If nothing else, the chaos provoked by the COVID-19 pandemic has been indiscriminate. Very few industries have been spared by its impact, whether that takes the form of job cutbacks, venue closures or event cancellations, in what has felt like a real-time stripping back of the usual structures that hold up modern life. Among them has been the travails of the cinema industry – and while few would name these struggles as one of the most tragic consequences of COVID-19’s spread, it’s certainly not without its own significance.
With theatres shut down worldwide and new releases either redirected to video-on-demand or shunted down the calendar, cinemas are on the ropes – the massive US chain AMC Theatres, which also owns UK outlet Cineworld, has spent the last couple of weeks on the verge of bankruptcy. Early on in what will likely be a fight lasting over a year, it’s abundantly clear that whatever form the cinema industry takes when it re-emerges on the other side of this pandemic will be a thoroughly changed one.
A lot of the media coverage has centred on the impact on big multiplexes, and that’s not unreasonable. They’re the big money-makers of the industry – whenever a new Marvel film launches, for instance, it’s cinemas like AMC who are programming round-the-clock shows and selling comically huge servings of food and drink to families for a massive mark-up. For the vast majority of worldwide filmgoers, they’re the absolute centre of their cinematic experience – and not without good reason. The big screen seems the most obvious home for huge, epic spectacles with crashing sound, glossy visuals and air-punching moments best experienced with a big crowd.
Ultimately, though, it can easily be argued that these huge multiplexes are actually among the less threatened cinemas. AMC may teeter on the brink of bankruptcy at the moment, but they’re still a massive global corporation who will be highly eligible for the litany of government business bailouts that this crisis has necessitated. If worst comes to worst, there are plenty of big companies waiting to pull out the chequebook and rescue the industry themselves – Netflix, for instance, has had recent experience in buying out and paying for big cinemas. Likewise, companies like Disney pour hundreds of millions into their tentpole releases; they can’t let the venues through which they’re consumed collapse.
Things seem less certain for the kinds of cinemas beneath the notice of big corporations and governments. Independent cinemas, and the smaller prestige films that they screen, are perhaps more directly in the line of fire of COVID-19’s economic impact, for quite a few different reasons. For one, smaller cinemas often take the form of a local business or a minor chain who don’t have the same corporate backing as the likes of AMC – once the funds start to run low, as they already are, there seems to be little to fall back on, and it’s uncertain how much small business loans will be able to help prevent this collapse. They’re also simply more expendable. While the argument for seeing huge blockbusters on the big screen alone is easy, it’s harder to insist on the same for quiet and meditative character pieces. Plenty of 2020’s independent releases have therefore taken the road straight to online download, skipping a cinema release entirely, ascertaining that they’ll be further down in the queue whenever the industry boots back up.
Even when the smoke clears, it’s not so clear indie releases will have the same position they once had, precarious as it already was. Consumers are likelier to be more skittish with their money in the wake of COVID-19, and more cautious with their trips into the outside world, and indie releases, which could just as easily be enjoyed within the comforts of home on a television screen, will probably bear the brunt of that. This process was already going on, anyway – the box office analyst Scott Mendelson of Forbes has long argued that cinemas are turning into ‘arcades’, solely reserved for gimmicky experiences which cannot be replicated at home, with COVID only accelerating this.
Yet, recently, there was a little flash of hope for smaller cinema in the form of the runaway box office success of Best Picture winner Parasite, which actually expanded from specialist outlets like Curzon to multiplex cinemas through sheer force of demand. While not quite independent cinema, original releases not related to franchises have also succeeded lately, such as Rian Johnson’s hit whodunit Knives Out, and the Adam Sandler thriller Uncut Gems. It’s not clear if there will even be space for these successes in a cautious post-COVID world, in which only the safest possible bets (usually meaning something tagged with an existing brand name) are allowed to thrive.
Perhaps these predictions are overly pessimistic – I certainly hope so. Independent cinema will survive in some form anyway, but it would be a crying shame if great, risky releases like Eliza Hittman’s abortion drama Never Rarely Sometimes Always, which received a VOD-only release in the UK, are relegated to fodder for the massive bank of streaming content available online. The big screen should be a home for a litany of different experiences beyond just the loud ones. The demise of independent cinemas would be such that the film industry, as a whole, becomes a lesser one.