One late summer’s evening back in 1967, my father walked down to the Queen’s Cinema in Palmers Green, North London, to see the new James Bond film, You Only Live Twice. Mum had taken us kids to see it earlier in the week, so he went alone to catch the Saturday evening screening.
At the end, as the tiles rolled, he dawdled to let everybody else shoot out ahead of him. The reason was simple. The cinema was closing for good that night (it was pulled down to become a supermarket) and he wanted to be the final person to leave it – the last man out.
He would repeat this sad ritual several times over the coming years, as more and more of our local cinemas shut down. For him, local cinemas were a vital part of the community and as such should not just die unmourned.
Yet this was not how the big cinema chains saw their ‘assets’. If they made a good enough profit, then fine; if not, down they came. That was the case then, and it continues to be the case now.
Although new cinemas have opened in recent years, everything has changed with the tsunami that is COVID-19. Within one week, the entire film and cinema industry was shut down.
Only now are some screen reopening, albeit with very limited seating capacities and considerable restrictions. This includes a requirement that attendees wear face masks throughout the performance.
Many cinemas are facing disaster as a result – a fate they have been trying to avoid for decades.
Yet it was not always the case. In the boom years, before and after the war, cinemas were springing up everywhere. Huge cathedrals to film were being built that could hold thousands. Indeed, 1946 saw UK admissions hit an all time high of 1,635 million per year.
During the post-war austerity years, going to the pictures was one of the few things to not be limited or rationed. Some cinemas changed their programmes twice a week to provide new products for people to see.
Subsequent decades, however, were not so good for British cinemas. The glory days were behind them, and some were starting to look a bit rundown.
In 1960, annual cinema admissions fell below 600 million; and each successive year in this decade would see declines of between 14 million and 28 million.
The tactic of using roadshow pictures – expensive, long, and treated as special events – to boost interest had worked at the start of the decade. Films like The Sound of Music earned massive returns for several years. But this approach was becoming less effective over the years, as it was seen as out of touch. After all, has anyone ever actually seen or wanted to see Song Of Norway?
Cinema closures soon became commonplace. These huge edifices were slowly shut and turned into bingo halls or supermarkets. Nearly 2,000 cinemas shut over the course of just ten years, leaving just 1,558 by 1970.
By 1980, UK admissions were only just over 100 million – half the figure of a decade earlier. 1984 saw an historic low of just 54 million admissions. With the arrival of home video, many predicted the end of cinema altogether.
Desperate attempts to generate extra income by splitting single screen cinemas into multi-screen operations (often with minimal soundproofing) only temporarily slowed down the decline. More greedily, double-bills were also abandoned, in order to squeeze in extra screenings during an evening.
Before the pandemic, admissions had begun to creep up again in recent years. This trend had been very dependent on the number and success of the big ‘summer blockbusters’. But clearly the social base for cinema going has not been wiped out.
What has been holding people back is the actual shortage of cinemas, with many parts of the country having no cinemas at all, including parts of London. How can you go see a film if there is no place to see it?
This is still the case for many, despite the growth of multiplexes. These contain many screens within a relatively small area, thereby minimising costs. These big cinema outlets have also taken full advantage of the switch to digital screenings, which save on print costs and the need for trained projectionists.
Cinema chains have also relied heavily on low-cost labour – young workers stuck on zero-hours contracts. This scandal was particularly exposed by the brave fight of the Picturehouse workers for a living wage and decent conditions.
Picturehouse is not unique in exploiting its workforce in this way. Almost all cinemas rely on low-paid, precarious labour in one way or another.
Most of the big chains are now reopening their sites, albeit very slowly. But the array of smaller independent cinemas spread across the country face a more uncertain future. Many operate as charities, and are heavily reliant on state funding, often from local authorities.
It is these that are now most at risk. As Holli Keeble from the Tyneside Cinema told Sight and Sound magazine: “When our doors closed in March, our income simply stopped, but many of our running costs haven’t.”
Many of these cinemas play a key role in supporting communities. But this will count for little given the financial catastrophe now facing local government, with funding rapidly drying up.
Another potential threat must also be considered. Improvements in internet speeds have made streaming from home a highly viable alternative. Film distribution companies like streaming and home viewing. This is very profitable for them, just as DVD was a decade ago, with high rental fees earned with little outlay.
Cinema chains, however, have been insisting on a six-month delay between a film’s theatrical release date and it being made available for streaming. This is in order to protect their market slots. Companies which put titles out for streaming early had been facing action from cinemas, upto-and-including actual bans. But COVID-19 has changed all that.
With no cinemas open, film distribution companies’ income quickly dried up from what had once been their primary source of revenue. As such, they have either delayed opening films or, in many cases, moved them straight to streaming.
Data on box office returns in the US show the state of play. During the height of the lockdown, total US weekly receipts were often under $1 million – mainly from horror films being shown at drive-in venues.
The reopening of indoor venues, meanwhile, has proceeded at a snail’s pace. During the week of 14-20 August, only one film made more than $1 million in receipts; and this at just 299 screens across the country – less than 10% of normal capacity. Compare this to the situation for streaming in recent months.
The figures do not lie. There has been a massive rise in rentals from Netflix and Amazon Prime. Disney has moved many of its new films straight onto its streaming channel, rather than wait for cinemas to reopen. Even arthouse streamers such as Curzon and the BFI have seen a 300%-plus rise in paid-for streams.
This conflict of interests – streaming vs screening – will be fought out over the next year, with cinemas fighting to recover their pre-COVID-19 position.
Cinema viewers and staff will be the ones to lose out, unless these community assets are taken into public ownership. Otherwise, their future will be left to the whims of big business, who are only interested in profit margins.
Big hopes are being placed on the scheduled release of Tenet, the new film from Christopher Nolan, director of Dark Knight, Dunkirk, and Inception, amongst others).
This film should have been released along with many others earlier this year. However, whereas most other delayed films have been rescheduled for 2021, Tenet is getting an earlier release in an effort to kickstart cinema-goers’ habits.
Whether it will work is another matter. Quite apart from the huge restrictions being imposed on audiences, most cinemas will have very little else to screen.
In fact, cinema chains worldwide have been reduced to screening re-issues. This, ironically, was the norm up until the 1970s. This is great for film fans who might have never seen these films on the big screen. But it is hardly likely to bring the masses in.
The arts and culture industry is facing a dire situation. Thousands of staff have been laid-off from venues and theatres already, with thousands more job losses to come as the furlough support scheme winds up. Closures are starting to happen.
The film industry will not escape this. The capitalists will just take what profits they can grab and run. The demand for public ownership has therefore never been more relevant.
Cinemas are still a vital part of our communities. They must be protected – just as my father and many other cinephiles like him recognised long ago.