The Multiplex is under threat. This is nothing new. Cinema audiences have been declining for decades, pretty much ever since the 40s in fact. After displacing the theatre as a centre for communal entertainment, the cinema has been forced to adapt, firstly by the advent of television, and more recently by that of the internet. Nowadays we see IMAX, 3D, and high frame rates extolled as wonders only available from the much vaunted ‘cinematic experience’. But what does all this mean, and is cinema really under threat?
What it means is that industry bean counters are feeling the pinch. No one values what they can get for free, and the explosion of piracy in the years since video streaming services became an online norm have not been kind to the industry. No longer is piracy a matter of stashing a badly printed DVD cover into your coat after haggling for it with a market trader of questionable morality. No, now piracy is easy – it’s in our living rooms, just a couple of clicks and barely a second thought away. And so people are staying at home and if they are not actually pirating, they are at least flicking through their mile-long Netflix queues.
How has the industry responded? The same way they did when television cannibalised its audience in the 50s – with gimmicks. 3D returned in a blaze of glory, championed by industry heavyweights Jeffrey Katzenberg and James Cameron, only for initial excitement to peter out, and revenues to steadily decline. Since 3D’s 2010 heyday, distributors have moved onto large for- mat screens such as IMAX to lure in the crowds. But these gimmicks only drive audiences to a certain type of film: big, events-driven spectacles, whose box office is inordinately front loaded on opening weekends, where studios, rather than distributors, pocket most of the money. And it means that mid-budget films are headed the way of the dodo, whilst would-be-indie-breakouts remain confined to the art house ghetto, relying on public funding to keep them on screens.
Adding value to the cinematic experience can sometimes be great. But what about the other way that distributors have offset falling revenues? Ramping up the ticket prices. This ill-advised policy has turned audiences off – cinema-going attendance has been in marked decline in recent years, hidden by artificially inflated revenues. What’s more, with chains now offering optional luxury seating (on top of ticket prices inching north of a tenner), the communal experience is being split between the haves and have nots. And when you can lose yourself in a film at home without distractions, it’s difficult to want to pay for glowing phone screens, and the ceaseless crunch of the perennially present popcorn, a reminder that you’re just another consumer to be extorted, whether that be at the ticket booth, or the concession stand.
Anyway, isn’t the cinematic experience the appreciation of film itself – the sharing of a heightened experience of emotion, thought and aesthetics straight from the mind of the director to that of the viewer? Why need this be a communal activity? The impact of first experiencing a film is not diluted doing so alone. Surely no one would argue that any great classic, be it from Bergman, Fellini, Ozu or Coppola, has been withered merely by distance from a release date?
Audiences want, and need, to support the things they love – films wouldn’t get made if no one paid to see them – but cinemas need to meet them in the middle. Lowering prices would bring the crowds back. The extinction that the ‘cinematic experience’ is facing is entirely of its own creation.