Tuesday 19 May 2020

C-19 Sensemaking

The survival of cinema

Releases are being postponed. Productions are being cancelled. Movie houses are shuttered. And yet, despite it all, film culture is booming

By Anna Bogutskaya

First, it was Bond. The latest film in the long-running 007 franchise, No Time To Die, had its release delayed from April to November 2020.

Then, it was Fast & Furious Nine. The ninth entry in the big-dudes-in-fast-cars series was slated to be released in May this year – but then was pushed back a full year.

It is no small matter for two of the biggest movie franchises in the world – Fast & Furious has made over $5 billion worldwide, while the Bond brand is estimated to be worth $19.9 billion – to alter their release dates in this fashion, and both decisions sent ripples coursing through the industry.

Daniel Craig in No Time To Die

It was disappointing for audiences, of course, but even more so for the studios. These are the kinds of tent-pole releases that make the majority of their money – big money – in cinemas. Millions of dollars are piled into meticulously planned campaigns that will guarantee as many punters as movie houses around the world can accommodate.

Then came the festivals. SXSW, the biggest film, music and tech event in the world, was cancelled just days before it was due to kick off – a first in its 34-year history. As a result, the festival had to lay off a third of its staff. CPH:DOX, the premier documentary festival in Denmark, followed suit, approximating a digital version of the event instead.

The 73rd Cannes Film festival was due to start on 12 May

Cannes Film Festival, perhaps the most prestigious and influential film gathering, has postponed its 2020 programme. Locarno Film Festival has been cancelled. The list goes on – and it makes for a depressing litany. These cancellations affect not only the film calendar, but also local economies and the finances of the freelancers who, in large number, make a living from these events.

Cinemas all around the world have closed their doors, too, of course. In London alone, BFI Southbank, the national cinematheque, closed its doors weeks ago, transferring some of its programmes to a digital format. The cult indie Prince Charles Cinema just off Leicester Square closed its doors, but remains in touch with audiences through its podcast and online cinephile games.

Meanwhile, the whole film industry has ground to a halt. Productions have been locked down. Countless people have lost their jobs for the foreseeable future, many of them ineligible for furlough-style compensation.

But here’s the twist: in spite of all the above, cinema culture is booming. It hasn’t died. It has adjusted.

With venues closed down, distributors, cinemas and programmers have not been twiddling their thumbs. Savvy film distributors have adjusted to the new landscape. Curzon – which operates as an exhibitor, with its chain of cinemas; runs a streaming platform, called Curzon Home Cinema; and releases prestige arthouse films through its Curzon Artificial Eye label (including two of the most acclaimed titles of the past year, Parasite and Portrait of a Lady on Fire) – has been mounting almost daily digital Q&As with filmmakers such as the writer-director Ruben Östlund, writer-director Mark Jenkin, actors Jesse Eisenberg and Imogen Poots, and many more.

The indie film distributor Peccadillo Pictures has done something similar – launching the Peccadillo Sofa Club, with cast and crew members from their entire roster of films, past and present, pitching up for live-streamed Q&As on YouTube.

Peccadillo Sofa Club's discussion of Stud Life with Campbell X, T'Nia Miller & Robyn Kerr

It’s noteworthy that these distributors are dipping into their back catalogues, reigniting interest in films long past their theatrical shelf-lives. Such films rarely return to movie houses, except in arthouse rep seasons or in restored form for relatively short runs. But now, in the digital-only entertainment world of the pandemic, the economics have transformed.

These live-streamed Q&As, from an organiser’s point of view, are so much easier to manage. No expensive flights. No costly assistants, managers or travel companions. No worrying about intrusive fans waiting for the talent at a hotel. And, for once, so many more people can access the conversation about the film they’ve just seen.

Many other attempts have been made to replicate – online – the shared viewing experience. One of the simplest but most effective has been the social media version of the “film club”. Essentially, someone picks a film, everyone starts watching at the same time, and then tweets his or her thoughts as the film goes along.

Every week, Carol Morley, the celebrated British filmmaker behind Dreams of a Life (2011), The Falling (2014) and Out of Blue (2018), picks a film to watch on Twitter. Film magazine Little Whites Lies has hosted a tweet-along of Dumb and Dumber (1994). Comedian-podcaster Brett Goldstein gets other comedians, actors and friends to pick a film a day for what he calls the Isolation Film Club. The idea of being brought together while apart, via the medium of cinema, is catnip for fans.

The New York Times’ cultural podcast Still Processing offers a variant on this formula, with a podcast designed to be listened to while watching a film. The hosts Wesley Morris and Jenna Wortham, each isolated in their respective homes, watch and comment upon a movie like the infamously terrible Catwoman (2004). What on paper is the worst possible idea for a podcast (silence for long stretches of time) becomes a shared viewing experience with the smartest friends you’ll never meet in real life (and with whom you definitely wouldn’t watch Catwoman, if you did).

Boarded up cinemas in London's Leicester Square

But what about the moviegoing friends whom you have met in real life, but haven’t seen during the lockdown? There is, of course, an app for that. The Google Chrome extension Netflix Party (surprisingly, not developed by Netflix itself) appeared in March. With this, you can simultaneously watch a film that’s available to stream on Netflix with a group of friends, with a chat bar appearing at all times on the side of the screen.

These viewing experiences are closer to a virtual sleepover more than that of a cinema. You’re not expected to be quiet. In fact, quite the contrary. It’s a competition to see who can come up with the snarkiest tweet, the wittiest commentary, the funniest joke. The point is the collective response, rather than the film itself.

The cinephile’s answer to this has been the proliferation of curated, streaming-based programmes. Consider, for example, Remote Viewing Cinema, which popped up on Instagram in mid-March and offers curated double-bills, programmed from easily accessible streaming platforms. The film programmer K.J. Relth and the filmmaker Suki-Rose pick the films by theme and offer introductions to them through Instagram Stories.

Boiler Room’s viewing platform, 4:3, which tends to show experimental films and video art, created a free online film festival. Every other day for the best part of a month, a different film will stream. There is a set start time. You can’t rewind. You can’t go forward. Weirdly, it feels like actually attending a screening. Alchemy Film and Arts Festival, which took place earlier this month, followed a similar pattern. The stream for each programme opened 15 minutes before the start of the film, to give people time to get comfortable – just like in the cinema.

One of the constant battles for a programmer, a film festival or a cinema is how to get audiences to actually attend. It’s not a fight for ticket sales, it’s a fight for attention. This is translating into online activities and gatherings like Curzon’s Living Room Q&As, the BFI’s live-streamed introductions to films, or the NFTS’s Zoom masterclasses with top-tier filmmakers such as David Fincher. The fight for audiences’ attention is still the same, arguably even fiercer now. But the barriers to mounting and accessing these events have been significantly lowered.

A drive in cinema pop-up in Nevsehir, Turkey

For distributors, programmers, festivals and cinemas, there is no going back to a pre-quarantine era. Sure, there is something magical and contagious that can happen in a dark room with a bunch of strangers, hushed in reverent silence. A lonely, personal experience is transformed into a collective one. At a good gag, people laugh together. At the end of a terrifying scene, there is collective relief. There’s the unbidden, spontaneous applause after a satisfying ending.

But that will still be there in the post-Corona world. We shouldn’t forget about the important new opportunities for bringing cinema – films, filmmakers and conversations – to more people than can fit in a screening room. The pandemic has forced the industry into thinking creatively about how to engage with audiences. Turns out, shared experiences don’t need to happen within two metres of someone else.

Photographs Getty Images, Nicole Dove/DANJAQ, LLC AND MGM


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Anna Bogutskaya