As the film industry comes back to life, will it ever fully recover from the pandemic?

After a year of closures and production halts, the industry has a lot of work to do

LOS ANGELES, CALIFORNIA - MAY 27: The El Capitan Theatre Hosts Special Opening Night Fan Event For Disney's "Cruella" at El Capitan Theatre on May 27, 2021 in Los Angeles, California.   Matt Winkelmeyer/Getty Images/AFP
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Whisper it quietly – so the steamers don't hear – but big-screen movies are back. Last month, John Krasinski's horror-thriller A Quiet Place Part II opened in America with a $57 million box office gross over the three-day Memorial Day holiday. An impressive bow in any year, that it arrived in the wake of a year of shuttered movie houses across the globe because of the coronavirus pandemic is nothing short of miraculous. 

As Chris Aronson, Paramount's distribution chief, told trade paper Variety: "We're happy for the industry. We're happy for movie theatres. This is a referendum on the future of moviegoing, so there's a lot to celebrate."

The biggest US opening since the pandemic began – beating Tenet, Godzilla vs. Kong and Wonder Woman 1984 – it's a firm indication that the public are willing to re-engage with movie theatres after a year of idly scrolling through Netflix.

Much the same already happened with F9, Universal's latest entry in the Fast and the Furious saga, which has been rolled out in several countries – including the UAE – before releasing in America later this month. Everywhere, there were record numbers, despite mixed reviews for this ninth instalment of the Vin Diesel-­led action-adventure.

With Covid-19 cases dropping and, crucially, more vaccines being administered by the day, normality is gradually returning to the cinema experience.

The genie is out of the bottle

Yet, to borrow a much overused phrase, it's a new normal. Over the past year, studios have smashed the so-called theatrical "window" – the once-sacred three-month period between a cinema release and a home entertainment debut. 

Last month, Disney's Cruella played in theatres, and in some countries, through its streaming platform Disney+. The same will happen for Marvel's Black Widow in July. Warner Bros is releasing every one of its movies this year in cinemas and via its own nascent channel, HBO Max. 

This image released by Disney shows Emma Stone in a scene from "Cruella." Costumes for the film were designed by Oscar winning designer Jenny Beavan. (Laurie Sparham/Disney via AP)
'Cruella' was both in cinemas and in some countries via Disney+. Disney via AP

Much to the dismay of ­cinema owners, the genie is out of the bottle, so will studios now try and stuff the cork back in? Perhaps, again, A Quiet Place Part II is leading the way. The film will screen on streaming channel Paramount+ 45 days after making its ­theatrical bow, a shorter window than is traditional. It's likely other studios will follow suit, allowing greater choice for the consumer.

If you want the big-screen experience, you can still seek it out. Or, if you'd prefer to watch at home, you can do that, too. Certainly, cinema chains will need to up their game – whether investing in luxury furnishings to tempt patrons to leave their homes or offering something different, such as in-person Q&As. 

Likewise, the studios must innovate. With streamers such as Netflix scooping awards and our attention this past year, these "disruptors" have dominated the market. The ailing studios are going to need to do more than simply churn out countless sequels; investing in hungry new talent, just as Hollywood did in the late 1960s, would be a good start.

SYDNEY, AUSTRALIA - MAY 19: Writer and director John Krasinski participates in a virtual Q&A following the special preview screening of A QUIET PLACE PART II on Wednesday May 19, 2021 at HOYTS Entertainment Quarter in Sydney, Australia.  (Photo by James Gourley/Getty Images for Paramount Pictures)
Writer and director John Krasinski at a virtual Q&A following a preview of 'A Quiet Place Part II' in Australia. Getty Images

What's happening to film festivals?

Film festivals are also gradually coming out of hibernation. After Toronto, Sundance, Berlin and many smaller gatherings all gamely attempted to mount events online, Cannes is now aiming to roll out the literal red carpet from Tuesday to Saturday, July 6 to 17. 

Last week, the line-up was announced for the world's most prestigious film festival, which will open with Leos Carax's musical Annette. A perfect way, you might think, to re-engage the public with the art and artistry of moviemaking.

The movie business is about everybody: the people working the concession stands, running the equipment, taking tickets, booking movies, selling advertising and cleaning bathrooms in local theatres

In France, from Wednesday, June 30, cinemas will be allowed, once again, to be at full capacity, meaning that it might just feel like the Cannes of old. Almost. Those who wish to enter the Palais, where films are shown, will be required to show a vaccination certificate, negative PCR or antibodies test.

Mask-wearing will be mandatory inside venues, too. There will even be a testing centre located “within striking distance of the Palais des Festivals” as the recent press release stated.

The pipeline is also looking healthy again. Film and TV productions have been up and running for several months now. The shooting of Jurassic World: Dominion – the sixth part of the dinosaur franchise – was halted in March 2020, when the world went into lockdown. But it restarted in July with actors and crew enduring strict safety protocols, regular testing and social distancing on set. The film wrapped up in November, proof that a production of that size can still be successfully mounted.

While some shows were curtailed – high-finance drama Billions stopped midway through production of its fifth season, leaving fans hanging – the entertainment industry has proven hugely resilient in the face of these difficulties.

A rocky road ahead

But things need to change. With so many freelancers in the industry, who were left without work or financial protection during the pandemic, greater support needs to be put in place for those who aren't at the top of the pile.

To quote Tenet director Christopher Nolan, in an op-ed piece he wrote in The Washington Post last year: "The movie business is about everybody: the people working the concession stands, running the equipment, taking tickets, booking movies, selling advertising and cleaning bathrooms in local theatres. Regular people, many paid hourly wages rather than a salary."

More emergency relief funds need to be implemented, for sure.

Undoubtedly, it’s been a time that has shaken cinema to the core. Perhaps it was necessary – all part of a periodic reinvention that any industry goes through. But just as the movies survived the advent of television, VHS and even streaming, so they will here. The thrill of a communal viewing experience didn’t evaporate with the pandemic; if anything, being isolated has made us thirsty for it more.

As Cannes’ artistic director Thierry Fremaux said recently: “The cinema has not had its last word yet.” The show must – and will – go on.