That Was The Year That Wasn't
Rather to my surprise, the film critics of many major newspapers and other media outlets have gone ahead as usual with their retrospectives on the year just finished, listing all the usual 'Top Tens' and so on. I trust the reason for my surprise is obvious: for an appreciable chunk of the year the cinemas have all been shut, and even after the rather tentative reopening in July, the big studios were notably skittish about releasing what you'd actually call substantial movies.
2020 started off so promisingly, though, with lots of interesting movies on display (I saw seven films in one week last January, which is very unusual for that time of year). Most of these were striking the same slightly earnest note of social awareness, to be true, but we've come to expect that, and the early genre releases from the big studios were still just about okay, and the appearance (finally) of Terry Gilliam's adaptation of Don Quixote was a genuine treat. Probably the most notable moment came when Parasite won the Oscar for Best Picture: one of those instances of the Academy getting it absolutely right.
And then suddenly, and very quickly, all the screens went black. Even after they reopened, three or four months later, hardly anyone seemed to be in a rush to release new films. On the other hand, if you were the maker of a slightly niche foreign drama this was a good year to get a good slot on the schedule, as films like Proxima and Les Miserables got rather more generous releases than one might have anticipated, and the makers of some low-budget genre movies seized the opportunity to get their films out too.
In the end, though, and probably for the first time ever, we've had a year which was more notable for the films which weren't released than for the ones which were: for instance, if you'd told me twelve months ago that the biggest-earning Marvel movie of 2020 was going to be The New Mutants, I would probably have given you a very strange look indeed. But so it has proven – given its dominance at the global box office, the Disney organisation has proven to be remarkably risk-averse at this time of crisis for the film business, postponing the release of Black Widow and all its other in-house superhero movies, and cancelling the theatrical release of Mulan and Soul entirely, choosing to debut them on its streaming service instead.
Mind you, they are far from the only ones: not only has the release of No Time To Die been put back by more than a year, but it was also reported that Eon were trying to offload the distribution rights to Netflix or Apple for $600 million. The decision not to release the latest Bond movie in November, while (with hindsight) probably for the best, was still the catalyst that saw one of the UK's cinema chains shut their doors, with no sign of a reopening in sight.
For most of the year it looked like the role of saviour of cinema was going to be filled, if not by Christopher Nolan himself with Tenet, then by his backers at Warner Brothers. It was Warners who were the first to stick their heads above the parapet by releasing a genuinely big summer movie in an attempt to get people back into movie theatres, and it was also Warners who tried the same thing again recently, releasing Wonder Woman 1984 to UK cinemas just a couple of weeks ago.
Normal standards of success and failure have obviously been suspended, so to call Tenet a flop is a little disingenuous. Nevertheless, its comparatively meagre takings are probably what caused virtually every other major release of the year to be cancelled – even Wonder Woman was simultaneously released to stream in the US. By that point Warner Brothers had announced that all of their 2021 releases were going to have simultaneous theatrical and streaming releases – including things which would normally have widescreen-popcorn-movie written all over them, such as Godzilla Vs Kong, the Suicide Squad sequel, Matrix 4 and the new adaptation of Dune.
It's a move which the rest of the industry will be watching with obvious interest: apparently the release of Mulan via Disney+ didn't do well enough to justify other big movies going direct-to-streaming, but the impact on the theatrical box office of the Warners movies is going to be the subject of in-depth analysis.
The question underpinning all of this is a simple one: can cinema in its current form survive? The pandemic has acted as a lens revealing many aspects of our society and culture to be less robust than one might have anticipated, and the economics of the film industry is one of these. For some time now, the big studios have been reliant on having at least one big blockbuster hit a year in order to stay solvent, which is why they all cultivate their own franchises (and are notably risk-averse when it comes to making these big summer movies). The popularity of these big films (along with the massive profit margins involved in selling popcorn) is one of the factors which allows most multiplexes to operate. The lack of big films this year has hurt both makers and exhibitors – with the damage to exhibitors being perhaps more important. As noted, makers of smaller movies seemed more prepared to put their products out there this year – which is why we were still able to enjoy films like Saint Maud, almost certainly my pick as best film of the second half of 2020 – but if the theatres are all shut, they're not going to have anywhere to release them to.
I assume that the UK chains Picturehouse and Cineworld are both going to reopen when the pandemic eventually recedes – but then ten years ago I assumed that rabid Euroscepticism was going to remain an extremist fringe position in UK politics. One should not take too much for granted. It does seem virtually certain that the production of long-form single narratives will continue; but where will we be watching them?
Cinema, as an artform, is literally synonymous with the place where people have traditionally engaged with it. Films may well survive – but what about the cinematic experience? One thing which has struck me time and time again over the years is how big a difference it makes to see a film in a proper theatre, with proper projection and sound quality. It's one of those tricky, almost impossible to quantify things, but it's something not really available in the same way in any other context. There is a magic there which is wholly absent from any direct-to-streaming release, no matter how great the talent involved or the lavishness of the production values.
This column celebrates (if that's the right word; I'm genuinely not sure) its twentieth anniversary in the middle of 2021. I didn't expect to be doing so while the future of cinema as an artform looked quite so doubtful and troubled, but there we are. Hopefully by then we will have a better sense of how things will develop. It is always good to enter a new year with hope, even if this year, it seems a little harder than usual for some of us. If you're like me, then you'll understand when I say that cinema can be one of life's great joys, and we must only hope that this continues to be the case.