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Drive in screen seen at night.
Drive-in screen seen at Windsor International Film Festival Under the Stars 2020. (Erika Sanborn, WIFF), Author provided

COVID-19 has rekindled a ‘back to the future’ love of movies

For the first time in more than 90 years of Academy Awards history, films released via commercial streaming or video-on-demand may be awarded Oscars on April 25.

In this year of COVID-19 pandemic closures, the Oscars are bypassing the long-standing eligibility rule — normally, feature film entries must be shown in a commercial theatre in Los Angeles County for a minimum of three times daily over a week.

In announcing the change, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences — the body behind the red-carpet event — said “there is no greater way to experience the magic of movies than to see them in a theatre. Our commitment to that is unchanged.”

But will the academy be able to resist change? Cinemas were not how people originally watched movies. There are signs that home viewing will be be joined by a growing resurgence of local movie-going experiences that draw on entertainment pastimes that preceded Hollywood’s rise.

Two young people at a drive-in theatre.
Tyrese Grayston, left, and Nicolle Da Costa watch a movie at the 5 Drive-In Theatre in Oakville, Ont., July 29, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Cole Burston

Cinema in flux

In the early years of movie-making, theatrical film was mixed with live performers, from MCs to magicians and musicians. Around 1907, there was a shift toward longer, feature-length films. As a result, films lost their local and live component and profits became concentrated toward American multinational film production and distribution companies.

The MGM film studio conceived of The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in 1927 as a labour organization that would represent the often opposing interests of the employers/studios and employees, technical tradespeople, as well as writers, directors and actors: the year before, five unions had formed in various technical fields.

It was also designed as a public relations vehicle, to rebut criticism and advance the reputation of the screen arts. Because film and television evolved separately, what came to be known as the Oscars focused on a moving image product distributed in cinemas.

At the turn of this century, The Sopranos spawned the era of prestige TV. Top writers, directors and actors have since flocked to cable and streaming series.

This phenomenon continues with a dizzying array of subscription services like Netflix and Apple TV. Traditional production companies have rushed to set up their own variants, like Disney Plus.

As serialized shows have become more cinematic, to only consider feature films for most awards has come to seem an arbitrary distinction. Members of the academy often work interchangeably in features and series.

Peephole precursor to smartphone viewing

Movie theatres seem to have evolved from the architecture of Greek amphitheatres, with their tiered seating offering unobstructed views. But the original way to watch motion pictures was a single-viewer peephole device.

Patented by Thomas Edison, the Kinetoscope was launched publicly by Canadian entrepreneurs, Andrew and George Holland, in a New York City parlour in 1894. The Kinetoscope was a sort of cabinet one leaned over and looked into. In many ways, this mode of viewing moving pictures alone, through a device, was a precursor to watching via televisions or smart phones.

Men standing at Kinetoscopes.
Publicity or news photograph of a San Francisco Kinetoscope parlour, ca. 1894–95. (National Parks Service/Wikimedia Commons)

In the summer of 1896, the first big screen film exhibition in North America was at the Robillard Theatre, a vaudeville venue in Montréal’s Chinatown.

In its early days, projected moving pictures were presented as a technical marvel in the midst of magic and vaudeville routines by touring magicians and performers. Because films were so expensive to purchase, presenters showed a program until they saturated the audience, and then they moved on.

It was not until film exchanges and the ability to rent films that early film entrepreneurs were able to set up permanent theatres to screen movies. This began in 1902 in the United States, and in Canada the following year. The consolidation of distribution and the rental of films under American ownership was the first step toward what would spawn the U.S. film industry symbolized by the Oscars.

Love for local

Some foresee a new post-pandemic Roaring ‘20s. Could some spectators be more interested in the social factor of theatrical exhibition, drawn to the stronger sense of solidarity evoked by film festivals, where attendees are prone to chat with strangers, see a more diverse range of films and have the chance to hear from film creators live on stage?

As part of a project between the Windsor International Film Festival (WIFF) and the University of Windsor, funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council, I worked with a team to conduct a survey of 200 WIFF audience members in fall 2020.

According to respondents, the biggest lure to attend the festival and its year-round offerings is “the love of cinema.” Seventy-nine per cent of respondents chose this as an important or very important reason for attending WIFF. Seventy per cent also cited that level of enthusiasm as the opportunity for “a night out” and for the “big screen.”

Four people standing in masks outdoors.
Tech team members Svjetlana Oppen, Maria Cusumano and Cherry Theresanathan during the pre-show at the outdoor riverfront drive-in style venue at WIFF Under the Stars in August 2020. Kim Nelson

The festival’s importance to the community met the largest consensus, rated very important or important by 93 per cent. This finding is reinforced by ticket sales that have surged over the past 15 years from 2,705 tickets sold in WIFF’s inaugural year to more than 42,000 in 2019, the last pre-pandemic instalment.

In the summer of 2020, the drive-in inspired “WIFF Under the Stars” offered a COVID-safe series that drew sell-out crowds for 33 of 39 films, exceeding 97 per cent capacity over a 16-day run.

Escaping pandemic isolation

In recent years, there have been signs of further disruption to the classic movie theatre experience. Before the pandemic, Toronto’s refurbished Paradise Theatre offered a sophisticated movie destination and a swanky dinner in the 1937 heritage building.

The Texas-based Alamo Drafthouse theatre chain has offered screen-side food and drinks, dress-up shows and live accompaniment. Yet the stress of the last year is evident as the business filed for bankruptcy last month after enjoying its most profitable year in 2019.

London-based Secret Cinema has paired screenings with elaborate live stagings where audience members dress up and wander into spectacles that recreate the world of a film (or a series, like Stranger Things). In February this year, it was promoting a new “summer outdoor immersive experience.”

Secret Cinema video.

Perhaps post-pandemic, audiences eager to escape their isolation chambers will broaden their scope in seeking out a larger variety of venues and ways to watch.

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