How has cinema changed over the last 10 years? This question is not about the art or business of cinema; it refers to the cinemagoing experience itself. Arguably, the movement that has had – and continues to have – a major impact on the way people experience movies in the 2010s, a development that has reshaped the film landscape over the last decade, is the movement of the audience from the cinema auditorium to viewers seeing films on devices outside the cinema: this is the era of streaming movies. This trend is nothing new in film history, of course, as the Betamax and VHS home video boom of the 1980s and 1990s proved, and the emergence of DVD-Video and Blu-ray Disc formats in the 1990s and 2000s showed, not forgetting the explosion of television long before these home viewing formats. However, the last decade has seen an explosion of streaming; both in the type of technology that can convey films to the viewer and to this new way of viewing film itself. This era of streaming allows instant access, via numerous devices, to a multitude of films, available anytime, anywhere.
Does streaming signal the end of the cinema audience, the demise of the theatrical experience? This seems to be the impression in recent years, although it can depend on factors like the sort of films being released, where films are shown in the world and the type of people going to see films in the cinema.1 2017 showed global box increasing but attendance in the US decreasing,2 while the UK in 2018 had the highest cinema attendance in nearly 50 years.3 Fears about the end of the theatrical experience may be exaggerated, but seismic changes have nevertheless occurred, and this revolution is set to continue with multiple new streaming services appearing in the near future, where companies like Amazon and Netflix will fight upcoming rivals to offer viewers a multitude of moving picture entertainment.4
What is the attraction of streaming over the theatrical experience? Well, the last decade has seen a rise in high definition picture quality, widescreen TVs and sophisticated surround sound systems that can turn a living room into a surrogate movie theatre, where Blu-ray Discs and Ultra HD Blu-ray can be viewed alongside films available via streaming options. Movies can now be streamed via Smart TV, tablets, computers and smartphones; devices that, for better or worse, offer convenient and instantaneous access to films. The last ten years has been a series of ever-increasing steps – now a sprint – to embracing the streaming experience over the old-fashioned theatrical experience. The ‘cinema’ has literally become ‘the movies’, with film viewing done by many people ‘in motion’, where mobile devices offer movies on the move, with films handed off from one device to another mid-stream, fragmenting not only the film being watched but the manner and context in which the film is seen (not forgetting that film sits alongside – and competes with – television shows and videos generated by users of video sharing platforms).
What was once the preserve of airplane travellers, who watched films on small screens in front of them, is now a common experience for the average daily commute to work. A film like Planes, Trains and Automobiles (John Hughes, 1987) can literally be accessed and viewed in those modes of transportation. Somebody can now stand on a train platform watching the Lumiere brothers’ L’Arrivée d’un train en gare de La Ciotat (The Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat Station, Auguste Lumière, Louis Lumière, 1895) on their smartphone or they may shoot a 2019 equivalent of this film milestone using the same device, and then upload it to social media or forward it to somebody in an instant (perhaps even sharing a split screen comparison of both films). The unique has become the ubiquitous. The auditorium, a special place to see films, is now one of many ways of watching movies. The history of cinema, like music and literature, can now be accessed through a pocket-sized device.
Streaming offers an easy, fast way for people to access the history of cinema. It also offers the potential to easily bring viewers into contact with films they may not have otherwise been able to easily see or may not have considered watching. Amazon or Netflix can fund films that may not otherwise have been made and bring them to a wide range of viewers, while specialised streaming services like BFI Player and MUBI can offer a curated selection of independent films that may previously have only been seen by patrons at select cinemas in big cities, but which can now be viewed by potentially anybody around the world in an instant. Of course, there could be downsides to these new developments. Unlike films released theatrically, which theoretically can be seen in any cinema, be it one owned by a major company or run independently, certain films presented a particular streaming provider can be restricted to the provider’s streaming service? Then there is the amount of streaming services available and the expense to the viewer. Will the costs of multiple subscriptions to various streaming services lock out those without the time, money or patience to view masses of movies?
Then there is the question of whether watching a film on a small mobile device is really the best way to experience the film. A modern movie may be shot by a filmmaker with one eye on it being seen on such a device, but will this result in a change in how films are shot, with close-ups for the small screen favoured over the type of wide vistas that are more impactful on the big screen? As for watching classic films on these devices, epics like Cleopatra (Joseph L. Mankiewicz, 1963) or Apocalypse Now (Francis Ford Coppola, 1979), conceived with the big screen in mind, are inevitably going to be diminished on a smartphone, where they cannot astonish a viewer in the same way as when they are seen by an audience member in the cinema. Streaming offers convenience, but it cannot offer the cinema experience; the overwhelming image, the enveloping sound, the immersive darkness, the accompanying audience. Still, the rise of streaming will inevitably be a concern to those whose film business is centred on the cinema experience. How can cinemas compete against the march of streaming? Will cinemas only survive by becoming like theme parks, showing expensive, explosive blockbusters all year round, with sound and image cranked up to maximum levels, while smaller, specialist, subtler films (which, like their louder, brasher brethren, also gain power from being projected on a big screen with an audience) are denied theatrical distribution? Critics and filmmakers will doubtless debate the relative merits and pitfalls of such developments.
Cinema has weathered similar storms before, though, fighting off interlopers to retain its crown as the optimum way to see films; whether it was pushing back against the rise of television at first and then later soldiering on during the proliferation of home video. The cinema experience is also lionised throughout the history of the medium, where films as diverse as Nuovo Cinema Paradiso (Cinema Paradiso, Giuseppe Tornatore, 1988) and Last Action Hero (John McTiernan, 1993) celebrate the theatrical experience, marvel at the magic of the movies and evoke the thrill of anticipation when waiting to see a film. These feelings are memorably summarised in Matinee (Joe Dante, 1993), a tribute to moviegoing and film fandom in 1950s and 1960s. At one point, low budget movie mogul Lawrence Woolsey (John Goodman), close to debuting his new horror film to an eager public, addresses an auditorium of theatre staff in a pre-show pep talk, the impresario impressing upon them the importance of the cinema experience, with everybody – the projectionist, the ushers, the staff at the concession stand – contributing to the unique theatrical experience. Woolsey is a filmmaker and businessman, but he has also been that kid in the dark, eagerly anticipating the upcoming feature and understanding the appeal of the seeing a film in a movie theatre. Despite the rise of streaming in the last decade, and the positive things it has brought, along with the potential it has to widen access to films, the traditional cinema experience is still considered special and it continues to entice audiences in the 21st century.
- Ian Westbrook, “Are we falling out of love with the cinema?,” BBC News, 6 September 2017, https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/business-41161056 ↩
- Brett Lang, “Global Box Office Hits Record $40.6 Billion in 2017; U.S. Attendance Lowest in 23 Year,” Variety, 4 April 2018, https://variety.com/2018/digital/news/global-box-office-hits-record-40-6-billion-in-2017-u-s-attendance-lowest-in-23-years-1202742991/ ↩
- Stewart Clarke, “U.K. Cinema Attendance in 2018 Was Highest Since 1970,” Variety, 2 January 2019, https://variety.com/2019/film/news/u-k-cinema-attendance-in-2018-was-highest-since-1970-1203114067/ ↩
- Elaine Low and Todd Spangler, “Explosion of Streaming Services Points to Price Wars on the Horizon,” Variety, 17 September 2019, https://variety.com/2019/digital/features/streaming-services-prices-apple-tv-plus-disney-netflix-hbo-max-1203338028/ ↩