Of Our Time

The Impact of COVID-19 on Cinema – Accessibility

The COVID-19 pandemic has been wreaking havoc on global communities for over two years at this point. It has made a massive, lasting impact on all of our lives and the world may not be the same after the pandemic finally ends. The ability for people to leave their homes and enjoy the world around has been hindered greatly, and one of the biggest industries feeling the effect of the lockdown is the film industry. Movie theater attendance was already on the decline before the pandemic but it has since been exacerbated. The large theater chain Cinemex was forced to close its doors due to the financial strain of the pandemic. AMC Theatres lost 946.1 million dollars in one quarter of 2021 due to the theater closures, and people being unable to attend films forced the studios and distribution companies to release their films in a new fashion. Many of the newest films that would have originally received a wide theatrical release have been relegated to a limited theatrical release, direct release on streaming and rental services, or some combination of the two. Due to quicker releases on streaming services, accessibility has drastically increased for people. People who live in sparsely populated areas who might never get to see a smaller or artistic film in theater would often have to wait at least a few months to see a film but now have quicker access to these films. Whether it is studios putting their films online sooner or film festivals having a virtual viewing arrangement, the accessibility of rarer and harder to find films has increased and allows for smaller films to reach a wider audience.

Due to the rise of streaming services, it has been easier than ever for studios to release their films online. Netflix has completely eschewed a theatrical release for their films, besides the quick run in L.A. and New York for awards purposes. Disney+ and HBO Max have been the most prominent advocates of this style of releasing in recent times though. Denis Villeneuve‘s Dune was released simultaneously in theaters and on HBO Max. Disney+ has released their films directly on their platform, often with an early premium option to replace lost theater revenue. Even films that have had extended theatrical runs have found themselves on streaming services sooner than before the pandemic. Guillermo Del Toro‘s Nightmare Alley was released in December of 2021, yet only a few short months later in February of 2022, it was available to stream on Hulu and HBO Max. Julia Ducournau‘s Palme d’Or winner Titane was released in select theaters across the United States in October of 2021 and was available for rental by the end of the month. As of August 2022, it is available to stream on Hulu.

Another factor related to the increased accessibility of cinema is the fact that many film festivals have had online viewing platform to view films while on lockdown. Historically, film festivals have been inaccessible for those without the means to travel and purchase passes for the festival. Due to the pandemic, many couldn’t travel or didn’t feel safe while traveling, so film festivals transitioned to online screening rooms for viewing. The Chicago Film Festival was one such festival. Last year, their festival had both an in-person portion and an online portion. Due to the online portion, I was able to “attend” the festival this past year. Many of the highly anticipated titles such as Ryusuke Hamaguchi‘s Drive My Car and Wes Anderson‘s The French Dispatch were in-person only so I was unable to watch them there, but I was still able to watch films such as Celine Sciamma‘s wonderful Petite Maman and Jacques Audiard‘s Paris, 13th District. Even without seeing the most highly anticipated titles, I was still able to immerse myself in the world of cinema in a way that had not been available to me beforehand. The online portion of film festivals also frees you from making a massive commitment. You no longer need to travel and you no longer need to watch everything the festival has to offer. Many festivals and their online portions, such as Sundance, offer single tickets for those who either can’t afford a pass or only a small selection of films. I myself was busy for most of Sundance this year yet I still wanted to participate. The single ticket virtual option allowed me to still participate while also freeing me from a commitment to travel and buying a pass. It allowed me to experience some wonderful films from the comfort of my own home. This was the case for a lot of other people as well. More and more people were able to attend Sundance and see fantastic films from around the globe. However, a cost barrier still does exist even when attending virtually. An all-encompassing pass to this year’s Sundance cost $750, while single ticket prices were $20 each. While a lot of others are now able to participate and attend film festivals due to virtual screening rooms, there still exists a barrier preventing many more from participating. 

There are some drawbacks that come with the increased accessibility of cinema though. When viewing films in the cinema, a culture develops. A culture of experiencing a film in a room with others. There is a communal experience that is lost when we watch films from our own home. I know during the pandemic, one couldn’t simply go to the theater and watch a film but the circumstance only exacerbated an existing problem. The number of people in the theater was already sparse but the pandemic made them completely deserted. Now that the vaccine has been distributed and the number of cases is on the decline, the question is now how do we bring people back to the theater and care about seeing films in the theater again? Apichatpong Weerasethakul had decided to release his film Memoria in an interesting way. He aimed to release the film in a different city each week. Every week it picks up and travels to a new city and new theater. The only way to see the film during its theatrical run would be traveling to the theater when it plays in your city. The aim was to encourage theater attendance, but for months it drastically decreased the accessibility of the film.

The Cannes Film Festival thrives off the theatrical experience; it’s a gathering place for people who care passionately about cinema and want to see it flourish. In 2020, when most festivals were moving online or presenting in the hybrid version, Cannes elected to cancel the festival completely. In 2021, Cannes had a completely in-person festival. Cannes is the bastion of keeping cinema in theaters and keeping that communal experience of cinema alive. While increased accessibility has allowed larger scores of people to watch rarer and hard to find films, there is still a loss of the culture of cinema-going and the communal experience of watching films with others. Yet in November of 2021, Spider-Man: No Way Home was released and it has greatly exceeded expectations in terms of box office gross. As of today, it has grossed around $1.9 billion worldwide. While other films have faltered at the box office, Spider-Man was able to bring audiences back to the theater and has saved multiple theaters. However, as a consequence, most screens at multiplexes were taken up by screenings of Spider-Man or other superhero blockbusters, and some screenings of films were replaced with more screenings of Spider-Man. While movie theaters have been saved and the culture and community of cinema-going are still available, isn’t it a pity the only films available are superhero films? It’s a pity that there isn’t a variety widely available to the public, that we are only exposed to the same cookie-cutter format of films. The possibility to see something unexpected and to experience something extraordinary doesn’t exist when every screen at the theater is taken up with superhero films. Yes, movie theaters have been saved, but at what cost?

Cinema is in a transitive period. Theater attendance was already on the decline as online streaming services increasingly gained prominence. The COVID-19 pandemic only exacerbated this issue – box office grosses hit 40-year lows as more and more people migrated to streaming services. The silver-lining to this was the increased accessibility of newer films as well as rarer and hard-to-find films. The vast, exciting world of cinema is at our fingertips and keyboards, yet the communal experience of cinema-going, a place of refuge for all kinds of people, is being continually lost. There are the stalwarts of cinema-going such as Martin Scorsese and the Cannes Film Festival, yet theater attendance still trends in the wrong direction. This leaves us with the questions of where is cinema headed in both the immediate and distant futures? Can the traditional sense of cinema be saved? Are we destined for theaters to be filled with superhero and comic book films? Doesn’t that defeat the purpose of the cinema though? Pauline Kael said that she “lost it at the movies,” and Roger Ebert replied “we all knew exactly what she meant.” I remember as a child at my local drive-in movie theater and staring at the massive screen in front of me and being completely entranced by the magic. The pandemic has increased the accessibility of a wide range of films but the number of those potentially losing it at the movies has declined and it saddens me that less people are experiencing the magic that I and so many others before me have felt.

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