On the evening of 16th March 2020, the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom announced the start of the lockdown that would attempt to suppress the outbreak of Covid-19, of which one measure was the closure of cinemas across the country, to prevent people coming into close contact within a closed space.
Two days later, my bank sent me six free cinema tickets, to use at my local multiplex. The current account I have with my bank allows me to choose an extra perk from a list each year, like a magazine subscription, or money off in restaurants, but every March, when the bank asks me what I want next, I always choose the cinema tickets.
On 19th September 2020, I see a film in a cinema for what was the first time since 23rd February – that film was “Greed,” the comedy satirising the clothes shop magnates that squeeze sweatshops for profit, starring Steve Coogan as a Sir Philip Green analogue that builds a plywood Colosseum using migrant labour to celebrate their birthday. It was a good film, if earnest at putting its point across, but I only remembered I saw it after realising that watching “Cats” (a film I still like) in a cinema was such an overpowering experience, it obliterated the following two months of film-watching memory – either that, or 2020 has been as long a year as everyone else has said.
Cinemas in the UK were allowed to reopen from 4th July, but my local cinema reopened on 7th August, having been postponed from 10th July. My local chain is Vue, a British chain partly owned by a Canadian pension fund. However, the gap between its reopening and my finally walking through the door was entirely mine, as I deliberated what to see next – the future of local government employees in Ontario depended on my decision.
The canary in the cinema coalmine, used to gauge how quickly people would return, was Christopher Nolan’s “Tenet,” but I did not want to watch another large film, with a large story, with large ideas, and a large cast – I am not usually one for blockbuster tentpole films anyway. I had considered watching the rerelease of an older film, namely “The Empire Strikes Back,” but I didn’t care enough about Star Wars to watch what has been turned into the middle film in a middle trilogy. I certainly wouldn’t wait until November to watch “No Time to Die,” but when it comes to series that define how Britain is portrayed in film, I am more likely to choose a Carry On film over James Bond.
So, childhood nostalgia it is – I’m seeing “Bill & Ted Face the Music,” itself postponed from 21st August, 14th August, and 28th August, finally arriving on screens on 16th September. The film itself was great, but you will get more out of it if you have seen the other two films. Oddly, it felt like it was made by fans of the first two films, even when you know it was the original team.
As long as it took for me to choose a film to watch, the bigger problem was at the cinema itself. The capacity of the screen showing “Bill & Ted” was 422 seats, the biggest in the fourteen-screen multiplex. The number of people in the audience was FIVE. It may have been 10:10 on a Saturday morning, but before the lockdown, showing ANY film would get a bigger audience than five.
Losing access to cinemas for a period of time has run the risk of upending the idea of films altogether in a way I wouldn’t have thought. We are now so used to home video releases of films coming only a matter of weeks after their cinema release, that it becomes ever easier to skip the cinema release altogether: the Tom Hanks film “Greyhound,” made for $50 million, was released online in July 2020 after the lockdown made its cinema release impossible. What was meant to have been a Columbia Pictures Release became a success for Apple TV+ instead. “Trolls World Tour” made a $30 on-demand cost for one film justifiable, later copied by Disney with the live-action “Mulan,” making the audience being a Disney+ subscriber a pre-requisite before paying any more. If it is made any easier for film companies to do this instead, there will be no more need for cinemas.
I prefer to think of cinema as the medium rather than the film – films are made to be watched in a cinema. Watching a film in any other circumstance takes away from the singular focus on the screen. All TV screens, and especially all mobile phone screens, are too small for cinema, too inadequate to deal with intimate detail and expansive views. Both the sound and vision of cinema do not have to complete with that is happening outside where the film is playing, but once it leaves, that is all that ever happens – films can be shown on television, and films can be posted to YouTube, but films are not television, and films are not YouTube.
I have five free tickets left – my cinema will have these well before next March.