Feature: Cinema In The Times of Pandemic
From the confines of our living rooms, amidst the uncertainty spawned by the novel COVID-19 outbreak across the world, Lost The Plot assesses its impact on the film industry and the world of movies at large. We dive into cinema history for a bird's eye perspective.
On December 28th 1895, the world’s first commercial movie screening took place at the Grand Cafe in Paris. The novel soiree was organised by two brothers, Louis and Auguste Lumiere. Not only had they made the 46 second long film being premiered, but had also built the machine used to display it, a combination of camera and projector - the ‘cinematographe.’ It was the first ever ticketed public showcase of a film. A year later, the Lumiere brothers opened their own movie theatres, ‘cinemas,’ where they showcased films they had commissioned by sending crews of cameramen all over the world. In the US, the film industry had taken off quickly - by 1896, Vitascope Hall, the first American theatre opened in New Orleans, in 1909 the New York Times published its first film review, Nestor Motion Picture Company, the first ever Hollywood studio opened its doors in 1911 and by 1914 Charlie Chaplin had made his big-screen debut in the one-reeler, Making a Living.
In its 125 year existence, the film industry has evolved in leaps and bounds, from the machinery used to create and display films, to narrative and aesthetic choices, and most recently, in the way movies are distributed around the world. But today, at a time when human society seems to be evolving at its most frenetic, the COVID-19 pandemic has brought life as we know it to a grinding halt. With over 2.6 billion people across the world - more people than were alive during World War II - subjected to some level of lockdown, the film industry’s primary avenue of reaching audiences has been rendered incapacitated. With theatres shut, The Hollywood Reporter estimates a global box office loss of $17 billion between March - May, while postponing of releases may cost anywhere between $10 - $50million per project. With film production under lockdown as well, the dust seems far from settled - ‘pausing’ a shoot mid-production for a film like Disney’s live action remake of The Little Mermaid can cost between $300-350,000 per day.
In India too, Bollywood has reported losses of Rs.600 -1000 crores since mid-March. Theatrical releases of large tentpole films such as Sooryavanshi starring Ajay Devgan and Akshay Kumar, and 83 Ranveer Singh’s cricket drama, were postponed while film shoots like that of Aamir Khan’s upcoming Forrest Gump adaptation Laal Singh Chaddha are on hold. Industry pundits anticipate major overcrowding of the release calendar in the second half of the year, assuming restrictions will be lifted by then. Beyond releases, film festivals, which double up as trade events crucial to the industry’s life cycle, are also in upheaval this year. Three of the largest and most anticipated summer film festivals including SXSW in Texas, Tribeca in New York as well as the Cannes Film Festival have been cancelled or postponed. Apart from costing themselves and their local economies in both dollars and employees, the postponed festivals will also have to compete against the existing autumn bigwigs - Toronto, Telluride and Venice Film Festivals. Smaller festivals could drop off the map entirely. With a massive global recession looming on the horizon after lockdowns are lifted, conserving cash flows is the priority across the board. For filmmakers looking to get projects off the ground as well as distributors waiting to sell films, even if to OTT platforms, this poses serious short to mid-term obstacles. Depending on how long the lockdowns continue, the market could also face a shortage of fresh new content soon - the stuff of every film buff's nightmares!
Luckily, history tells us that showbiz is as tenacious as it is thick skinned. The COVID-19 pandemic is not the first time that the film industry has been forced to shutter. In fact, the ‘big Hollywood’ studio structure that we take for granted today was itself the result of a public health crisis eerily similar to the one we face today. In 1918, as World War I drew to a close, the H1N1 influenza pandemic took over, infecting over 500 million people worldwide and accounting for at least 50 million deaths, 675,000 in the US alone. Similar to COVID-19, with no vaccine to protect against it, control efforts were limited to non-pharmaceutical interventions such as isolation, quarantine, good personal hygiene, use of disinfectants, and limitations of public gatherings.
The nascent film industry was booming at that time, distributing reels to over 20,000 theatres in America. It was soon to be the fifth largest industry in the country with an estimated capital investment of over $250 million. But, with the flu affecting the cream of the industry - many prominent stars of the time including Lillian Gish, Mary Pickford and even a young Walt Disney were infected - theatres had no choice but to shut shop. Pessimists croaked that this was “the beginning of the end.” Instead, the industry quickly adapted. According to Benjamin P. Hampton, the author of ‘History of the American Film Industry,’ the producers who hesitated lost ground in the final test of industrial survival, and those who disregarded common business prudence and rushed ahead on a showman’s hunch saved their skins. Many smaller companies went out of business and the resulting shakeout led to a consolidation of the bigger ones, eventually creating the mega-Hollywood studio system we know today - masters of production, distribution and exhibition. In other words, their businesses became ‘vertically integrated.’
Films at Your Doorstep
At this time the home entertainment sector was, of course, non-existent. Theatres, with their darkened cavernous halls, large screens and communal viewing were the only avenues for audiences to satiate their love for films. Indeed, the matter of ‘convenience’ had not yet infiltrated the ‘spectacle’ of cinema, and the uproar caused by the closing of theatres, albeit temporarily, was a valid one. In the 21st century however, film distribution has become a specialised, technology driven business and a film’s copyright is channelled through multiple streams of exhibition including satellite transmission (TV and cable), home video entertainment (DVD / Blu Rays) and ‘over the top’ (OTT) internet based streaming services. In this kaleidoscopic environment of easy access to audio-visual content, the physical appeal of the theatrical movie watching experience already seems obsolete. 2018 ended with many predictions of global OTT revenues overtaking box office returns for the first time in history.
Since the dawn of VHS in the 1980’s, the relationship between film studios and theatres has been governed by a fragile understanding called the ‘release window.’ It means that if a studio wants to release films in theatres, they need to wait for a predefined period of time before releasing the title to home video alternatives. Although the standard norm is around 90 days, in the post-Netflix era, this delicate equilibrium has once again become a hot topic of contention. And while gold standard films such as The Irishman, Roma or Marriage Story are being increasingly produced for digital premieres by Netflix, so far, film studios have adopted a respectful adherence to the concept.
Fast forward to mid-March 2020, as urgency around the COVID-19 outburst peaked across the world, America’s oldest studio, Universal Pictures, made the bold announcement of its current titles - The Invisible Man, The Hunt and Emma - all of which were still in theatres, being made available online simultaneously for 48 hour rentals. Shattering the release window principle, the studio also announced that going forward it would follow a policy of releasing its low to mid-tier films online while they are still in cinemas. The pilot - Trolls World Tour - was scheduled to release on April 10th. Disney and Warner Bros. have also followed suit with Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker, Frozen II and the latter’s Birds of Prey becoming available for rent on streaming platforms ahead of time. Paramount’s Lovebirds became the first film to be actively pulled from theatres in favour of a Netflix release given the COVID-19 crisis. Closer to home, the Irrfan Khan starrer Angrezi Medium too received an early digital release on Disney+ Hotstar (which launched here on March 29) because its box office collections were severely hampered by the nation wide lockdown imposed in India.
This scramble for ‘digital real estate’ has permeated across the industry. SXSW has collaborated with Amazon Prime to create a free version of its film festival online, where audiences can watch all the films slated to premiere at the cancelled Austin event on Amazon’s US streaming platform. Independent cinemas - most likely the worst affected theatres - are also jumping on the streaming wagon with The Angelika Film Centre in New York offering films from its signature programme for paid streaming online. Interestingly, the Dharamshala International Film Festival, despite being scheduled for November, is using the ease of streaming to connect with their global community. Through an initiative called the DIFF Viewing Room, it assures website visitors free access to a curated list of past festival films, simply to help people get through this emotionally turbulent time!
The Streaming Bandwagon
The case for OTT platforms was already very strong, and is only strengthening as audiences across age groups tap into its convenience, variety and cost effectiveness. As streaming infrastructure across the globe becomes more robust, in which major media companies are already showing a vested interest, access to more and more content at your fingertips will likely be the new norm. If there was any doubt about it before, the current COVID-19 induced social distancing norms have only catalysed this digital evolution and helped it pass the litmus test - subscriptions are predicted to grow by 60% during this period. Along with audiences, this is also a welcome trend for small to mid-sized, and independently produced films. As access to filmmaking techniques becomes democratised and the basic technology required for making films cheaper, the existence of widespread and versatile distribution networks becomes indispensable to this new breed of ‘millennial’ or ‘Gen Z’ creators. In turn, the diversity they bring helps the platforms maintain fresh and locally relevant libraries.
The economic efficiency of digital vertical integration, by building their own OTT platforms (as compared to the construction of physical theatres), is not lost on major studios either. Ever since the Netflix revolution of 2007, the race has been on, and with the world’s largest film conglomerate The Walt Disney Company finally consolidating its position, it seems that digital is much closer to the finish line than imagined - its bouquet of streaming services - Hulu, ESPN+ and the newly launched Disney+ is already valued at a $100 billion.
Ironically, in the landmark 1948 U.S. Supreme Court case against Paramount Pictures, in which studios’ ownership of theatres was ruled to be in violation of antitrust laws because it pushed independent producers out of the movie market, the Court was referring to Disney, which at the time owned no theatres and was considered an independent, animation company! Given the speed and volume at which the media behemoth is preparing for a digital future, one wonders how it would respond to the same rationale being applied today. The access by Hollywood giants of the industry disruptor’s rule book may end up tipping the game more unevenly than ever before, and at a cheaper price tag. Cinephiles may find themselves in possession of a double edged sword - given access to more films than they can watch online, but with no way to cut through the noise.
#WhattoWatch (in a post-COVID World)
Yesterday, the Maharashtra State Government announced an extension to its lockdown until April 30th at least. Reporting the highest number of COVID-19 cases in the country and home to Mumbai, one of the most densely populated cities in the world, the decision surprised no-one. Bombay is also home to Bollywood and much of the city’s film community is using the time off to connect with themselves, their families and their fans via goofy Instagram videos and confessions from isolation. In the future, even after lockdowns are lifted, as long as the world wide web remains green lit, it seems possible that people get used to social distancing as the new norm. Which brings us to the last, and probably the most unpredictable impact of COVID-19 : what will people want to watch once their physical liberties are restored? Will we yearn even more for feel good, song and dance Bollywood and large scale, laughably melodramatic pot boilers like Baahubali? Will purely mindless entertainment be the need of the hour? Or will this time spent teetering between anxiety and introspection encourage more discerning choices?
In 1918, along with influenza, the film industry faced another offshoot issue - once the First World War had ended, there was an almost instantaneous, collective loss of interest in war films amongst the American public. The studios, big and small, that had produced these and were waiting to release them were stuck. Will a similar fate await the Netflix-fuelled rise of investigative documentary films and series'? Despite being explosive and gripping, they often tell scathing stories that deal with pressing socio-political issues in a format that is already tagged 'niche'. They point at gaping holes in the system and can be publicly divisive.
On the other hand, if the immense popularity of Instagram sketch comedy videos is to go by, then perhaps we will see greater preferences for shorter, more satirical comedy content, perhaps even based on or inspired by lockdown stories and experiences. (Here’s looking at you Sumukhi Suresh). Besides, with film production stalled, at least temporarily, this might be the only genre possible for creators quarantined alone to execute. Having said that, one only needs to scour user generated content platforms like TikTok to understand that in the digital age there truly is no limit to collaboration or creativity. Out of the hurricane of new content being produced every day by ‘bedroom creators’ - be it in film, art, theatre or music - perhaps you only need curators and programmers with sufficient foresight, clarity and patience to sift through the debris left behind and identify a Jaffar Panahi’s This Is Not A Film, Aneesh Chaganty’s Searching or a Jacob Collier.
Can the world of movie viewing be moved entirely online though? We certainly hope not! The palpable anticipation of a room full of movie buffs as they wait eagerly for the big screen to be flooded by never-before-seen images is a momentous experience unlike any other. And what makes it truly special, is knowing that as you feel all the emotions the filmmakers intended, there are others in that darkened room - strangers as most might be - feeling those very sparks too. But for movie theatre companies in some geographies, under fire from not just the current COVID-19 lockdown but also the emergence of OTT platforms and the studio system's increasing affinity towards them, it is truly a testing time.
Fortunately for India, it still appears to be a distant possibility, especially if the numbers from India’s largest multiplex chain are to go by. In the year ending March 2019, PVR’s revenue from operations grew 32% while footfall at their cinema halls was up 25% compared to the year prior. Our country is also one of the poorest when it comes to access to theatres per capita. With only 8 screens for every million people, only a third of the population is able to catch a new release on the big screen. Despite this, one in six Indians watches a movie at the theatres every week, mostly as part of social engagements with family or friends. In times of political and economic turmoil too, we as a nation turn to the silver screen. So while the current lockdown definitely poses some grave short term challenges for theatrical exhibitors, it is heartening that in a country of 1.3 billion, there is still opportunity for multiple types of movie watching experiences to coexist in the foreseeable future.
What the COVID-19 crisis has reiterated about the film industry is its ability to adapt to its external environment and audience preferences, at great speed. It is the medium's willingness to innovate - whether on the creative front, by embracing technology, restructuring its business models or all of the above, that has always made cinema such a pervasive influence in society. In fact, even before the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, movie theatre companies had started investing in technology upgrades for an improved audiovisual experience and experimenting with the form of their "theatres" - drive-ins for example have seen a sudden resurgence in footfalls across the world. Could they become the future of safe movie nights in the socially distanced 'normal' of the post-COVID world?
Our collective need for emotional respite given the uncertainty of the future is now greater than ever. Is it handy to have such a large variety of films accessible from the comfort (and safety) of our living rooms? Of course! But in a post-COVID world, would they be better and more fulfilling experienced with family and friends, as a community? Undoubtedly. But whether that will be in a traditional cinema hall, a 4DX theatre, an immersive virtual reality box or at an out-of-the-box film screening under the stars, remains to be seen. As we gaze out the framed window pane, planning our next Netflix binge, we do feel grateful to be a part of this evolutionary moment in cinema history. One where the privilege of technology has created so many ways for audiences to engage with movies, in both the real and virtual worlds. And while major short term challenges and long term reinventions seem imminent to the various moving parts that make up the film machinery, for the modern day cinephile, the future seems neon bright - come rain, sunshine or coronavirus.
This article has been updated on 30.4.2020 to reflect current editorial views.