So are we in or out? Is this going to be the old normal or some new normal that the business still hasn’t yet grasped? As we look forward to what’s on offer in cinemas this autumn, we see new films mixed in with a deja-vu raft of old product delayed from the distant “before times” of pre-Covid. These films are beginning to feel like pizzas removed from the freezer cabinet, thawed out, and then unhygienically put back in the freezer. And of course we are all still absorbing the fact that Covid conforms neither to the accepted news cycles or movie distribution release structures. There could still be a fourth or a fifth wave. Cinemas could still be shut down again.
Covid might have changed the movie world temporarily or permanently or not at all, but as we fret fruitlessly about the discomfort of wearing masks in cinemas, the revolution could have already arrived in the new economy of streaming – which had been changing the game anyway.
The tradition on occasions like these is to quote the ancient maxim of screenwriter William Goldman: “Nobody knows anything.” But there is one thing we do know: streaming is putting enormous pressure on the theatrical release model. The biggest upset came with news that The Green Knight, a much-trumpeted new Arthurian fantasy drama starring Dev Patel, has been yanked from UK cinemas. Reports suggested that it was due to Covid, but it may end up getting a sweeter deal for a release on a streaming platform.
It’s an unhappy omen. If the forthcoming James Bond film were to be pushed back again, there could be rioting in the streets. Or, at any rate, an unruly crowd of 007 fans, film journalists and industry professionals might run through central London gibbering. That title No Time to Die was once ironically hailed as the most horribly appropriate ever – but that was in the era before we all appreciated what a serious situation Covid was going to be. Now the inherent comedy of the title has to be passed over in a tactful or determined silence. Bond is the gold standard of British cinema. If the unthinkable happens and this too is dumped on to Netflix or Amazon (although Amazon, the new owners of MGM, which partners with Bond producers Eon, theoretically do not have the right to tell Eon what to do) then it really will be a step change.
But the existing model has turned out to be surprisingly resilient in the past. We have seen new things before which have not lasted. The new generation of 3D was going to be something that was here to stay, but now it has gone without anyone apparently noticing or caring. Super-clear “high frame rate” technology, which was going to make movies pin-sharp and hi-def as never before, was junked because, clearer or not, it just made films look like video. At Cannes this year, the festival was sticking toughly with what is known as its no-Netflix policy (or, to be specific, not accepting any films that are not getting a French cinema release and only showing on streaming services). And the festival director, Thierry Frémaux, made a point at the opening press conference of asking the assembled journalists if they could name a director who had begun their career on Netflix. Answer came there none, although people came up with names on Twitter afterwards.
And cinema isn’t like live music or even theatre, it is not quite as vulnerable. It is indoors but, as anyone who has been to an afternoon showing will tell you, physical distancing isn’t necessarily a problem. And people have short memories: they have forgotten how television was going to destroy cinema in the 1950s but didn’t, because people cherished precisely what its obituarists claimed was its fatal flaw: the business of leaving the house and making a social occasion of it. And people still love the democracy and equality of the cinema, which exceeds anything in sports or the theatre. There is a variation in ticket prices but basically everyone, from the hedge-fund manager to the student nurse, pays the same and gets the same experience.
It isn’t simply a matter of consuming the same old comfort-films. One thing that did come out of the Covid lockdown was that there was an enormous appetite, on streaming services, for intelligent, complex, arthouse movies from all over the world. There is every chance that, having maintained and extended their taste for world cinema, filmgoers will be even more enthusiastic to see such films on the big screen. There is every chance that the autumn of 2021 will be cinema’s spring awakening.