The Theatrical Experience: If streaming is killing the cinema then it's the cinema that's at fault.

For me growing up, the experience of the cinema was one of the most important things I did. I used to skip school and go to the cinema. I used to spend my entire weekend at the cinema watching every movie I could. It was what I loved to do. I still love it. There is nothing, and I do mean nothing, that even comes close to the experience of watching a film on the big screen. To be fully immersed in that world, to have the sound and the picture and everything be the best version it can be. To stare in wonder at the screen and watch the story unfold. All of it is incomparable. I enjoy watching films at home, too, but it’s not even close.

Having said that, I’m not a rich person. Pre-pandemic I was lucky enough to be able to afford a cinema card. Post-pandemic (whenever that winds up being) I don’t know if I will. But even without the issue of affordability, I was considering giving it up anyway. It simply no longer seemed worth the price. Where I live there are three cinemas, all of them chains, two of them Cineworlds. None of them have a particularly decent selection of films. Quite often the movies I do want to see are available only for a very limited time and getting to one of them to see it can be a pain, given that – and this may come as a shock to many of you – my life doesn’t revolve entirely around when I am able to go watch a movie.

Moreover, since I don’t drive, only one of the theatres is realistically reachable without the added cost of travel, which ultimately limits my options even more. I also have two kids and more than one job, which means the only time it’s ever really convenient for me to attend the cinema is in the evenings, and to be perfectly frank, quite often in the evenings I’m shattered and just want to go to bed. It also means that going to the cinema “on a whim” isn’t really an option and has to be pre-arranged to include childcare, travel, probably dinner since I’m now not going to be in during the evening, and so on and so on. Simply put, it’s a pain.

Luckily streaming has plenty to offer, so quite often I do still get to watch new content. It may not match the theatrical experience, but it’s a hell of a lot cheaper, and it’s about a billion times more convenient.

Now look, that last statement is frustrating. I know it is. I find it frustrating. I wish to hell that the cinema was more accessible. But it’s not. And this experience isn’t just mine, it’s the experience of a lot of people, some of whom also don’t have the added frustration of actually wanting to go to the cinema for the experience in the first place.

Warner Brothers' decision to move their entire 2021 slate to a simultaneous theatrical and digital release has been controversial, to say the least. Some have welcomed the idea as moving forward with the times, others have condemned the choice and are claiming it will be the death knell for cinemas the world over. I think that’s a little extreme – cinema has, after all, already fought off TV and Home Video – but I’m not sure I sit entirely in the camp of “oh isn’t it wonderful” either. I am concerned. I’m concerned about what this means for the future of the theatrical experience, and whether or not cinemas are going to continue to survive.

But truth be told, I’ve been concerned about that a lot longer than the Coronavirus Crisis. I’ve been concerned about it for quite a while, in fact. Because already, without the added uncertainties of the pandemic, were the issues I laid out above already a thing. The cinema was becoming a less and less realistic option for me as it was. I don’t get paid to go to the movies like so many of the people I see discussing this online, I have to pay. And it’s fucking expensive. And I don’t have any money. Plus, removing that from the equation for a moment, the film’s on offer aren’t ones I’m all that interested in. I mean, I’d have loved to have watched The Irishman on the big screen. But that wasn’t possible without forking out the cost of a train ticket and probably the cost of accommodation for the night (and childcare and all of that stuff too).

The idea that the Warner Brothers decision has come out of nowhere is a sort of absurd one. The writing has been on the wall for a very, very long time, and while there’s no doubt that the Coronavirus crisis has exacerbated this situation, it’s not like it was an outcome no one saw coming. In fact, I fucking wrote about it like three years ago, and I’m a nobody.

If it were to mean the death of cinema, then do you know who I’d blame? It wouldn’t be Warners or the studios (although their ridiculous business model has its own flaws). It would be the cinemas themselves. They’re the ones who are supposed to be making the experience worth it. They’re the ones who are supposed to be encouraging the consumers in. That their entire flipping business! And let me ask you: when was the last time you saw a promotion for a specific cinema that involved enhancing the experience? I mean, there are loads around the cost of a ticket, and there’s a shit load about gimmicky 4D and the like (although you have to pay extra for that anyway), but how many ads have you seen just talking about going to the cinema to begin with? How many ads have you seen talking about a Cineworld exclusive Q&A or an Empire exclusive Double Bill or whatever?

I can answer for you. None. You haven’t seen any. Because they don’t fucking exist.

That’s because the cinemas got themselves into a situation where they relied entirely on the studios to do their heavy lifting. As I said, where I’m from there are three cinemas, and none of them needed to do much to guarantee an audience of some size, given their locations within the town sort of cover a wide area of local spaces and therefore if you want to see the new Marvel or the new Star Wars then you’ve pretty much only got the one option. That’s not a relevant, up-to-do, encouraging business model, that’s complacency.

Further to that, I’d like to throw some shade Christopher Nolan’s way. His stupidity at refusing to acknowledge the impact of a global pandemic has no doubt had a bit part in Warner Brothers’ decision here. But if he’s going to sit there in his not-inconsiderable wealth, and have a go at a business for making a business decision, then I can’t help but wonder why he doesn’t do something other than shout about it? Why not work with the cinemas, Chris? That could be an idea. Why don’t you have a chat with them and see what you can offer that might help drive people back to them?

A lot of the discourse around this reminds of the whole “customers are responsible for the death of the High Street” argument. And, frankly, that’s just Capitalist bullshit. Once again, it’s down to the businesses to encourage people to use them, not the other way around. That’s how this is supposed to work. You’re supposed to offer something that benefits the consumer. Have we forgotten that?

See, that’s the thing, isn’t it? You have to offer people something, and it must be something they’re not going to get anywhere else. As it stands, now, people can get a movie from their TV, and the whole “experience” argument doesn’t do it for anyone who doesn’t care about that. In a world where people will happily watch a movie on their phone, why would the promise of a big screen and surround sound be enough to get them to part with the money they’ve spend most of their week working their arses off to earn?

The onus is on the cinemas to solve this one. Are Warner Brothers being moralistically unfair here? Sure, probably. But they’re a business, they’re going to go where the most money is. I mean, Jesus! Don’t start getting uppity now. I don’t remember a lot of you having any problems when Disney bought the entire Fox back catalog and locked it behind their Disney+ paywall. Bit weird to start getting moralistic about the state of the industry now.

It’s not like the options aren’t there, and, as I said, it's not like we couldn't see this coming. The Home Video market has found a way to deal with the drop in interest, niche audiences. The likes of Arrow Video have been doing pretty damn well for themselves restoring and releasing cult films as collectors’ items, sure to attract a built-in audience. Cinemas could offer up a similar thing. Live Q&As, double bills, alternative cuts, cult classics, film festivals, arthouse movies, foreign films, sing-along screenings, genre nights... I mean, there are literally plenty of opportunities here. Make it an event. That’s the point. Drive people to you. As I said, when I was growing up the experience was the most important thing. Make it that again.

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© Alex Secker 2018