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Has the pandemic killed cinemas?

At its core, going to the cinema is a shared experience, so the era of social distancing has had a profound impact on the way we consume film. With movie theatres closed intermittently and many people worried about hygiene in communal spaces, curling up on the couch and watching films on streaming platforms became the norm throughout the pandemic.

Even though a post-COVID reality is now tantalisingly in view and cinemas have reopened, it’s becoming clear that, like so many aspects of life, it’s impossible to go back to the way things were. The films we’re watching, how they’re made and how we watch them have all undergone a dramatic shift.

But the magic of cinema persists, says Dr Martin Potter, a senior lecturer in film, television and animation at Deakin’s Faculty of Arts and Education. ‘It’s easy to be at home watching something, but cinema is a space, an architecture, and there’s a whole communal experience that you can enjoy watching something together,’ he says.

‘People are returning to cinema because they want that event screening experience or have a love of cinema as a space.’

Craving a shared experience

Long before the pandemic, streaming was disrupting cinema in a very big way, with filmmakers working directly with service providers to distribute films. In 2018, Netflix won its first Oscar for the documentary Icarus. The following year, Roma was awarded Best Picture.

What’s happened during the pandemic is an acceleration of this trend, as more and more people became comfortable – literally – watching the latest blockbusters from home.

‘People have moderated their behaviour over the past four or five years as streaming services have increased in scale and quality, on top of a distinct shift away from cinemas over the past decade,’ Dr Potter says. ‘That’s been compounded by COVID and, in particular, the rapid demise of a number of independent cinemas as well as some of the big players.’

The reasons why people are going back to cinema are less about the release of the latest blockbuster, which they’re just as likely to watch at home, and more about the experience of watching it on the big screen in the company of others.

‘It used to be that you had TV or you had cinema, whereas now we have so many options,’ says Dr Lienors Torre, a senior lecturer in Film, Television and Animation at Deakin’s Faculty of Arts and Education. ‘Yet cinema is something that perseveres going forward. People like material, tactile things – they like spaces.’

Dr Potter says returning to normal social activities isn’t always easy, but COVID-related concerns need not keep people away from the cinema. ‘You can double-mask if you need to be extra careful, and some sessions might only be 25% to 40% full, so it’s possible to find a seat by yourself.’

Shifting to niche productions

Filming with huge casts and thousands of extras was obviously constrained during the height of the pandemic, and Dr Torre says there’s been a shift towards smaller, more niche productions.

‘In some ways, that’s wonderful, because rather than the blockbuster and the very generalist film, there’s so much being produced for very niche sections of the community that otherwise would never have been made in the past,’ she says.

Animated films, on the other hand, underwent none of this disruption as they’re usually produced by remote teams. ‘COVID didn’t really affect motion production – it was just able to keep going,’ Dr Torre says. ‘This form of virtual production is interesting in that way, because it is disparate, everyone gets on with their own little thing, and it all gets pulled together.’

In the immediate future, more virtual productions, along with smaller independent films and some of the notable blockbuster films that were able to be produced during the pandemic, will be released in cinemas.

‘For the next 12 to 18 months, we’ll see the pandemic-friendly big blockbuster films alongside the more intimate little ensemble dramas that have been able to be filmed within restrictions as they get finished,’ Dr Potter says.

‘There’s going to be a long-tail out of COVID in terms of the stories that we experience and I’m really curious to see how audiences will respond to that. Will this shift be something that whets appetites to enjoy a level of intimacy and focus on character and relationships, rather than just the big stuff? Time will tell.’

Charting the future of cinema

Ultimately, both experts are optimistic about the future of cinema in a post-pandemic, increasingly fragmented media landscape. To borrow from Bill Gates, says Dr Potter, ‘content is king’.

‘It doesn’t matter what platform you’re on, great storytelling that really engages and immerses people is what drives that connection to games, to laptops, to virtual reality, to a particular streaming platform and to the cinema,’ he says. ‘If it’s got a great story that you can get lost in, if we can find it, we’ll go there.

‘There’s more content being made now than ever before in human history. It’s an amazing time to be making films, and an amazing time to be watching and engaging with films.’

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Dr Lienors Torre
Dr Lienors Torre

Senior Lecturer,

Faculty of Arts and Education,

Deakin University

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