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Our film critics discuss the future of cinema


The cinemas are open again. and the world of cinema is abuzz with new release dates, in-person festivals, an accelerating Oscar race, an array of Covid-19 protocols, and anxious predictions. Is it the death (again) of cinema or its glorious rebirth? Or has it mutated into something completely new, a two-headed Disney-Netflix monster with art somewhere in its genome? Our chief film critics, Manohla Dargis and AO Scott, have some thoughts on these questions. They also asked industry veterans to comment.

MANOHLA DARGIS Hello, my friend, it’s been a while. I just returned from a leave book and failed to win the lottery, I’m back (luckily!). I ignored most of the movie news while I was gone, but I was sad to learn of the closure of my favorite theater here in Los Angeles, the ArcLight Hollywood, which has been shot down by the closures. It felt like the beginning of the end of something, but here we are in a new season that looks more like 2019 than 2020 – even with requests to see our vax cards. What did I miss?

AO SCOTT You haven’t missed much, except for a few episodes of the continuous discourse – part soap opera, part session, part technical seminar – on the future of cinema. Judged solely from the list of upcoming releases (some retained from 2020), this future looks a lot like the recent past. Fall will see new work from Andersons, Wes and PT Jane Campion’s first feature film in over a decade. A new James Bond. The predominance of familiar directors and stars as well as newly created writers (like Chloe Zhao, after her Best Picture win for “Nomadland” with a Marvel Show) creates a reassuring sense of continuity. Cinema as we have known it still seems to exist.

At the same time, but not for the first time, it is widely feared that he is in danger of death. Some of this anxiety is specific to Covid. No one knows when or how this affair will end, and whether audiences will return to theaters in sufficient numbers to revive old business models. The pandemic is not the only factor, and the future of film and cinema may depend less on viral mutations or consumer preferences than on corporate strategy.

If Covid expands, we’ll lose more arthouse theaters, resulting in less box office revenue. At some point, there won’t be enough theaters to generate enough revenue to justify a movie being released in theaters. If you lie about how the past 18 months have changed viewing habits, it looks even worse: The arthouse audience is more mature and this population has so far not been eager to return to the movies. .

– Richard Abramowitz, founder and CEO of distributor Abramorama

DARGIS That we are social animals is what made me think we would go back to the movies, and there is too much money at stake. Cinema has always had its ups and downs. But for decades, the big studios have eroded exposure – the movie habit itself – with a business model that relies on a handful of tents to bait youngsters and a few monster weekends. Their audiences flock to the theaters a bit, and everyone is waiting (or not) for a personal video. I looked at the numbers for the latest “Avengers” movie: it opened in US theaters in April 2019 and played through September, but it absorbed over 90% of its domestic transport in 30 days.

I imagine a lot of people were waiting to see it, just like previous generations waited for things to happen on TV, cable, video – all of this was once seen as a threat to cinema. For a while, these different tracks seemed quite complementary. But the habit of watching on demand, anytime, anywhere has been overwhelming, which is bad for exposure but good for the multinational companies that own the studios as they also own the companies that. move things around homes. So maybe these multinationals will switch exclusively to streaming. Maybe they’ll re-embrace theaters or buy them all. In the end, I am much more worried about non-industrial cinema and whether its audiences will return to the cinema.

Of course there is the occasional blockbuster that they may want to see as an Imax experience and want to have that shared community experience, but like everything in the world, with the multitude of choices available and given the time, effort and expense. to go to the movies, most choose to watch movies in the comfort of their own homes.

– Marcus Hu, co-founder of distributor Strand Releasing

SCOTT The small screen is definitely getting bigger, like it or not. Subscription revenue is unlikely to match the box office numbers, but for many independent filmmakers, streaming offers money for projects that the big studios no longer do. For a long time, major studios focused their resources on franchise, IP-based entertainment at the expense of stand-alone features aimed at an adult audience. Streaming took some of that slack.

The result is that what you and I and others in our aging population understood as “going to the movies” may have been replaced by a different menu of choices and practices. What I mean is the idea of ​​cinema as a destination, independent of a particular film that could be screened. Most of the time you would just go and see what was there, and there was always something – art, trash, or in between – worth the price of the ticket, which was not that much. A movie habit was pretty easy to acquire, and a lot of us did.

Children today have not developed it in the same way. They have more screens, more options and different reasons to buy a ticket. I’m not complaining, I’m watching. What I wonder is the effect of these changes on the art form that is still called by the anachronistic names of cinema and film.

The studios stopped making the kind of movies that I make when we were finishing “Silver ball” – I remember an executive who told me that he would have transmitted it if it had occurred to him at that time. In the years that it took to make this movie, the world for this kind of movie has turned.

– Rachel Horovitz, producer

DARGIS Let’s go back 50 years to see how streaming has affected cinema, which is still a moving target. To be honest, while it’s interesting to see how big companies deal with the new normal, the work I tend to love has long had a distinct ecology, with its own way of doing things, its own community and his own relationships. In 1991, Julie Dash’s “Daughters of the Dust” needed a slow release, critical love and word of mouth to make a dent, and so do most of the films that interest us now. . As a friend asked the other day, would Bong Joon Ho’s “Parasite” be “Parasite” if it had only been streamed? We both think the answer is no – that would still be great, but not a cultural sensation.

Movies, unlike branded entertainment, need to live in the world, not just on personal devices. This is not about the putative romance of cinema, but about how people experience art and culture, because if we are talking about infrastructure, we are also talking about fun – the fun of the cinematic object, and the pleasure of your company and your conversation. . It’s frustrating that people keep writing lazy movie obituaries, something they have no feeling or interest in. I don’t like everything that’s happened in the history of cinema – the switch from film to digital, the loss of technical skills – but I remain motivated by the persistence of art and the way its ecologies have grown. ‘adapt and persevere.

Even so, and I think I’ve said it before, I increasingly see the segment of the film world that concerns me most as akin to jazz. It’s something generally enjoyed by a niche audience, but needs new blood – the kids you mentioned – to really keep it going.

Movies in theaters will have exclusive windows in theaters, but those windows will be shorter and more flexible. But the films that matter, that have a cultural impact, will again be shown exclusively in theaters for a while, probably 45 days.

– Tom Rothman, President and CEO of Sony Pictures’ Motion Picture Group

SCOTT I guess I’m always optimistic about the tenacity of the artists and the curiosity of the audience, and aware that a good job is mostly done against the grain of the system at some point. But it is nonetheless important to be critical of this system, and reasonable to ask how its current iteration might thwart some forms of originality while encouraging others.

There’s no going back to a previous golden age, and the gold fades pretty quickly when you look closely. The old studios whose products got the label “classic” were built on exploitation and predation, and run by autocratic tycoons. Things didn’t get much better, ethically or politically, in the New Hollywood ’70s or the independent’ 90s.

Yet great and weird films were being made then, as they are now. But I fear that many of them languish in streaming algorithms or in the margins of micro-distribution, far away even from the small public who could have discovered them. One cause for alarm – which has nothing to do with streaming per se – is the mass extinction of local newspapers and alternative weeklies that have fueled local movie scenes across the country. The health of films is linked to the health of journalism.

[I worry] that economic challenges will force arthouse cinemas to move away from small titles that add significantly to diversity and inclusion in our cinematic landscape. Additionally, reducing newspaper and media coverage for short films will force movie theater owners to make these decisions.

– Dennis Doros, co-founder of Milestone Films

DARGIS The pandemic has highlighted specific issues – at least, maybe better theater ventilation will end watching multiplex fodder in a miasma of desperation and stale popcorn. More to your last point, I think most of the time what the pandemic has done underscores, again, that we are still navigating the world created by the internet, which has changed the way we work, play, play and play. read, watch, think. The movie industry has a history of different production-distribution-exhibition models that work until they don’t, but all through these changes movies have continued to be made and people have continued. to watch them, and I imagine they will continue to be made and we will continue to watch and talk about all of this.

SCOTT Let’s hope so! Otherwise, we could both end up on permanent leave.


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