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Coronacinema: The Big Picture for the Silver Screen

The last movie I saw in the cinema before COVID began was Portrait of a Lady on Fire. Set in the late 18th century, Marianne, a young female artist, is hired to paint Héloïse, a young debutante, before she is sent off to marry. Through this meeting, the two women fall in love.

Over the course of the film, the two clandestine lovers explore art and feminism on their own terms, undisturbed by the outside world.

Unbeknownst to almost everyone on that day, this would serve as an allegory for the state of cinema in the months to follow.

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In Short: As COVID-19 continues to loom large over all aspects of our lives, it goes without saying that the world of cinema has been all but completely restructured by the virus.

  • Cinema is an important part of Canadian pastime. Roughly two thirds of Canadians go to the movies at some point each year.
  • With many cinephiles having been locked in with only home media to sate their filmic appetites, the reopening of cinemas and other new exhibitional prospects promise the reintroduction of the cinematic lifestyle, albeit in a more limited, distanced capacity.

At the beginning of the pandemic, as was the case with most businesses, cinemas were declared non-essential. Although the film exhibition industry does provide thousands of jobs, it was a vital choice to slow the spread of the virus.

  • Any film fan with common sense would begrudgingly agree with this. Although it is an important pastime, Canadian theatre attendance has steadily declined since 2015 before dropping off entirely this year as a result of the pandemic.

While cinemas, festivals, and movie goers restructure the way movies are screened and watched, it reveals the ultimately communal nature of watching a film, and how we can continue this collective experience together, but apart.

On-Demand instead of On-Screen

Shutting down cinemas during the pandemic cut theatrical releases short, and indefinitely delayed any future releases. There were a few weeks where the idea of seeing “new movies” seemed unlikely for the foreseeable future.

Since then, however, many major studios have elected to make films originally slated for theatrical release available on demand through paid rental or on streaming services.

For many key markets, such as the family demographic, releasing these films digitally became a blessing for the consumer.

  • Simple math would say that a family with two or more children would likely spend upwards of $50 on a single trip to the movies, after the cost of admission and refreshments.
  • Now, they need only pay once for access to Scoob! or Trolls World Tour on their preferred digital platform like Apple TV or Google Play. They then own the films digitally, allowing their kids to watch them more than once.
  • For this market, the shift from theatrical distribution to in-home exhibition was a saving grace.

In terms of more mature fare, however, the shift to the on-demand appears more nuanced.

  • Universal’s The King of Staten Island starring Pete Davidson was one of the first major adult-oriented films to cancel its theatrical run in favour of an on-demand release, and it topped the charts on almost all VOD platforms for weeks after its release. Despite this, thus far the film has only grossed over $1 million domestically.
  • Under regular circumstances, a film like this, a Judd Apatow comedy, would have probably made back its estimated $18 million budget after a few weeks in theatres.

In turn, Universal’s move to distribute this film and Trolls World Tour digitally got them in hot water with theatre chains, who threatened to pull Universal films from their release slate, including the upcoming Fast and Furious film, the latest in the billion-dollar franchise.

Since then, however, all parties have reached agreements, and as theatres begin to reopen, it seems like the relationship has healed.

These tensions that have been bubbling beneath the surface of the movie industry over the course of the pandemic will eventually boil over.

As provinces announced their plans to head into Stage 3, movie theatres were allowed to conditionally reopen, permitting that they allow no more than 50 guests at a time per establishment, regardless of the number of screens.

While independent theatres with one or two screens can manage this limitation, Cineplex, whose locations all have at least 6 screens, were devastated by this move, and successfully lobbied to have this restriction loosened.

  • Now, if you look at your local Cineplex’s listings, you will see that they have multiple screens operating at a time, with many of them holding close to or more than 50 people.
  • Furthermore, they are enforcing an extremely lax policy on masks, wherein theatregoers need only wear a mask when entering the theatre, and may remove their masks once seated, despite many of the occupiable seats being perpendicular to each other.

For moviegoers unbeknownst to the political elements that have recently affected the cinema, they will simply be happy to be back, without recognizing the irresponsibility posed by Cineplex in their efforts to appease customers.

As theatres reopen, we are beginning to see the tactics used to ease people back into the cinematic experience, to varying degrees of safety.

  • Canada’s largest exhibitor, Cineplex, has fallen on hard luck during the pandemic, laying off numerous workers after losing their nearly $3 billion deal to be bought out by Cineworld, the UK’s largest theatre chain, and are now suing them over it.
  • As Cineplex gradually opens more of their locations, they have been charging only $5 a ticket on all formats, including IMAX and 3D, which usually carry a surcharge, clocking in at about $15-20.
  • With a lack of new releases, however, they have been screening “classics” such as Inception, The Empire Strikes Back and… err… Adam Sandler’s Grown Ups (I’m sorry but who is risking their life to see that??? Please tell me so I can verbally berate them).

However, with new movies finally seeing release, especially Christopher Nolan’s hotly anticipated new thriller Tenet, the last and only summer tentpole release, it seemed moviegoers at large would finally be attracted back to the multiplex.

While this may have gone over moderately-well in countries with the virus mostly under control, attendance in the United States has not been as high as they hoped. This has not only had an effect on Warner Bros’ upcoming release schedule, with Wonder Woman 1984 now postponed to Christmas, but it leads me to the conclusion that the studio jumped the gun.

Meanwhile, independent cinemas have been hit by the pandemic just as badly as corporate exhibitors.

Their solutions, however, have had far more concern for the well-being of their patrons, and foster more of an appreciation for the art of cinema than $5 Adam Sandler movies ever could.

  • When cinemas were still unanimously closed, Kino Lorber, one of the largest independent film distribution organizations in North America, introduced Kino Marquee, an on-demand service where you can rent “online screenings” wherein your purchase directly benefits the participating independent cinema of your choosing.
  • Since they introduced this with the Brazilian film Bacurau back in March, many other distributors have introduced a similar model.
  • Moreover, major awards-season festivals like the New York and Toronto International Film Festivals will be introducing a similar model for online exhibition, wherein a smaller than usual selection of films will be available to stream on specific days of the festival, in addition to socially distanced screenings in their respective cities.

Online-facing approaches being adopted by the aforementioned festivals will connect cinephiles from all over the world virtually, fostering a global community while still highlighting local efforts within that community.

Bringing People Together, while Apart

These open access approaches to film distribution run decidedly counter to the mindset that films should be exclusive events that require the physical presence of those simply trying to tap into a communal experience.

Rather than attempting to perpetuate an unsustainable social behaviour, we can instead begin experimenting new ways of bringing people together through film. The shift to online curation sheds light on an oft misunderstood element of cinema: communal experience.

The in-person element of sitting in a theatre with a bunch of strangers who may or may not be carrying a deadly virus may not be the most tempting idea right now.

Here, I think, in our newly distanced but wholly interconnected world, we can begin to experiment with new ways of bringing people together through cinema.

  • Take for example Netflix Party, a browser extension which allows multiple people to sync up while watching Netflix, gives freedom to people looking to experience movies in a group setting while remaining physically isolated.
  • This phenomena is scaled up when applied to simultaneous or limited-time online festival screenings, where your temporal relation to the film becomes part of the experience, encouraging active, thoughtful consumption of film artistry.

Bottom Line: The pandemic has both restructured and emphasized the ways in which we view movies.

Even outside of these time-and-place specific examples, the internet almost acts as a never-ending film festival, with old and new movies, major and minor, all at the ready, waiting for you to find them.

After all, this is essentially the full wealth of all human knowledge at our fingertips, there’s gotta be something decent to watch.

At the end of Portrait of a Lady on Fire, after the two leads have been separated by fate, Marianne spots Héloïse from across the auditorium at the Opera on a balcony. The camera holds on Héloïse’s face as she watches the stage, transfixed and brought to tears, oblivious to her ex-lover’s gaze. If and when I return to the cinema, my reaction may not be unlike hers, rapturously engaged. For now, though, I’ll stick to streaming.