Britain’s already beleaguered cinema sector has been plunged into an existential crisis. It should be the moment for all those who love film to rally to the cinematic cause
In the highly unlikely event of all things remaining equal for a month or two, one of the great cinematic treats we can look forward to this Christmas will be a star-studded new version of Agatha Christie’s Death on the Nile.
It marks the return of Kenneth Branagh as the now magnificently-moustachioed Hercule Poirot—he and those extraordinary Kitchener-style whiskers made their debut three years ago in Murder on the Orient Express—and the supporting cast includes Sophie Okonedo, Armie Hammer and Annette Bening. Should be huge fun and you might want to make a note of its current release date—December 18—in your diary. But probably only in pencil.
Death on the Nile, you see, is just one of many so-called blockbusters that have had their release dates delayed by the Covid-19 pandemic, a trend that began way back in March—before lockdown—when the producers of James Bond announced that the global release of Daniel Craig’s final outing as 007, No Time to Die, had been postponed from April to November.
Earlier this month, however, it was postponed again—this time to April next year—plunging Britain’s already beleaguered cinema sector into a new existential crisis. Within days, Cineworld announced the indefinite closure of all its UK cinemas, including its popular arthouse subsidiary, Picturehouse.
You can see why some cinematic doomsters have cheerily proclaimed the “death of cinema”. After all, for commercial cinemas to succeed they need a regular supply of big films that pull in audiences by the hundreds, thousands, even—not the sort of arthouse fodder that regards a matinee audience of 19 as a runaway success. But it’s precisely those big films that have been conspicuous by their absence in 2020, now for many months.
Christopher Nolan’s brain-scrambling Tenet may have eventually made it into cinemas, but other expected “tentpole” releases—the likes of the superhero films Wonder Woman 1984 and Black Widow, and Pixar’s Soul—have so far all failed to materialise.
Other keenly awaited pictures such as Disney’s live-action remake of Mulan and Tom Hanks’s naval drama, Greyhound, both ended up making their debuts on streaming services, one of the few sectors of the global economy to be enjoying a Covid-related boom.
Hence, the new crisis for UK cinemas, which only reopened their rigorously sanitised doors to the public in July. Following Cineworld’s lead, both the other big cinema chains—Odeon and Vue—subsequently announced plans to significantly reduce the number of days many of their cinemas are open for, while some smaller independent cinemas are reportedly closing their doors again entirely. It is simply not financially viable for them to stay open.
It should be the moment for all those who love film—or, indeed, earn a living making films—to rally to the cinematic cause, to don their masks and take up a regular, socially-isolated seat in the back stalls. Pour encourager les autres, as those French cinema pioneers, the Lumière brothers, might have said.
Instead, we have the likes of Mark Rylance, Oscar-winning star of Steven Spielberg’s Bridge of Spies and the voice of Roald Dahl’s Big Friendly Giant, casually opining in an interview with The Times that “if cinemas all close up I won’t be that upset” but that he’d be devastated if Britain’s theatres didn’t reopen. “When I go out I want to go to something live. I want to have the soul of the person in the room.”
With a particularly bitter irony, he made the comments while promoting his latest film, Waiting for the Barbarians, an adaptation of the J.M. Coetzee allegorical novel, in which he is, inevitably, rather good. Nevertheless, I can’t have been alone among those of us dependent on a thriving cinema sector for a living in thinking: “Thanks a lot, Mark.”
To some extent, of course, Rylance was playing to the gallery, as so many actors with a film to promote do. Anything to grab a headline, eh? Elsewhere, in the same interview, he would admit how enthused he’d recently been by making a student film with a bunch of “undergrad film junkies”.
“We stayed up until 2am talking about the great film-makers of the world,” he said. Doesn’t sound like a man who’s fallen out of love with the cinema.
But the bigger question is—grandstanding apart—is he right? Is cinema dead? Categorically not. Cinema is certainly very poorly—particularly in the United States, where the prolonged closure of city centre cinemas in vital markets such as Los Angeles and New York has had a devastating effect—but it is not dead. Look closely enough and there are definite signs of life. And that, in large part, is because cinema is not just a multi-billion dollar business, it’s an artform too.
For well over a century now, there have always been artists who choose to reach for a film camera to express themselves in the way that other artists have always reached for a paintbrush or chisel. And that form of cinema is thriving.
Just as Rylance was energised by working on a student film, I spent part of lockdown first judging the graduate films for one of London’s leading film schools and then a selection of one-minute shorts made by pupils at my old school. The energy and enthusiasm of the younger group—a generation already completely at home with the idea of shooting a film on their smart phone—was perhaps predictable.
But the technical skill and artistic creativity displayed by the older film students as they took complex, challenging ideas and turned them into something that said . . . well, what they wanted to say, was refreshing, invigorating and hugely cheering. They were making art.
Film festivals—very much the engine room of arthouse cinema—have bounced back vigorously, no doubt helped by the fact that Parasite, Bong Joon Ho’s Korean thriller that won the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival last year, went on to win the Oscar for Best Picture, the first foreign language film ever to do so.
This year’s Cannes, traditionally held in May, was devastated by Covid. The original festival was cancelled in March and a similar fate awaited the postponed version planned for July. A large selection of films was eventually made but despite being shown in French cinemas and at other festivals these have failed to make their normal impact.
Since Cannes’ postponement, however, things have definitely looked up. Venice, where a reduced number of attendees were tested regularly and had their temperatures taken several times a day, proceeded almost as normal at the beginning of September and was proclaimed a triumph.
Toronto, following soon after, moved successfully online while the London Film Festival, now drawing to a close, struck a happy halfway house with many screenings happening online but others taking place in real, socially distanced cinemas too. Film festivals are definitely finding their way.
As a result, we already know that films to look out for over coming months—both in the cinema and at award ceremonies—include Nomadland, One Night in Miami, The Duke, Pieces of a Woman, Ammonite and Steve McQueen’s Mangrove.
But if arthouse cinema is showing resilience, so too is commercial film production to a quite extraordinary degree. When lockdown hit the UK in March, the British Film Commission estimates £1 billion worth of films being shot here on location and in studios were instantly shut down.
However, by June, the British film industry had come up with workable, government-approved Covid-secure protocols—a flexible and evolving mix of testing, temperature checks, bubbling certain groups, additional hygiene measures, much mask-wearing—that would allow filming to resume as soon as lockdown was sufficiently relaxed. Which is exactly what happened, helped—it must be said—by the government’s widely welcomed decision to set up a £500 million fund to help producers who were understandably struggling to get Covid-related insurance cover for their productions.
As a result big, so-called “Hollywood” films, which are actually being made in Britain such as The Batman, Mission Impossible 7 and Jurassic World: Dominion started up again in September. UK film production was back in action. It’s not infallible—the Jurassic World unit were forced to suspend filming for a few days after some positive tests—but it’s a hugely important start.
There’s no doubt, however, that the recovery in the country’s cinemas is far more tentative, despite the slightly surprising but encouraging news that cinema in China—the presumed source of the outbreak—is now apparently thriving.
But should some UK cinemas fall by the wayside, I’m confident that a band of eager, film-loving amateurs will surely take their place. We live in a world where just about every significant film ever made is available in digital format and where the cost of decent projection equipment is reasonably affordable. In short, if some cinemas do close, quickly established film societies and clubs—many perhaps co-existing “virtually” online—will surely step in.
That very special experience of watching a film on the big screen and as part of an audience will not disappear. It can’t: film is simply too important for that. This may be no time for James Bond but it’s no time for cinema to die either.
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