Chances are that the last time you watched a movie, it was not at the cinema.
The entertainment industry, like so many other, suffered a great deal because of the pandemic. Theatres around the world were forced to close for months. This highly unusual circumstance allowed streaming services to fill a vacuum.
While this year has been great for streaming services, it has not done the cinema any favours. In a time of social distancing, one has to wonder: what is the cinema's future? And what can we expect in the next couple of years?
Cinemas, it is evident, have been struggling for some time. Ticket sales have been falling steadily since 2002, according to film business data site The Numbers. According to a study quoted in the newsletter White Hutchinson, cinema attendance per capita in the US has dropped to 3.5 times a year in 2018, versus the peak of 5.2 times a year in 2002.
People across the world prefer watching a film at home rather than spending money on a ticket, compounded by the cost of popcorn and drinks. Nor are Netflix and the like the first major threat to the cinema. Television was its first rival.
Some studios decided to defend the threat of television by running successful TV stations and TV programming became its own thing, taking a more serialised approach to storytelling, much like radio.
Then came the next big threat to cinema: the home video, starting with VHS tapes and Betamax, all the way to DVD and Blu-ray formats.
The film industry had to make sure that home video did not become the alternative to going to the multiplex but rather, remained a supplement. And they did this by investing more money into films, spending a lot of time and money to make the cinematic experience more immersive than the average television programme. The high price of home video discs — and the fact that a film was not released on DVD or Blu-ray till months after it was shown in cinemas – meant that keen viewers still needed to buy a ticket and make the trip to the theatre to watch the latest release.
Which brings us to perhaps the biggest threat to cinema halls: streaming services.
The appeal of a streaming service lies in the library at your disposal. You pay the subscription fee every month and you can watch as many films or television shows as you like – a film lover’s utopia. Who would not want that at their fingertips?
This year, streaming services became even more dominant. According to a study published on the site TV Technology, more than 25 per cent of consumers added at least one streaming service to their media consumption during the pandemic.
With people having to stay at home, several distributors released their films on these services rather than waiting for movie theatres to pick up once again. Disney decided to release its live action remake Mulan on their streaming service Disney+ only a month after its theatrical run. And Bollywood powerhouse Amitabh Bahchan's latest film Gulabo Sitabo was released on Amazon's Prime Video. This alternative platform for film releases – cheaper for producers – could be seen as great news. We ought to celebrate that the newest films can come straight to our homes at a reasonable price. While that is true, there are consequences to a future with no cinemas if films continue to release only on streaming platforms.
Watching a film in the cinema is more than about simply watching a film. It is about being immersed in the experience to a much greater degree and feeling transported to the action on screen. There is a magnetism about going to the cinema that cannot be replicated at home — unless you can afford to build yourself a home theatre.
Cinephiles would agree that many of our favourite films were made more special because we watched them on the big screen with surround sound. What would the T-Rex roar in Jurassic Park have been if you had to experience it on your humble television for the first time? Or the immensity of outer space of the Star Wars series if you did not watch that introductory yellow scroll on the widest screen possible?
There are other repercussions too. Not having that magical place dedicated to film-watching will affect filmmaking. Studios might stop funding big blockbuster releases if home viewing gains more traction than going to the cinema. Slowly, this could affect the choices of the best directors – they might veer away from making certain films for fear that no distributor would want to buy them.
A future without movie halls would mean that generations would be denied the wonder of seeing larger-than-life characters on a massive screen. They would be denied journeys of wonder and imagination, the chance to escape reality and for a couple of hours, to be in a different world.
Creating a five-star experience that involves a three-course meal and a big leather reclining chair does not make a film-viewing experience – even though some movie halls have gone to the extent of making chairs move with the action on screen. But perhaps the way forward for cinemas is to go backwards. Drive-in cinemas here in the UAE are an example of people's willingness to accept "retro" when it comes to watching films. Once popular in the 1950s and 1960s, the drive-in made a comeback during the pandemic due to social distancing rules.
The same creativity could be applied to the cinema in a post-pandemic world. Instead of going all out to attract an audience, cinemas ought to remind viewers of the joys of sitting quietly in the dark with strangers, experiencing something together. Cinemas should screen a wider variety of films and not be afraid to screen older films. With cheaper distribution costs for these films and therefore cheaper tickets, people will be willing to head back and enjoy the magic of movies that they have been denied for months because of Covid-19.
Let's be clear. There is no substitute for a good, immersive film experience. And even though people may not return to cinemas in droves any time soon, when they do return, the onus is on them – on film lovers, all of us who love a good movie experience – to go back regularly. This is, after all, what will keep the cinema alive.
Faisal Salah is a social media journalist for The National