In light of the current pandemic, Phil Slatter takes a look at the modern role of cinema in film…
Towards the back of the April edition of Sight and Sound magazine, they list no fewer than 13 different types of streaming options that are available upon which to watch films. These are amongst the lesser known services and that number doesn’t include Netflix, Apple TV, Amazon Prime, iTunes or Google play. Neither does it account for the likes of All4, ITV Hub, My5 or the BBC iPlayer. Not to mention Sky Store. Or the many, many television channels that are available these days, both free to air and via subscription. Neither does it take into account the DVD and Blu-Rays that may adorn your personal collection. Or YouTube.
In these bizarre stay at home times, we have access to a multiple array of films and T.V. programmes and streaming is coming into its own as we enjoy our state of the art home entertainment systems to keep us entertained.
This brings into even sharper focus the role that cinema plays in our lives. Will streaming kill the fleapit? Do we care? The cinema is antiquated, expensive and time consuming. You’re limited to picking from between five and ten films and spend more on a ticket to watch one film than it costs for an entire month of a streaming service, not to mention the time and money involved in other areas of a night at the movies.
Yet what technology and streaming services can’t account for is human behaviour – human beings are social creatures. The idea of leaving our homes to share stories has been going on for centuries from the campfire to the theatre to the cinemas. During that time, new inventions have come along with television being the most notable one, and this very debate about whether cinemas would die first reared its head when the box first entered our homes. And yet, here we are.
There is something quite magical about the cinema. It has always been a way of escaping our world and entering another – we go into a dark silent room before the images of the screen and the volume from the speakers engulf our senses. Many still get that tingle whenever they walk into a screen before a film commences. I will always remember the feeling of seeing the opening text, scrawl and music when I sat to watch Star Wars: The Phantom Menace on opening night, while sixteen years later, fellow Outward cohort Dave Woods gave me a thumbs up just before The Force Awakens commenced. Both episodes were a subjective disappointed to varying degrees in our opinions, but the pre-film excitement, on both occasions, was tangible.
In modern times, escaping the modern world is something we’re even more eager to do – we’re surrounded by tablets, laptops, televisions, smart speakers, social media and communications coming at us left right and centre. In the cinema we can remove all of this and it’s just us, our fellow attendees and the film (unless you’re someone who speaks or checks their phone during a screening, in which case may Paddington give you a hard stare).
For the home offers many distractions and maybe there is just too much to choose. It’s so easy to quickly check Twitter or look up the football score while a film is playing or get distracted by music, housework etc. Is the cinema the only place we can give a film the full attention it deserves? Some self-discipline is certainly required in our homes for this to be the case.
And we may even use these streaming services to entertain our children to the point where we don’t fully share the films with them in the way we might. Many cinemas offer a Saturday and Sunday morning children’s club which show relatively new releases at a reduced price. The films have often been out for two or three months but are often not yet available for home viewing. Not only does this represent a very affordable family trip out but a chance to sit and share a film and introduce our children to a love of cinema. You may have to sit through the occasional Boss Baby or Postman Pat: The Movie but the likes of Pixar, Aardman and the Lego movies make it worthwhile.
Yet a standard family cinema trip can be quite expensive when compared to the home entertainment options. Before Christmas, Frozen 2 cost me around £35 for a family ticket. Not a huge sum, but for just £25 more I can have every single Star Wars, Marvel, Pixar and Disney film for a whole year by subscribing to Disney+. Yet the big screen experience represented a social afternoon out in which the whole family could enjoy the entire film rather than staying at home and watching television. Children these days have access to so many forms of entertainment with Smart T.V.’s, phones, laptops and tablets, but the big screen experience still represents a thrill. My 9 year old daughter was disappointed when we told her we wouldn’t be able to got to Peter Rabbit 2 for her birthday (not a feeling that many critics will share I’m sure) whilst my 4 year-old son (who described the cinema on his first visit as ‘a really, really big tele’) excitedly pointed out the cinema building when we drove past it recently and expressed his excitement at a trip once the virus is over.
And it’s not just families – many a real life romance start at the cinema (What was the first film you and your spouse watched together at the cinema?) while it can serve as an excuse for friends and family to catch up. As well as the kids club, Empire cinemas offer special screenings for Senior Citizens and parents of young babies, enabling two specific groups for whom socialising can require additional effort an affordable and comfortable way to get out of the house for entertainment and human contact.
It would be wrong to deny that screening and home entertainment has its place. Duel releasing offers a chance for people who can’t readily get to the cinema an opportunity to enjoy the wonder of film and stay up to date with the latest releases or catch up with old classics (I recently caught up with John Singleton’s superb Boyz N the Hood for the first time on Netflix). And we mustn’t pretend the cinema is perfect – people who talk through films, kick the backs of chairs, eat or drink too loudly or commit the cardinal sin of looking at their phones (hard stare) are much easier to avoid in your own home.
There’s the old joke that we’ve turned our cinemas into our front rooms and our front rooms into cinemas, but the cinema has always been an experience and a social way of enjoying films with a community, an extension of the campfire from primitive times. Streaming and home entertainment have their place, but technology can’t replace millions of years of human evolution resulting in our behaviour and our basic desire to share stories with our fellow sapiens in a communal setting. And on a big screen with surround sound.
Words: Phil Slatter