After Every Storm Comes A Rainbow: Corona Vs. Cinema
Updated: Apr 5, 2020
By: Hooman Razavi
A closed theatre in Los Angeles, on March 21, 2020
The outbreak of Corona virus in the city of Wuhan in China in December of 2019, was first seen as a local issue that would have little impact on the lives of people across the globe; however, the spread across China and then into 178 countries made it not only into a global pandemic on health grounds but a shared problem on social, economic, cultural and even existential grounds facing the humanity. The entertainment industry, especially cinema, which has intermittently depicted dystopian scenarios of pandemics such as in Soderbergh’s Catagion (2011) is ironically its one outbreak victims as studios, theatres, auditions, festivals and productions are all put on hold until an unforeseeable future (AP report, 2020). This incidence has been global and not limited to any film industry and affected national cinemas and projects already underway.
Impact on Entertainment Industry:
Against this background and pessimistic news, film enthusiast and personnel feel anxious regarding what course does their industry and their livelihood take. This sense of anxiety is not limited to the news of film celebrities as Tom Hanks and his wife testing positive for the disease, it goes deep into how different the scene and industry norms would be? Can even half the 11.4 billion domestic sales in the US be expected after this period is over? How could 17 billion of loss estimated by the end of May be compensated and bring the whole industry back to normal? Is it fair to say that the industry would be totally a different in post-Corona world? So far, evidences suggest changes are swift and underway; delayed screenings and productions, cancelled festivals and events and changes to the modes of distribution such as Video on Demand (VoD) and online streaming.
The other subtle impact is how much this period will affect people’s perception of cinema theatres. Can this temporary separation make us to divorce from movie theatres eventually? Can virtual cinema replace a century established idea of movie-house? If it would be cheaper to stay at home and enjoy a date night in front of a TV, paying less for a movie, why bother visiting the cinema again? This aspect can be life-changing for big film distributors such as Cineplex and film producers who traditionally invested on ticket sales and other types of promotions to enjoy insatiable public taste for hours of cheap entertainment?
Another dimension to analyze is how the industry is impacted by government intervention. One industry heavyweight from India reported that due to health concerns government has asked them to close cinema houses and occupancy rate has plummeted to 8 per cent in different parts of the country. In a different context, cinema theatres are ordered by the government to close in Iran and popular Norouz (Persian New Year) screenings are cancelled. These unique situations might have been inconceivable given the profitability and private nature of global entertainment industry; nonetheless, Corona has changed the equation, so this is a new battlefront in which industry and all its players must follow the dictate of the state and forgo their services and interest. In reality, this gloomy situation may redefine the how state and private entertainment industries can support each other at the time of emergencies with funding and other types of support without making one totally dependent on the other.
The uniqueness of context and approaches taken by the government is already noticeable. For instance as reported by Hollywood Reporter website on March 17th, France, Germany, UK, Spain and Poland each has taken different measures to support the industries. In case of Germany the federal culture minister Monika Grutters highlighted the contribution of Art Industry to the German economy which total of $111 billion in revenue and see lack of support as “existential threat.” The solution so far offered to affected companies is deferring of tax payments very similar to the measure proposed in France. Polish ministry of Culture, among its support package measures, offered to help companies and institutions who will provide alternative programming online. Additionally, in the case of the UK, the option of pause of rental rate to film theatres is seen to be unfair to large businesses that generate over $122,000 in revenue.
Impact on Spectatorship:
The other major impact visible is on viewership followed by theatre closures. The switch to online streaming has been long underway and some analysts, in recent years, even pointed to the popularity of Netflix and other home-based entertainment venues such as Hulu and Amazon Prime Video to be a threat to the traditional cinema (Feldman, 2019). The industry has responded with measures to counter the losses and to maintain the fan base. For instance, unlimited subscription plan or monthly subscription plans were rolled out with some conditions in U.S. cities by Regal and AMC. Moreover, industry insider and online film financiers have put forces together to offer audience choices to maximize revenue generation-online streaming and good deals on in-house sales.
The outbreak logically and empirically has changed these countermeasures by the industry and on health grounds, it has made viewers to use only online options. As a result, even though, globally many in China, Europe or U.S. may have switched almost completely to online streaming but this has imposed on person regardless of interest level to online viewership and taste for real film theatre experience. The corollary of this situation is that similar to other fields such as Education and Medicine in which virtual communication has to replace in-person modes, in the film industry, all deliveries have to be done virtually; The normal spectator and cinephile may find this change to be too swift and radical but the adoption would have be to be accepted and swallowed.
On the part of the entertainment industry, this uncertain time, may bring in innovation in production, modes of delivery and audience interaction and sophistication of VOD and online streaming. It could potentially bring the hands of AI technology to monitor viewers behavior online, content management, software and data transfer updates and provide direction to film industry and streaming sites such as Netflix the preferences viewers have and how their operations can be further streamlined. It would be of no surprise that like in any other epoch in which sociocultural roadblocks lead to innovative measures, COVID-19 may force the cinephiles to experiment with other modes of viewership such as full online streaming, immersive and virtually-based films.
From another standpoint, this turn to total online spectatorship could have mixed impact on the escapist role that film, and entertainment industry can play. It is long being speculated that film industry can be a good refuge and escape from social reality and the ever stressful and changing world. Spectators could step into a movie theatre to temporarily stop their fears and take a solace into a relaxing and mood-altering hour of relief; this may not apply to all viewers and all film genres, but this pattern can be seen and even exacerbated with the events following Corona closure of cinemas. In this case, online streaming and VOD can be tools to take the stress away from global audience who fear the virus spread on top of all social and economic grim factors surrounding their lives, in a sense, cinema taken into its most escapist level. Contrarily, one could argue that this may be a walk-up call for viewer to look more introspectively not just at the movies the pick to watch in Netflix, but be cognizant of what they are watching, how it is streamed and how it can shape their desires and Corona-impacted psyche.
Future Trends and Last words:
In the short term, the industry may find alternatives as pointed out above and keep the profit margin fall to the minimum. The audience may support the changes and adopt to the new modes of viewership discussed. The industry personnel though maybe temporarily unemployed, but the funding provided by the state may cover their expenses. Nevertheless, the long-term impacts could be more radical on how the industry serve its global clientele. Some viewers who regularly visited cinema theatre may come back with more sense of nostalgia after this period is over. They may associate cinema and the film-house as part of their identity- a space that harbors the most visual memories and fulfillment of their untapped desires. Other segment of film viewers may see online streaming as satisfying and gradually lose interest in watching movies outside of their home comfort zones.
However, the industry may not be immune from radical changes as well. The logical course of post-Corona cinematic world is that even though film productions, festivals and screening would be back to normal to compensate for the losses and engage the spectators once again, but the executives, artist guilds and film distributors may find alternative modes of production and distribution to be as important in their initial production, marketing and sales decisions. Overall, it is certain that in this unforeseen and industry-shattering battle, which has just started, the industry will not be the same-materially, technically and aesthetically, nor the imaginary and demands of the post-Corona generation of global audience.