OPINION: Cinema will become the new Theatre. And that’s fine

‘’…the art of cinema is being systematically devalued, sidelined, demeaned, and reduced to its lowest common denominator, “content.” Il Maestro Essay / Martin Scorsese


When it comes to making films, Martin Scorsese can do little wrong. He’s a legend of the art; creating films beloved by audiences, energising wannabe filmmakers; a tour de force. One of the few everyone-can-name-and-knows creators (Tarantino, Nolan, Spielberg) producing (or in the latters case churning out) ‘’high art’’ in today’s undoubtedly over-saturated film and TV space. You go for the name, not the story. And as they would tell it, ‘’we are saving cinema!’’. 

But since when was film exclusively cinema? Perhaps it’s generational, but cinema visits for me as a child were planned hyper-exciting trips; May 2007’s Bridge to Terabithia followed by The Lives Of Others as a thirteen year-old’s first double-feature was a game changer (I can see more than one film in day at the cinema and this is, like, socially fine?), sneaking into Pan’s Labyrinth, 300 or Snakes on a Plane, all certified by our omnipotent overlords and overladies and overtheys of the BBFC as suitable for no-one younger than 15, when twelve/thirteen was adrenaline-excitement-filled terror. But films were not only to be watched and loved at the cinema. Having dragged my dad to The Lord Of The Rings: The Fellowship Of The Ring around four times at our local Putney Odeon, I also dragged him to our local Putney HMV to purchase not only the DVD on release day (the old six month waiting period from cinema to DVD another level of excruciating excitement) but the extended edition when released a few years later. I still have these; worn, broken boxes, the occasional disc scratch. But never did these rewatches, rediscoveries, whatever, feel in any way lessened by the fact they were immediately available to me, on the TV at home. With a pause-it’s-tea-time function. Yet neither do I begrudge the loss of this. A whole new generation will be experiencing the same excitement as new films, some of phenomenal quality, are released, just in a vastly different way. I’ve had my awesome experience, they are now having theirs. It doesn’t have to follow the same exact path, as everything around us is different. Nothing can be recreated, only lived as it’s being created.

You don’t see at the beginning of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, a letter to the reader with Mark Twain insisting his novel is read whilst canoeing. One can pace past Daniel Radcliffe in the National Portrait Gallery as fast as they like. For all his many faults, at least Wagner accepted that The Ring Cycle needed intervals, and split into three parts; early accessibility (or perhaps mainly linked to bladder control data from previous operas). Of course, films are packaged in a unique way to other art forms. They are written, structured and edited to elicit certain emotions at certain times, incorporating music and audio, creative writing and visual flair but crucially, they are not presented live. They are recorded ahead of time, this being the optimum way the Art form works. Therefore surely they can be consumed as individuals please. If the cinema is the performance art element of film that is so vital to its enjoyment, why make the whole thing so pretentiously difficult for the majority of the world to access? Nolan’s insistence on the biggest IMAX experience you can get is possibly the most inaccessible way to watch any of his films, even for countries with countless cinemas. Great, if you can physically and financially access it. 

Cinema can be, and in many cases is, the ‘’ultimate viewing experience’’. The screens are massive. The sound is kidney stone shattering. That palpable excitement in the lobby as you search for directions to screen 3, the scent of stale popcorn. But this cannot be exclusively the only place pure enjoyment of film can occur. Social Media can just as effectively capture a cultural zeitgeist; a snapshot in time reflecting art and modern society, as the debuting of a theatrical release can. But we are not going to lose this theatricality, literally or figuratively, by accepting new viewing methods and all the while we won’t have to fight any harder than any of the arts currently do for anything regarding finance or patronly support.

We will lose cinemas, many. But that is reality. Gentrification is reality. It will lead to employment, opportunity and most importantly creativity elsewhere. Perhaps those working in the 700 odd cinemas in the UK could become crew for the ever expanding Netflix portfolio. Or HGV drivers. But everything changes. And so must Art. 

Theatre’s lack of funding, accessibility and awful expense is an issue and not for cinema to be modelled upon, but frequenting cinemas with the infrequency many of us visit the theatre, for the majority, will remain the norm. Most people I know outside of the industry might go once or twice a year to the cinema. £15 well spent on a film researched in advance, or if you’re a family, close to £100 (hopefully) well spent. As filmmakers, we surely cannot be happy with only one or two. Enter technology. 

Just like DVDs, and VHS before them, Streaming Services are the new disruptors in town. Clint Eastwood would already have his hand poised un-shakingly over his holster, eyeing up Ted Sarandos with his unblinking stare. Combined with the human brain’s ability to remember stuff, technology is allowing millions, if not billions, more people to enjoy, experience, be changed by Art; in a way that is more financially and temporally apt and manageable. If DVDs were a thing when Wagner was strutting his politically incorrect stuff, his operas would have been snapped up by VW’s equivalent of The Criterion Collection and sold as far and wide as today’s offerings. Adventures of Huckleberry Finn would have been oozed upon unsuspecting listeners by a Victorian Stephen Fry like a thin veneer of Marmite. Adapting what you do, as an artist, in line with the ever changing society that is your audience, may well be duty. Is Art even Art if it doesn’t? If you can reach as many people as possible, with everything that art can be: is that not good, even the ideal? Has real art ever been exclusive? It’s certainly been presented as such for centuries but it’s core has always been universal in appeal. Or unappeal as the case may be. Can financial obstacles really be ignored to such a middle-class extent (looking at you Nolan.)? It does seem that sometimes these filmmakers need reminding that people are choosing to spend a large amount of their monthly salary on watching their films. This should be an honour. It’s money people worked for; people who don’t have much to throw around. It’s a large time commitment; there’s the travel, an average of 22 minutes of adverts. Is it really such a bad thing that people can watch more and more and more, and at times that are convenient to them, and in ways that work for them, all packaged in cheaper and more varied ways? 

I can guarantee that Orin Peli’s underrated Paranormal Activity was vastly more terrifying, amazing and truly horror inducing because I watched it alone, in the dark, on my laptop. I had to pause a few times to collect myself, I certainly did not sleep that night. I would never have had the same intense experience in the cinema. Indeed watching the better-then-it-should-have-been sequel Paranormal Activity 2 at Marble Arch’s Odeon felt like the wrong way to experience this film. And then the much-derided third in the franchise, despite pretty much objectively being worse than the second, still scared me more because I was back behind my laptop in the pitch black.

Scorsese talks of form contrasting content (the former purist in nature, the latter intrinsically linked to money), semantisising over dictionary definitions and worrying that a superbowl spot is coined with the same term as his films. He writes ‘’The choices made by distributors such as Amos Vogel at Grove Press back in the Sixties were not just acts of generosity but, quite often, of bravery…the pictures that came to these shores thanks to the effort of these and other distributors…made for an extraordinary moment. The circumstances of that moment are gone forever, from the primary of the theatrical experience to the shared excitement over the possibilities of cinema’’. Well, no. That’s all still there, it’s just changed. The likes of Katz, Fenkel and Hodges and their widely, rightly celebrated A24 continues to bravely chart new waters by producing several unique, powerful stories every year; Megan Ellison’s Annapurna Pictures never fails to astonish with the stories it finances. And it’s not just the production companies. Amazon Prime continued their strong festival track record by spending $46m at Sundance Film Festival in 2019, acquiring films of various genres and often limited appeal (and therefore more likely to be financially weak), of course to garner more subscribers from all walks of life, but also giving these films a platform they would never have otherwise had. Even in cinema’s hayday, many of these stories would have been shown in New York, Los Angeles, London and a handful of other international cities. Now, millions across the planet can watch if they so choose.

Filmmakers such as Scorsese are continuing to be funded and given special dispensation to have their work screened in cinemas. Sony recently chucked $100m at Tarantino to make Once Upon A Time In Hollywood. Chirstopher Nolan will still get whatever he wants. Warner Bros. weren’t too keen on him actually denoting an atomic weapon for his new Oppenhimer opus but apparently Universal were fine with it. So that’s supposedly happening. Scorsese was upset no-one wanted to fund his bloated, pastiche-of-his-previous-films script The Irishman, because $150m is too much and no-one wants to see a deaged De Niro when casting a younger actor has literally been fine for close to the entire existence of film as an Art form. So of course, he went to Netflix with their uncurated algorithms, reducing the audience to mere consumers for his vanity project. But these directors do not have a right to dictate anything other than their own stories. The thousands of worldwide storytellers collectively decide the many directions of Art. Films like these, from auteurs such as themselves, will always be produced. They just need to trust that new auteurs, as good as them, are constantly popping up all over the place and being given platforms to tell their stories. Robert Eggers, Mike Flanagan, Denis Villneuve, Chloe Zhao; there are many.

Is Fellini’s 8 ½, the film that Scorsese case studys in his Harper’s essay, really not going to be as good just because it might be discovered by the ‘’next him’’ on Netflix and not in the cinema? This ‘’next him’’, let’s call them Patricia, might have their 8 ½ moment watching David Lowery’s The Green Knight (purchased for UK streaming distribution day-and-date with a cinema release by Amazon Prime from A24) or Robert Egger’s The Lighthouse (another A24 stroke of genius) in the cinema. But if Patricia couldn’t afford thirty quid that month, or lived somewhere far from a cinema, should they really be denied the chance to watch these films (both available on Prime for £7.99 a month, with a 30 day free trial, as are thousands of other pieces of Art at a click) because a bunch of out-of-touch ‘’creatives’’ don’t approve of their choice of platform? Or perhaps more accurately believe that by restricting access, they will in turn actually save cinema, or films as a form, if we even accept they are one and the same?

What about Netflix? For years, ‘’foreign’’ films or those not in English have been inaccessible, because people ‘’don’t like reading films’’. Subtitles were a barrier, they still are to many, and that meant the likelihood of UK and US distribution was depressingly small. But the sheer amount of non-English language content available on Netflix, from all over the world, has done something no number of Amos Vogels in Scorsese’s glorious Sixties could do; genuinely bring a wide spectrum of varied Art from thousands of storytellers to millions of people. Last month’s Squid Game from South Korean filmmaker Dong-Hyuk Hwang is perhaps a prime example, on track to become the most watched Netflix Original ever worldwide, following closely in the footsteps of it’s compatriot, Parasite, the first non-English language film ever to win Best Film at the Academy Awards (again, available for your viewing pleasure on Amazon Prime).

This might all be terribly Marxist, begrudgingly written against a capitalist backdrop, but access to Art is important. And increasing access doesn’t need to undermine existing ventures or platforms. They can work together, to the benefit of the audience. I don’t want to lose cinema. I don’t think anyone does. But railing against a shift to streaming or any new platform for film is pointless because cinema doesn’t need saving. It needs to adjust, like everything else.

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