The Improbable Death of “The Cinema”

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As the means of how we attain movies evolves, enthusiasts busy themselves with various concerns about the bleak future of cinema. Studio executives, theater owners, filmmakers, and film critics distress about new emerging threats that menace the foundations of the way we consume cinema. The “death of cinema” drumbeat erupts every few decades, but the thunderous echo of that alarming sound eventually vanishes into thin air.

The first tidal wave to threaten to sweep traditional movie-going experiences came with the sudden breakthrough of home video in the mid 1970s. Yet as years went by, home entertainment and traditional movie theaters found a way to coexist in harmony. The latest so-called threat to cinema is the growing popularity of, both legal and illegal, online streaming services. Despite repeated concerns, scrutinising both film history and emerging data proves that the aforementioned developments are merely fluctuations in an evolving industry where the grounds are constantly shifting.

The film industry brims with theories on what makes millenials tick, and Hollywood’s worst fear is that younger generations are drifting towards online streaming as an alternative to old entertainment consumption patterns. However, despite the youth getting seduced by the ease of online streaming, box-office numbers show they are not shying away from multiplexes for the bigger movies.

According to the Hollywood Reporter, Universal Studios single handedly shattered all records collecting $5.77 billion as of August 2015 and these numbers are bound to grow with four months to go until the end of the year. The same report states that global and domestic theater attendances are spiking for other studios as well.

Ironically, Netflix’s first cinematic release in their initiative to push the boundaries of their capabilities was a major commercial flop. Beasts of No Nations performed below expectations grossing only $50,699. Yet, when it comes to producing and distributing their own films, Netflix are relativele newcomers. The low box-office turnout to an otherwise critically praised film can be attributed to the fact that viewers had the option to stream it at home. Just as Netflix struggles to break into the studio system, Hollywood studios are having a hard time establishing their presence within the online streaming platform.

BGR reports that 21st Century Fox, NBC Universal and Disney, the owners of the rival streaming service, Hulu, are finding difficulty landing on a common strategy, because “the three companies are already fiercely competitive with each other.” Cinema isn’t witnessing its own demise; we are in the midst of a continental drift within the film industry, where both Hollywood studios and streaming services awkwardly attempt to coexist.

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Perhaps the most logically accurate analysis of the current state of cinema comes from The Guardian’s Fred Wagner; “at the cinema, movies cater to groups of people, and thus try to appeal to plus-ones and tag-alongs as well as natural fans. That is why kids’ films have storylines for adults, and why romcoms go out of their way to attract men. But the Internet is different. As viewers are watching alone, films can be made exclusively for certain fanbases and still be confident of finding an audience.” Wagner predicts a splintering of the industry, where films are either made for the movie theatres or for other mediums.

A more compelling argument would be that streaming video is only directly affecting its home entertainment predecessors, as in physical discs such as DVDs and Blu-Rays. Streaming services like Netflix, Amazon Prime, and Hulu reach a combined annual viewership of around 3.5 billion compared to an estimated 2.4 billion disc views. So in a sense, streaming video is only affecting the industry within the boundaries of home entertainment. Digitally streaming films will hammer the final nail in the coffin of movies in physical form, the same way Laserdiscs killed VHS tapes.

In a similar fashion, going to the movies in a picture house is only affected by technological advancements within the evolution of the movie-going experience. The one thing that did exist from the very beginning is the movie theater. It is practically as old as film itself, but it too evolves and constantly changes. Before nickelodeons and movie theaters, there were vaudeville houses displaying live acts, each lasting between five to ten minutes to an audience.

When the Lumiere brothers arrived to the United States, they hooked their cinematograph to the magic lantern and projected short films to a live audience in these vaudeville houses. Later on, nickelodeons came along igniting the birth of the modern theater. Deluxe theaters were built and they became the go-to place for film fans holding a capacity of up to 6000 seats. There was the casual weekly change of program and each week the decorative exterior would light up a new movie title in colourful light bulbs.

Deluxe theaters also offered a better service with ushers walking customers to their assigned seats. S.L. Rothafel is often credited for making deluxe theaters such a pleasant environment, for his motto was to treat the audience like kings and queens. He later added a cooling system and theaters were air conditioned for the first time in history. These deluxe theaters made motion pictures the dominant form of entertainment. Today, deluxe theaters are getting run over by multiplexes and IMAX cinemas projecting digital as opposed to celluloid.

The notion that streaming video threatens to kill cinema can only be viewed as a misconception, for history and data prove that home entertainment and cinemas exist within different realms of the entertainment industry. They affect preceding technology as opposed to crossing over to eliminating one another. Whenever the line between cinema and home entertainment come up, leading Hollywood filmmakers take out their chalk and draw a sharp distinctive line between the two industries by introducing a new “immersive” selling point. This long feud with home entertainment has produced innovative technological advancement such as 60 frames per second projection, 8k digital restorations, and 3D. Today, even 35-70mm film-reel projections attract art-house fanatics towards indie cinemas.

 

In Savoring a Century of ‘The Cinema’, Roger Ebert wrote “books and plays can provide us with stories. But the movies uniquely create the impression that we have had an experience. The key word is we. I have seen a lot of movies by myself, but the experience is not the same as seeing a film with a large group of strangers. The greatest movie-going experiences of my life – the premieres of Apocalypse Now and Do the Right Thing, both at the Cannes Film Festival – were great not just because of the movies but because nowhere else do more people gather in the same theater to see them. Together, we – a cross-section of humanity – had an experience, and because it mirrored our shared humanity, it was somehow spiritual; we were giving witness.” If film history taught us anything, it’s that audiences going to the movies in large masses always prevails.

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One response to this post.

  1. Posted by Jeff on May 1, 2016 at 6:17 am

    Great article. While I hope you’re right that people ultimately prefer watching movies in theaters with large groups of people (strangers), I fear younger tech-savy, 2nd & 3rd screen junkies, who are used to sitting alone at a computer or other electronic devices will not want to make the effort to go to the theater-the same way these people suffer from lock-in non-social syndromes…

    Reply

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