By Erin Free

To state the blindingly obvious, COVID-19 has changed the entire world and flipped everything on its head. Terms like “iso” have entered the lexicon; face-masks are everywhere; live music feels like a thing of the distant past; and rugby league players are stirring up controversy just by going to cafes and eating. And nowhere are things more different than in Australia’s cinemas. With America gripped by confusion and wracked by political debate over COVID-19 and how to deal with it, The Dream Factory is pretty much closed for business right now.

Hollywood’s productions have, for the most part, shut down, and the big studios have opted to warehouse their in-the-can blockbusters while the nation’s cinemas remain closed or operating at half-speed. Rather than release their big-money tentpole titles into half-empty picture houses, the likes of Warner, Sony and Marvel have opted to hang onto potential crowd pleasers like Wonder Woman 1984, No Time To Die and Black Widow until monster box office earnings are eventually guaranteed once again. Disney, meanwhile, has made the shock decision to send its big budget live action remake of Mulan straight to their streaming service, Disney +, with a $29.99 price tag on top of a regular subscription.

Russell Crowe in Unhinged.

For Australian cinemas (which are open in all states except for the sadly COVID-smashed Victoria), this means that the usual supply chains have been cut off. Pre-COVID, most Aussie cinemas were completely dominated by American blockbusters, with smaller films usually squeezed off screen to make way for the latest superhero or Star Wars flick. A quick trawl through the websites of the major movie chains now paints a much different picture. In this strange new landscape, a film like the entertaining but decidedly B-grade Russell Crowe thriller Unhinged looks like a major release.

But in the void created by the lack of blockbusters, some truly interesting films have been afforded much welcome breathing room. Would the enjoyable arthouse thriller The Burnt Orange Heresy have really made it to cinemas pre-COVID? And if it had, it certainly wouldn’t still be screening after three weeks. The cracking comedy The King Of Staten Island, meanwhile, is still playing in cinemas a month after its release, as are the equally impressive likes of Where’d You Go Bernadette, The Vigil, Babyteeth and The Personal History Of David Copperfield. In the pre-COVID world of ship-‘em-and-strip-‘em film releases – with many movies dumped from cinemas before audiences even had a chance to find out that they were there – this newfound purpose-driven longevity of release is a true breath of fresh air.

The King Of Staten Island

And so are the reduced ticket prices, with cinemas slashing their usual rates in an effort to get punters back through the doors. If you’re worried about catching the Corona V while seeing The Secret: Dare To Dream, don’t worry: cinemas are actually one of the safest places to be at the moment, with seating spaced well apart (way beyond the usual 1.5 metres) and regular cleaning happening in between sessions. As a side bonus, you won’t have to put up with anyone kicking your seat or talking loudly and munching chips right behind you during your screening of 23 Walks.

Another pleasant development has been the resurgence in the retro market, with cinemas giving younger audiences the chance to see classic belters like Pretty In Pink, Heat, The Thing, Psycho, Chinatown, Dazed And Confused and Apocalypse Now on the big screen, which is, of course, still the best place to see a movie.

Dazed And Confused

But is this to be “the new normal”, to use a truly bashed-and-battered phrase? Probably not. This more relaxed, offbeat and unconventional brand of movieland is likely not a case of the meek genuinely inheriting the cinematic earth, but rather a curious pause that we should all enjoy while it lasts. Christopher Nolan’s big budget cerebral thriller, Tenet, is slated for a release on August 27, and the regular TV ads currently screening would suggest that this often delayed flick will actually make it to cinemas this time around. Tenet is being viewed as something of a test case, and if it makes money, cinemas could once again become the domain of the blockbuster. A number of “bigger” films (The New Mutants, Bill & Ted Face The Music, The King’s Man, Trolls World Tour) are currently slated for release in September, so depending on the audience response, Australia’s cinemas could be shaping up for a return to their pre-COVID blockbuster-friendly ways…so enjoy the peace and quiet while you can.

If you liked this story, check out our opinion pieces on famous people during lockdown and our early piece about the future of cinema.

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