No Time to Die: stars fight to save cinemas

Silver screen: The Cinema Avenida in Morocco, resplendently empty. © Stephan Zaubitzer

Are cinemas history? As movie theatres languish in lockdown, many fear that home streaming will replace them completely. Others believe there will always be a place for the big screen.

“You don’t seem to know the current nightmare facing the cinema.”

Yesterday, 800 luminaries of French film — including actor Marion Cotillard and director Jacques Audiard — published an open letter to President Emmanuel Macron demanding cinemas reopen. “We can queue up to buy trainers or an ice-cream or cram into supermarkets or take packed trains,” they fumed, “but we cannot go to the cinema.”

From Hollywood to Bollywood, the plea touched a nerve. Film figures often worry about their medium’s decline. Covid-19 might have delivered the coup de grâce.

No one could deny that the flicks have had a good run. The first commercial screening took place in 1895 when a small crowd gathered to watch the Lumière Brothers’ sub-50-second snippets of factory workers, horse riders and garden hose pranks.

“The cinema is an invention without any future,” Louis Lumière said at the time. He was wrong. A global film boom began. Twenty years after the first screening, American director DW Griffith premiered his 193-minute long historical epic The Birth of a Nation. Hollywood entered its Golden Age. With the arrival of the talkie in the 1920s, cinema became a global form of art and entertainment.

On the surface, it continues to thrive. There are now approximately 200,00 cinemas worldwide. In 2019, Britain recorded 176 million cinema trips.

But the recession and public health restrictions have affected cinema – from the usher to the director. Uncertainty has spread: the latest James Bond film, No Time to Die, has been pushed back three times. And it has led many to wonder if the cinema is losing its shine. Tenet, a summer blockbuster considered a bellwether for the industry, failed to make a profit.

By contrast, lockdowns have proven beneficial for TV and online streaming. In 2020, Britain saw a 31% increase in screen viewing. Streaming services allow cinephiles to access thousands of films in an instant, freeing them from schedules and ticket prices. “Movies are more accessible than ever,” says writer Nadine von Cohen. “And you don’t have to put on pants or shower to watch them.”

Netflix has coaxed directors such as Martin Scorsese, Alfonso Cuarón and Bong Joon-ho to release films on its platform. It is currently campaigning for studios to release films digitally at the same time as they appear physically – depriving cinemas of their normal headstart.

Fans argue that the cinema retains a special magic. Few home set-ups can imitate it – the enormous screen, the ear-shattering sound, the darkness. According to director Roman Polanski, “Cinema should make you forget you are sitting in a theatre.” It is much harder to forget you are sitting in front of your laptop.

And filmgoing can be about more than watching a film. It can be a social occasion or a solitary ritual. “For some, they’re a refuge, for others a church.” says film critic Terri White, “A place of safety, of celebration, communion, of community.”

We now live surrounded by moving images, whether TikTok, Zoom or banner ads. The act of sitting in an auditorium and focusing on a story – with no option to check our phone or press pause – might be more striking than ever amid the constant distraction.

Are cinemas history?

Last picture show

Roll the credits, say some. All art forms have their day in the sun. Cinema is just approaching sunset. Now that we can watch whatever we want, whenever we want, the idea of paying to sit in a building at a particular time to watch a particular film seems quaint and inconvenient. When cinemas reopen, it will be to a world that has learnt to live without them.

Take two, say others. The pandemic is just a blip: cinema enjoyed enormous popularity before Covid-19 and will do so again. Streaming services might allow us to watch films at our leisure but they are no substitute for the intensity of cinema. Indeed, in a world saturated with video, the experience of watching a film without distraction might be more valuable than ever.

You Decide

  1. If all cinemas closed down, what would be the best way to reuse their buildings?
  2. If you made a film, would you rather show it in a cinema, on television or online?

Activities

  1. You manage a cinema. Pick five films that you would show to attract audiences back after a lockdown. Write a paragraph explaining why people should watch each one.
  2. Research a recent news story. Produce a pitch for a film adaptation to send to a production company, explaining the film’s plot, characters and how it would appeal to viewers.

Some People Say...

“Photography is truth. The cinema is truth twenty-four times per second.”

Jean-Luc Godard (1930 – ), French-Swiss film director and theorist

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
Although the Lumière Brothers’ 1895 screening is often cited as the invention of the cinema as we know it today, it was preceded by numerous similar technologies. From 1878, The British photographer Eadweard Muybridge invented the Zoopraxiscope to depict animals and people in movement. And in 1891, American inventor Thomas Edison demonstrated the Kinetoscope, which allowed people to view moving pictures one at a time. It became a commercial success, with Kinetoscope parlours across the US.
What do we not know?
While the Lumière Brothers pioneered the screening, there remains debate over who created the first film. One contender is the Frenchman Louis Le Prince, whose scene of family members walking around a Yorkshire garden has been dated as early as 1888. There is also a rival claim from the British duo Robert William Paul and Birt Acres, whose first collaborative work, Incident at Clovelly Cottage, was produced the same month as the first Lumière event.

Word Watch

Luminaries
People who inspire and influence others.
Bollywood
Indian cinema, the most popular in the world by number of tickets sold. Bollywood combines Bombay – the colonial name of Mumbai – with Hollywood.
Coup de grâce
A killing blow, used to end the suffering of a severely wounded person or animal. In French, it means “stroke of grace”.
The flicks
A slang term for the cinema, named after the flickering appearance of early films.
Lumière Brothers’
Auguste and Louis owned a photographic equipment factory in Lyon.
Golden Age
The period between the 1910s and 1960s in which Hollywood studios were world’s dominant filmmaking centre.
Talkie
An early nickname for films with sound. The first feature-length talkie, The Jazz Singer, was released in 1927.
James Bond
Since Dr No in 1962, there have been 25 official films starring six actors as the MI6 agent.
Bellwether
Something that indicates a trend.
Cinephiles
Those with a passionate interest in films, above and beyond regarding them as entertainment alone.

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