The Death and Life of Cinema (As We Know It)

ImageOn December 28, 1895, Auguste and Louis Lumière held the world’s first public film screening at Salon Indien du Grand Café in Paris. The brothers charged admission to present ten short films including Workers Leaving The Lumière Factory in Lyon, simultaneously inspiring an industry and an art form by proving that audiences will happily pay to communally experience motion pictures.

I just so happened upon this spot on the 115th anniversary of that momentous event and discovered that Salon Indien du Grand Café no longer exists. It is now an outlet for Gap Kids. You can see for yourself.

My own city has lost an average of one cinema screen a month over the past year. The loss includes beloved rep theatres, neighborhood single screens, and shopping mall cineplexes, leaving us less than 34 screens, of which only 30 are active movie houses. No matter how you look at it, we’ve lost over one third of our public cinema screens in the span of twelve months. Given this kind of attrition, it doesn’t surprise me that the world’s first motion picture venue is long gone.

This is a worldwide phenomenon. People just aren’t going out to movies as much as they did in the good old days. There’s been a lot of finger pointing at the movies themselves, citing a profusion of uninspired remakes and sequels and sadly cynical storytelling, but it’s hard to say whether modern movies are really any better or worse than their predecessors. People aren’t complaining too much when these same films are available to watch via video on demand or Blu-ray. In fact, there are so many films available that it’s easy to get overwhelmed by the amount of choice.

Perhaps movies are suffering from the same kind of audience segregation that the music industry went through a while back. The era of mass appeal radio stations and record labels ended as soon as people realized they could empower their own musical journey and discover the kinds of music that appealed to them. In other words, the Internet killed both video and radio stars.  But it didn’t kill off live music. This has been a boon to audiences as it lead to a huge improvement in the quality of concerts and gigs:  since concert tours now earn more than recordings, musicians that want to remain gratefully fed learn the importance of developing a strong live connection with their fans.

Cinemas are also succeeding by rediscovering the power of the event. Film festivals have an amazing ability to sell out screenings for films that return mere weeks later to empty houses. Our few remaining rep cinemas are doing their best to emulate the festival experience by turning every screening into a special occasion, creating events for different audiences, such as gore-filled midnight screenings for horror buffs or double bills of classics for cinemaphiles. The First Weekend Club does this on a national level, transforming the premieres of small Canadian films into celebrations. Even the theatre chain Cineplex Entertainment is hopping onto the event bandwagon, with special one-off screenings of everything from art documentaries to art house horror films.

I know these tactics work, because they’re enough to get me to go out on weeknights, when I’m exhausted after working all day. They’re enough to get me to overlook having to wolf down a quick dinner, the hassle of driving across town in the pouring rain and the inconvenience of fighting for a hard-to-find parking place. Because once I’m tucked into that cinema, I’m part of the audience. I’m sharing a communal event. And I’m having a great time.

ImageLet’s return to France for a second. I recently visited the Roman Theatre in Arles. It is over 2000 years old and still plays host to live shows. Imagine that: watching a theatrical performance in the exact same venue as people did in Biblical times. Admittedly, there was a millennium in there when the space was buried under housing and religious buildings, but it doesn’t diminish from the realization that live theatre as an art form and a communal experience has been around for thousands of years. I don’t think I’ll be able to say the same thing about cinema. A series of one off screenings will not pay the costs of creating a film, even with all the recent technological advancements that have made filmmaking more affordable. Eventually, something will give and the current experience of cinema as we know it will end.

Okay, I’m not entirely pessimistic. I have some exciting thoughts on long-term future of cinema, which I will write about in the short-term future. I don’t think cinema will die, but it is going to change.

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