being cause for pessimism, he sees this as an opening, an opportunity for new and exciting forms. “Streaming and digital is a great platform for low budget films to be seen regardless of distribution deals.”

His optimism speaks to a well-worn but always relevant point, about change and our resistance to it. Our cultural production is always only the outgrowth of our specific media technology, and any shift in the technology is met with declarations that the production is finished. The director Peter Greenaway said recently that cinema died in 1983, after the advent of the remote control gave the viewer the power to pause and rewind if they missed anything. In an instant, film went from being a one-way transmission to a dialogic process.

It’s worth remembering that this is still an art form in its infancy; in just over a century we have gone from people fainting as the Lumiere brothers’ train rumbled towards the camera to 3D rendering the world complete. We’re still watching, aren’t we?

Deeper is a hopeful story, and an instructive one. It tells of a great egalitarian opportunity amidst all this rapid change. The definition of cinema shifts and expands; now, all you need to start your own is a projector and a big enough wall.

This DIY ethic is Steven’s guiding principle. “There are no rules to this – just book the films and start showing stuff”, he says. “You don't have to be the BFI to show Satyajit Ray movies or a John Cassavetes season.”

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Deeper is part of a wider trend, a process that might be termed the gentrification of cinema. As their grip on our cultural psyche has loosened, cinemas have had to find other ways to distinguish themselves. Now – at least here in cloistered London – going to a movie is a can be akin to visiting a private members club. At the Curzon Soho, for instance, you watch the movie on a red velvet chaise lounge, and their menu offers 14 varieties of craft beer alongside the popcorn.

The success of this shift has produced new forms of cinema, of varying novelty and absurdity. Stepney’s Genesis cinema, for instance, houses both live jazz and an outpost of Pieminster. Shoreditch (where else) now supports a hot tub cinema.

Then there is the phenomenon that it Secret Cinema, a uniquely immersive affair; the organisers go to incredible lengths to recreate around you what is happening onscreen. You drink what the characters drink; eat what they eat; suffer what they suffer (sort of). I saw The Shawshank Redemption there, and although I can’t stand the film, it was fun nonetheless. These boutique ‘experiences’ are the adjuncts of a peculiar economic culture. Large chains have already suffered; 2014 was the worst year for US ticket sales since 1995, and the annual box office intake is on a downward curve (though it has stabilised recently, buoyed by superhero-mania).

Independent cinemas are also going through a parallel crisis. They are under immense pressure, but they can’t risk a hike in ticket prices. And since their market isn’t kids animations or the summer blockbuster (the BFI is not the natural home of Batman vs Superman), they haven’t seen their fair share of the spoils of Hollywood’s most profitable output. Marvel films gross an average of $769m each; The Handmaiden, top of the Curzon’s ‘most watched’ list, grossed a little over a million in the UK.

Independents have had to find other methods, different means; hence the champagne and upholstery. And it’s worked, after a fashion; Everyman, king of fancy chains, saw a 44 per cent revenue rise in 2015. Curzon has become so successful that it has started to consume smaller, more unfortunate indies, like the Renoir in Russell Square.

But in the case of both indies and chains, these balms may be short-lived. The real threat, the yawning cliff edge the industry is ambling towards, is PVOD, and that won’t be overcome by craft lager or Captain America.

The success of cinema clubs and theatrical events is a romantic story that captures people’s nostalgic connection with the cinema as a safe and exciting space. But it’s not the future of cinema, because romance or nostalgia or the magic of the big screen doesn’t sell nearly enough tickets. New movies do that. That’s it. New movies have sustained cinema as the primary means of transmission for mass popular art for over a century, and it’s this that will spell its end.

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