As parts of the world gradually ease out of total lockdown, question marks loom over the future of cinema. Increasingly, there’s a worrying sensation that, for cinema, the question is if, not when, things can return to the pre-Covid status quo. Cinema ticket prices have shot through the roof, but social distancing measures and the reluctance of audiences to potentially risk their lives sitting together in a darkened cinema still mean that ticket revenue will inevitably be lower. As a result, people have turned increasingly towards streaming services in order to purchase and watch films, a method that, for all its modern efficiency, lacks the scale, quality and conviviality of a trip to the local cinema.
It has become increasingly apparent that cinema is not going to tie us all together in a spirit of fortitude, as it did during the last remotely comparable (in terms of scale at least) crisis, the Second World War. 1939 is known as Hollywood’s Golden Year, and, at least in the western world, cinemas were famously packed throughout the conflict, as people sought solace from harsh realities. But post-Second World War Hollywood cinema was markedly different from that of wartime – gone were the lively, funny female stars of the 30s, whether in the mould of Mae West or of Carole Lombard; they were replaced by more prim male stars (Charlton Heston, Ronald Reagan, Jimmy Stewart: openly politically conservative, and known for playing more traditional roles), in more serious, or at least straight-faced, movies in which women went back to the kitchen. The political change that came about as the liberalism of Roosevelt was replaced by the grim slog of McCarthyist politics in the late 40s and 50s was mirrored in Hollywood (notable 50s director Elia Kazan, known for On The Waterfront, assisted The House Un-American Activities Committee by denouncing colleagues, as did Walt Disney and Ronald Reagan).
Or perhaps we will now relive a response similar to the one that took place in the aftermath of the First World War (and indeed of the 1918 flu pandemic); the situation was different again, perhaps in part because cinema was a relatively new medium at the time. Of course today’s crisis is not directly comparable, because of the advances we have made in those hundred-odd years in the fields of cinema and of medicine. In the 1920s and 30s, German expressionist cinema blossomed; French cinema, although financially very hard-hit, produced such masterpieces as La Grande Illusion, and Hollywood cinema boomed; many technical and narrative innovations and experiments were made, and audiences grew. Films became more daring, more revolutionary – cinema progressed more in terms of format and story from 1920 to 1940 than it did in the forty years before, and probably than it has in the eighty years since.
Will today’s pandemic lead to a political reaction in the world of cinema, a feeling that certain themes have become taboo, or can only be represented in a very one-dimensional manner (as happened after the 9/11 attacks)? Will the creative elements of cinema regress, as filmmakers play it safe? Or, will the problems faced by artists in the film business be more technical, or budgetary, as they try to cut costs? A film slowed down by a pandemic is technically alone, a huge inconvenience, with casting double-bookings, shooting conflicts, location restrictions… all providing challenges and fruitless expense. For big-budget movies such as Avatar 2 or Mission Impossible 7, the problems are surmountable (shooting for the latter has restarted in space, and for the former in New Zealand, a country that has almost brought Covid 19 under control), if inconvenient; for films with smaller budgets, and the people who make them, the unforeseen difficulties this pandemic has brought might signal the end of many burgeoning and worthwhile productions. Will audiences still respond to pre-pandemic storylines when they are eventually released, or will they seem out of touch? We can almost certainly expect a slew of films that address the pandemic experience in ways both inspiring and, probably, crass – no doubt we’ll get a Spielberg style epic about the human struggle against the pandemic, and probably also an action retelling where the world is saved by Dwayne the Rock Johnson; will these make more sense to us, or will we be seeking escapism again?
Cinema is no longer the newest art, advancing at high speed in an improvised manner – today it is expensive, riskier than ever, and hedged round with difficulties… However, along with theatre and live music and sport, it is a uniquely powerful collective experience that cannot be fully duplicated online. What we go back to is not certain, but we will go back.