Huge technological advances in the production and consumption of feature films have led, yet again, to the claim that cinema is dead. Digital film making, distribution and projection have seen reels of “film” all but disappear. And the availability of what we want to watch, whenever and wherever we wish, has changed irrevocably our relationship with the moving image.
The news that Netflix is showing new films by the Coen Brothers and Alfonso Cuaron (with only minimal theatrical screenings, so as to be eligible for the impending awards season) is being seen as yet another fundamental change in how we access film, and more specifically, “quality” cinema.
But although cinema is barely over a century old, its reliance on technology means it has always had a turbulent time. So perhaps it is worth looking at previous announcements of the demise of the most tawdry yet popular of the arts. Are the prophets of doom just crying wolf again?
Reaction and reinvention
The “end of cinema” was first declared in the late 1920s with the introduction of synchronised sound to silent film. But film had never actually been silent – music was always an accompaniment to any screening whether by a solo pianist or a full orchestra.
Yet purists still argued that sound would coarsen the artistic nature of cinema and make it merely a form of mass entertainment. Film production did indeed have to change to accommodate the technology required to record sound as well as a visual image, and there was a short period in which film production was bogged down by these innovations.
But by the mid-1930s, sound was ubiquitous, making cinema an even more popular form of mass entertainment with a plethora of memorable lines of dialogue to quote.
The threat from the sofa
The next major bump in the cinematic road came after World War II, and the beginning of the consumer age. The postwar boom saw mass employment and a host of new widely owned domestic devices. These included refrigerators, hifi systems and televisions – the new nemesis of the film industry.
As people stayed at home to watch TV rather than going out to the cinema, film production changed. Major studios made fewer films and concentrated on bigger, more spectacular movies. Shot in glorious wide screen Technicolor, they were made to be noticeably distinct from what was available at home.
This slump in film production did not last long, however. The big studios soon found a voracious demand for product from the upstart small screen. Soon enough, most had set up television divisions to mass produce filmed shows for syndication to broadcast networks. For Hollywood, television turned out to be more saviour than Satan.
The next crisis came in the late 1970s with the introduction of home video devices to record and play shows and films from broadcast television. Yes, there was another slump in cinema attendances – but this was due to a variety of issues, most notably the parlous state of many cinemas which were often old, run down, and in the wrong parts of town.
Home video had its brief moment of hysteria before studios realised that there was now a demand for prerecorded video tapes of classic films – the same films which were taking up so much space in their archives. They now had a new lease of life, at zero production cost, and a new valuable stream of revenue.
This also led to a new pattern in film distribution. A movie now had a theatrical run, then a video release and was then sold to broadcasters for television. Again, the “death” was more of a rebirth, and a lucrative one at that, which continued with the invention of DVD and Blu-Ray.
In fact, the film industry’s recurring problem has always been its complacency and inability to see the potential benefits of new technology. The latest revolution, streaming films and TV shows to digital devices is more problematic, and one that has dangers for the big Hollywood studios (which are now after all, mere cogs in globalised multinational corporations).
Awards and access
Amazon, Apple and Netflix have evolved from being delivery systems into becoming fully fledged entertainment businesses. They produce, distribute and exhibit their product to a mass global audience, with budgets that dwarf those of established studios. And with the promise of future Oscars and Palme D'Ors, critical recognition and respectability will make them the major forces in film production.
So, is this the death of cinema (again), or another morphing of a global industry to changing habits and opportunities? Well, director Alphonso Cuaron’s Roma has already won the Golden Lion at 2018’s Venice Film Festival, and usually we would have to wait a year or so to see it as it does the round of festivals and awards.
Instead it is now available on Netflix for anyone to watch in the comfort of their own home. Might the experience of watching a film in a cinema become exclusively the realm for big-budget blockbuster movies that employ such things as 3D, Ultra-HD, 4DX and every other technical excess that becomes available? Cinema attendances are in fact booming – attendances in 2018 are the highest since 1970 – so some ways in which we consume cinema remain quite traditional. It is the means of choosing a wider range of films and having near instant access to them that provide both challenges and opportunities.
Access is now the key advantage for streaming platforms – but this will also be in a constant state of flux as technology develops ever further. These new production houses will need to respond to the new problems and opportunities that will soon be theirs to deal with. They will soon realise that cinema never really dies, it just changes.