“I feel there is no substitute for going out to the movies,” Steven Spielberg once said. “There is nothing like it.” Sadly, that experience has now been ripped from us in one fell, foul swoop by an extraordinarily powerful invisible enemy. In times of trouble – world wars, The Great Depression, moments of social and political fracture – the cinema has traditionally been a place of escape, refuge, inspiration and information; a place where you can go to forget for a few moments the horrible things that are raging around you, or, in decades long past, a source of news and reportage from distant lands where trouble burned hot. Now, for the first time, the cinema has been removed as a form of societal salve, because this new enemy actually feasts on the very idea of society itself, killing us through the act of congregation. Though we are all isolated in the dark, cinema-going has always been about the joy of shared experience, about timing your laughs, gasps, tears and sighs with those of others.
Thanks to the insidious spread of Coronavirus, cinemas across Australia (and much of the world) are now closed. Scheduled blockbusters (A Time To Die, Black Widow, A Quiet Place: Part II and many others) have been postponed, with studios hoping to reap their usual rewards once a vaccine has been engineered and the world can return to normal, with the phrase “social distancing” a thing of the past. That, of course, might be a long way down the track, and some have publicly mused on whether cinema-going itself may have been dealt a death blow by COVID-19.
With the big screen medium already under threat from streaming services like Netflix, Amazon, Disney +, Stan and several others, could a necessitated mass shift to viewing platforms such as these strike the final nail in the cinematic coffin? As people lock down in their homes and subscribe to streaming services in record numbers (one joke doing the rounds claims that Coronavirus was sponsored by Netflix), will this type of viewing become the new normal? Will people get so used to streaming that they will turn away from the cinema for good? Well, not necessarily. A global pandemic that kills thousands and sees many, many more unemployed is not really good for any type of business in the long run, including streaming services. If you’re dead, strapped for cash, terminally depressed, homeless, or in hospital, Netflix will hardly be at the forefront of your thinking.
The tradition of the theatrical release is one obviously favoured by the world’s major movie studios. Notably, there has been no real consideration from them with regards to releasing their currently-in-limbo movies to streaming platforms (admittedly, Paramount will send The Lovebirds direct to Netflix, Disney is fast-tracking many of their titles to their streaming platform Disney+, and in the US, Universal titles such as The Invisible Man and The Hunt have been released quickly to digital), or even pay-per-view video-on-demand services. There were brief rumours circulating that Warner Bros. was contemplating going down that route with the upcoming Wonder Woman 1984, but that did not turn out to be the case. Like all other major releases, the film has been postponed until hopefully better times. The movie studios are definitely holding out for the world’s cinemas to reopen, and while a number of articles (like Vanity Fair’s “Can Movie Theatres Survive Coronavirus?”) might question the longevity of popcorn palaces and suburban multiplexes, this over-a-century-old institution is unlikely to issue a death rattle, even in the face of Coronavirus.
The most obvious reason is that there’s just too much money in it for everyone: the movie studios releasing the movies, the cinema chains gouging their patrons on popcorn prices, the candy suppliers, and so on and so on. The other essential factor is the sheer resilience of cinema-going. No other medium has experienced more obvious and seemingly irresistible threats than the movies: first, it was television that was going to spell the end of the cinema, then it was home video and the rise of VHS, then it was DVD and Blu-ray, then the growth of the hi-tech home cinema experience, then the omnipotence of streaming, and now the nightmare spread of COVID-19.
Cinema has battled valiantly against all of its previous threats, and it will eventually forge on through this one too. All of the recently shut down Australian cinema chains are viewing the currently dire situation as temporary (“We will see you soon,” reads Palace Cinemas’ closure press release. “To be continued…”), and despite the usual doom-and-gloom merchants looking at every glass as if it is half-empty, the cinema will survive. In short, people love it too much for it to just go quietly into the night. “I like going to the movies on a Friday night and seeing something fun,” writer/director Charlie Kaufman (Being John Malkovich) once said, and he’s not the only one. Who the hell knows when, but at some time in the future, we will all be back there, enveloped by darkness and gripped by the feeling that we might, just maybe, be about to see something great.