Our movie industry was just about keeping its morale steady. It was enforcing perfectly workable rules on sanitising and physical distancing and not subject to those closures taking theatre and live entertainment to the cliff edge. The pilot light of big-screen cinema culture was flickering. But it was still alight.
But this is a serious blow. If it is really true that Cineworld will close 128 cinemas, putting 5,500 jobs at risk (and it is not simply a scare-story negotiating ploy leaked to the press alongside the company’s official letter to the culture secretary Oliver Dowden demanding action) then this is potentially devastating. For the first time, everyone in the industry is beginning to entertain the queasy thought: what if our cinema industry is like vaudeville? Or silent movies? Or evensong – that once widespread middle-Britain churchgoing habit wiped out by TV? Is cinemagoing finished? A loss-leader adjunct to the home entertainment industry that’s long been vulnerable to infection?
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I think the answer is still no. But the other question is: who is to blame for the Cineworld debacle? Big blockbuster movies are routinely nicknamed “tentpoles” for a reason. They keep the whole big top upright. The announcement is that the new James Bond film, No Time to Die, will come out next spring (a transparently vague and unreliable promise) having been already delayed from the spring of this year. It is enraging that Eon (the Bond producers) have lost their nerve so spectacularly, pulling the movie on which the industry had been relying – the big-screen exhibitors that have been supporting and nurturing the 007 franchise since the 60s. It was just as dismaying for the industry that Disney released their high-profile live-action entertainment Mulan to streaming services. But somehow Disney wasn’t stringing us along in quite the same way.
Of course, the whole Bond franchise is a business: we’re not talking about a state-subsidised schools workshop tour of Romeo and Juliet. Bond movies are profitable entertainments or they are nothing, and they are produced in an unsentimental way by people who, let’s not forget, aren’t to blame for coronavirus. And yes, of course, Covid-19 might be with us for so long that this proposed delay might not be as significant as it now appears. But that will be no consolation to Cineworld employees losing their jobs right now.
And like it or not, those James Bond extravaganzas – enjoyable, exciting, reactionary, daft – are consumed in a slightly sentimental spirit, and the company has effectively been trading, at least partly, on our pride in a globally popular Brit product. Cinema, like all forms of show business, needs chutzpah and courage, and this year the only big-league players to have really shown this are Christopher Nolan and Warner Brothers who boldly released their mega-action thriller Tenet into cinemas. Eon has reportedly been unnerved by the lacklustre box-office numbers for Tenet, and this long delay is apparently their idea of playing it safe.
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But it isn’t simply that this line of thinking discounts the possibility that No Time to Die could have built on the initial steps taken by Tenet; it is the assumption that everything will pretty much be the same next year. Will it? Or will the Bond delay and the Cineworld closure trigger a wave of anxiety that will undermine so many other areas of the service industry and the economy generally? It could be the wing flap not of a butterfly but a pterodactyl.
It is possible that Cineworld might reconsider – and the James Bond franchise itself could reconsider, too. In the meantime, we have to remember that most cinemas are still open and they are showing really good films. “Use it or lose it” is an annoying cliche. But we’re staring loss in the face.
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