Prove your humanity

It’s a Friday night at Palace Cinemas. The scent of golden buttered popcorn hangs headily in the air, the milling of cinema patrons is punctuated by the cracking of soft drinks and the rustling of choc top wrappers. There’s a split second, after the screen goes black and before the film starts, where there is absolute silence. It’s in this moment that the outside world fades away, and the moviegoers sitting comfortably in their assigned seats are transported. The film we’ve gathered together to watch is Bong Joon-Ho’s Parasite; a multi-award winning commentary on class, delivered in Joon-Ho’s native South Korean (available to Perth audiences via subtitles). At the time we’re watching it, Parasite has already earned rave reviews, so we know we are in for a fantastic experience. What none of us could have expected however, is that this was the last film many of us would see in a cinema for a while.

Flash forward to October 2020. Western Australia has avoided widespread outbreaks of the coronavirus and as quickly as the hysteria began, it ended. Restrictions on cinema crowds were lifted by the State government on the 6th of June. Finally, film buffs were able to give their Netflix accounts a break and return to a more traditional style of movie watching. Independent and chain cinemas alike threw open their doors, fired up the popcorn machines, and stocked the candy bar to welcome back patrons. There was only one problem—there were no new movies to watch.

The home of international blockbusters responsible for drawing swathes of people to the cinemas is still tightly gripped by the COVID-19 pandemic. Hollywood executives faced a challenging decision at the start of the United States’ lockdown; either they release films to lacklustre audiences and risk becoming box office flops, or they push back release dates in the hope of the pandemic dying down and audiences returning to the cinema. For cast and crew, it meant months of work put on the shelf; for film executives it meant longer waits for investment returns and angry shareholders. Studios scrambled for a way to make their product available to consumers, and one option seemed like the golden ticket: streaming platforms.

The battle between streaming services like Netflix and Stan and brick-and-mortar cinemas had been waging long before the COVID crisis. According to Reuters, movie theatres typically have an exclusive 90-day period where new releases are played exclusively in cinemas. This grace period has been challenged by major streaming services like Netflix, who eschew the traditional 90 days and have streamed their original new releases whilst they are still showing in cinemas (or even as soon as they are released). Film industry heavyweights Disney have even entered the streaming platform market with the tremendously successful Disney+. Exclusive television series like The Mandalorian and Disney’s ever-growing catalogue of licensed material make the studio a great threat to traditional theatres—even when those theatres made Disney $7.3 billion (from just two films; Black Panther and Avengers: Infinity War) in 2018.

Speaking to Jett, a young West Australian, it was easy to see the appeal of streaming services. “I definitely prefer streaming services over normal television,” he explains. When it comes to finding a movie to watch casually, it’s the same:

“With a new release movie I’d rather go to the cinema, but if I’m just finding a movie to watch I’ll use a streaming service.

“I do think with the way things are now, that has changed my opinion a little bit. Companies could make more of a profit with streaming services if they advertise things correctly”.

And those companies do make huge profits thanks to streaming services. Universal Studios took a huge gamble releasing Trolls World Tour on home entertainment platforms the same day as it’s theatrical release. In three weeks, the film made $100 million independently of physical cinemas, bringing into question the relevancy of movie theatres. Why should studios have to pay the cinemas the traditionally agreed amount of one-third of total ticket sales, when rights could be licensed to multiple streaming services who reach audiences in their own homes? And provide a much less costly release? Exclusively releasing content on streaming platforms also acts as its own advertising tool: Disney launched Artemis Fowl as a Disney+ exclusive, forcing parents to pay a subscription and then a rental fee to keep kids entertained during a pandemic.

But where streaming excels in convenience and cost effectiveness, it falls short in experience. It offers little in terms of engagement; viewers are not given respite from the endless stream of notifications that pour in from phones and computers. If a movie doesn’t immediately engage its audience, then it can simply be changed to another one. Films are paused and rewound at whim, listing viewers out of their engagement and disconnecting them from the film on the screen. Distractions abound in the home as well: when the kids are bored they can simply reach for their toys; parents can answer emails during the film’s climax; your partner can fall asleep and then wake up to bother you with a million questions after they’ve missed key exposition.

Still, without new releases to keep cinemas in business, it seems hard to fathom a place for movie theatres in a world where streaming exists. Investigating the functions of new release films in keeping moviegoers interested, I spoke to Shannyn, a former Ace Cinemas employee. Shannyn agrees with Jett that new releases played a major role in keeping audiences coming to cinemas:

“People loved the atmosphere at the movies, the big screen, the popcorn, the surround sound…Big films like Star Wars and Harry Potter drew huge crowds, kids movies too.”

The constant pushback of new releases from international movie studios has deeply affected moviegoers. Now the long-anticipated US blockbusters that kept so many cinemas in business are being pushed further and further away. The next instalment of the Bond franchise No Time To Die was pushed back from its initial release date in April 2020 to November. Now, as coronavirus numbers continue to spike internationally, the film has again been postponed until the 2nd of April 2021. Disney has delayed its next Marvel film Black Widow until the 7th of May 2021, after an initial pushback in May to November 2020. These are the kinds of blockbusters that draw massive crowds to cinemas. It’s what moviegoers spend months looking forward to, and what cinemas depend on to make a profit.

Tenet, starring Robert Pattison and directed by one of the decade’s most popular directors Christopher Nolan, was a casualty of cinema shutdowns throughout the pandemic. The film was pitched to be one of the big blockbusters of 2020, with star power and Nolan’s reputation for delivering complex narratives on the big screen creating hype. A theatre-exclusive release made it the golden ticket for cinemas who were suffering under lockdown—but the film flopped. Cinema closures across the US crippled Tenet’s box office return, and despite Nolan’s insistence that a traditional theatrical release would incentivise audiences to return to cinemas, the film still floundered. It made $300 million internationally (nothing to turn your nose up at), but as one of the only new films released this year and with the star power of its cast and Nolan at the helm, studios and critics agree that the film definitely should have made more.

So where does this leave West Australian cinemas? WA cinemas were able to open back up to audiences in June and have struggled since then to continue to entice people back to the theatre without the major new releases so many viewers were expecting at the start of this year. The future for WA cinemas then seems to rely on fostering an inimitable mood and experience that streaming films from home cannot replicate. Speaking to CEO of Girls School Cinema, Perth Fringe Festival and Rooftop Movies Sharon Burgess at the Rooftop Movies launch party, Sharon seemed incredibly optimistic about the place cinemas have in West Aussies’ hearts.

“People love the escapism of the movies. Why would we not want to escape a little bit and see a movie star, especially after all we’ve been through?”

And she’s right. Particularly when coupled with international political strife and the seemingly never-ending mess of 2020, there has never been a more appropriate time to escape for 1.5 to 2 hours in a darkened theatre where twitter alerts and breaking news become inaccessible. Sharon explains that standing out from a traditional theatre gives Rooftop Movies an edge.

“The rooftop movies is very different from a traditional cinema, it’s an experience. It’s about creating that experience, creating those Insta moments, sharing something unique with friends.”

And a unique experience it is. A Roe Street rooftop transformed with a few beanbags and some string lights into one of Perth’s premier cultural spaces. Other Perth cinemas are also getting creative to keep audiences interested, offering double features of classic films, or movie watching experiences in unique locations like Perth Girls School cinema. The future now for WA cinemas relies on creating new and wholly distinctive experiences that viewers cannot replicate at home on video streaming platforms. And whilst this thinking seems pretty straightforward, it’s a challenge for small-scale regional cinemas, which usually have smaller audiences and face greater financial hardship.

In a conversation with The Guardian, president of Independent Cinemas Australia Scott Seddon called for government support for smaller-scale cinemas.

“In a regional area the cinema is much more of a focal point, it means so much more to the community. Lots of our customers have disabilities, have companion cards, and are older Australians.”

The Australian cinema is a meeting place for so many people from all walks of life, gathering to share culture and enjoy a craft that took months (sometimes even years) and swathes of people to create. So when COVID-19 struck and shut down cinemas (something two World Wars were unable to do), it was a devastating blow to movie fans and the film industry alike. As WA cinemas face increasing pressure to bring audiences back to the screen, it’s up to viewers to get back out there and support their local cinemas. We all need the escapism that the cinema offers in a way streaming at home cannot. And, as Sharon puts it:

“I think we’ve been home enough, I think people want to get out and get to the cinema and do it safely.”