Do We Still Need The Cinema Experience?

by Augusto Miro Quesada

I still remember watching The Invisible Man in AMC Studio 30 with my friends. It was late-February 2020. I still remember what a great movie it was, and how much I enjoyed seeing iy inside a theatre. I remember getting the kind of buttery popcorn and sodas that you regret later, watching all of the new trailers, and chatting with friends and strangers alike about the movie’s exciting ending. I also remember that was the night that HBU announced an initial, two-week delay of classes because of the Coronavirus.

A few days later, those two weeks turned into a month, then the whole semester, and then the entire year. Needless to say, I was forced to take a break from one of my favorite hobbies: going to movie theatres. It wasn’t until August that I was able to go to the theatre once again. Christopher Nolan’s Tenet was playing, the most anticipated movie of the year, and yet, I sat in an empty theatre. Once again, I sought out the magic of the theatre while the movie played, that special state of childlike wonder. However, while I sensed it, it wasn’t able to fully engulf me as it had done so before. I left feeling bitter, as not even a great blockbuster like Tenet was able to shake off what I´d been observing for the past eight months. People were seemingly losing interest in reserving their cinematic experience to the big screen, even if it was for fair reasons.  

With quarantine came boredom, and with boredom came the need for studios and platforms to entertain its audiences at all costs. Of course, streaming services like Netflix, Hulu, and Disney+ jumped on this opportunity. Early notable examples of the rise of in-home entertainment could be seen at their best with shows like Netflix’s Tiger King, back in March 2020. I remember watching the show and thinking it was a decently put together documentary. However, it became a global phenomenon because it came out during the start of quarantine. People locked in their houses tuned in because it was a new show which had enough entertainment value and drama to distract the masses from the pandemic. In many ways, Tiger King served to prove the point that people would gladly watch movies and TV from their houses if they had to. Other competing services, like Disney+, also sped up their schedules to capitalize on this newfound need for in-home entertainment. According to the Observer, The Mandalorian season 2 alone broke Disney+’s viewership and subscriber records. Sources like Variety also revealed that Disney+’s five year subscriber goal was completed in only eight and a half months. 

The success of shows like Tiger King and The Mandalorian proved that people´s interest in movies and TV had not faded, but simply transitioned from cinemas to their homes. With this trend of stay-at-home entertainment having escalated, my fear of people accepting this transition too willingly grew as well. What began as a temporary solution to boredom started to feel more like a permanent “evolution.” I couldn’t help but think that perhaps this was inevitable, and that Tenet would be among the last movies I’d ever get to see in cinemas. Was quarantine simply speeding up an inevitable shift in platforms; one that was already years in the making? 

To a certain extent, I could see why this shift to streaming services was so successful. For one, it was obviously safer, as going outside exponentially increased the chances of catching the Coronavirus. In addition, staying at home provided more comfort, and allowed the user the ability to play, pause, fast forward, and even customize their viewing experience. The fact that the user also had ease of access and a vast variety of content came hand-in-hand with this comfort. Lastly, it was significantly cheaper to get a monthly streaming service subscription than it was to go out to see a movie at a theatre. Statica recently pointed out that, on average, a ticket for one movie in the theatre was $9.16, while Netflix’s monthly cost for a sea of variety was still $8.99.

As two more months quickly passed, another thing that became apparent to me was that the production gap between movie theaters and streaming services was getting progressively smaller. Streaming services were drawing in big talents. The same directors who worked on big screen movies were also directing content for streaming services. Directors like Jon Favreau, Steven Soderbergh, Alfonso Cuaron, Martin Scorsese, Guillermo Del Toro, and The Cohen Brothers had already collaborated with services like Netflix and Disney + for the past few years.

It’s no surprise that streaming services have already been big for a while. They were serving as the prime example of easy, accessible in-home entertainment, and providing thousands of hours of content. Moreover, Netflix had already been stepping into the big leagues for a couple of years, with original movies like Roma, Marriage Story, The Two Popes, The Irishman, and documentaries like Icarus making their way to prestigious award shows like the Golden Globes and the Oscars. However, I never registered this as a threat to cinemas. On the contrary, I was always more of a TV person, and thus, I benefitted from these creations. However, now it felt that this increasingly small gap between quality would negatively impact the future of theatres. 

By the time early December came around, an article from Collider consolidated this fear for me, as HBO Max announced that they would release their entire slate of films on their platform for 2021. This added another stone to be cast at cinemas. This meant that the exclusivity of cinemas, one of its last positive factors, was decreasing. Disney+ had similar announcements, with movies like Mulan, Onward, and Soul being released either simultaneously in cinemas and in-home, or exclusively online.

Although this was yet another big hit against the cinema experience, it was reassuring to see renowned names criticize the big studio’s decision. According to an article from Variety, Tenet’s director Christopher Nolan slammed this deal by stating how it was “…very messy. A real bait and switch.” He further added that “…it’s sort of not how you treat filmmakers and stars and people who, these guys have given a lot for these projects. They deserved to be consulted and spoken to about what was going to happen to their work.”

While I personally shared this sentiment, I started this new year asking a dreadful question that had been developing in the back of my mind. Did people still need the cinema experience? If last year was any indication, in-home entertainment had surpassed the need to go to theatres. To a certain extent, I understood why. Like I mentioned before, one ticket for a movie at your average theatre costs more than a month’s worth of a streaming service. In addition, after December, theatres lost their exclusive releases over Warner Bros movies, which included blockbusters such as The Matrix 4, The Suicide Squad, Godzilla vs Kong, Sherlock Holmes 3, among others.  

Even though this rise will probably not go away in 2021, I’d like to point out why the cinema experience still holds value. For one, there still are technical superiorities that theatres have, such as IMAX, 3D, Dolby Cinema, sound systems, etc. Formats like IMAX show more of the frame that the cameras shot during production, which results in an extended aspect ratio that enhances the visuals and creates a richer world. Similarly, Dolby Cinema’s dynamic color range creates a rich color spectrum of better and truer hues, as well increased contrast with blacker blacks and whiter whites. On the sound department, their equipment is able to better handle subsonic bass ambiences, and creates more sonar depth and surround sound, achieved through the use of multiple speakers placed in different parts of the theatre. 

 The theatre also allows you to watch a film as the director intended, without breaks or pauses. It demands your attention, and holds it so that you can follow the  ebb and flow of its pacing. Additionally, it serves as a fun place to hang out with friends and family, and perfectly lends itself for post-film discussions.

However, my appreciation for the cinema experience transcends these advantages. I think that the cinema experience brings something that in-home entertainment just can´t. It means a lot to me. Sometimes it´s hard to stir away from the abstract, but I believe that the theatre has a palpable magic to it; a sense of wonder and amusement. If you let yourself be engulfed by the movie, it speaks back to you. It gives you the unparallel excitement and childlike thrill of going to a sacred place that is solely devoted to the release and enjoyment of movies. It’s the real thing. You can feel the authenticity of watching a movie where movies are meant to be watched. I believe that the true cinema experience belongs within theatres, and just like when I saw The Invisible Man, they result in fun lasting memories that stay present within you as the years go by.  

With that said, sometimes I still wonder whether the cinema experience will die along theatres. Once we return to “normal times,” will audiences return to their pre-pandemic appreciation for cinemas? Will movie studios even want to go back? I like to think that the cinema experience will always live on in theatres. I like to think it might evolve, change, transform; that it is an undetachable part of the audiovisual medium. I liked to think that theatres will forever hold their crown. However, perhaps that won’t be the case. 

Maybe the cinema experience will transcend theatres, and maybe we will all somehow be able to create our own little cinema experiences by the way we approach movies. After all, at its core, what is the cinema experience if not the magical way in which we let a film fully resonate with us?

Augusto is a Cinematic Arts Major at HBU. When he's not hurting his knees triple jumping at the track, legend has it he watches movies at UAC.

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