Reading the surfeit of post-COVID commentary written over the past few months, a common refrain emerges: even when the coronavirus pandemic is brought under control and a workable vaccine is developed, the thought of willingly enclosing oneself in a sealed room with hundreds of strangers will seem like something out of a horror movie. The bitter consensus seems to be that society — and cinema — will probably never return to normal.
But what is normal, anyway? Here in Australia, normal means skyrocketing ticket prices, among the most expensive in the world. It means lengthy release-window delays, keeping highly anticipated films out of cinemas for weeks after their international debuts (and, sometimes, keeping them out entirely). It means conservative programming decisions that make seeing anything even slightly outside the mainstream a challenge. It means film festivals concentrated in major population centres, with comparatively little on offer for those in rural, regional and remote areas. Normal means returning to a film culture that is constantly under threat of functional collapse.
My question is: why would we want to return to normal?
I’m certainly not hoping the pandemic will spell the end of cinema as we know it — I’ve always been a believer in the sanctity of the cinematic experience, and much of my career has been spent in organisations dedicated to the support of cinema as an industry. But as it has for many others, the pandemic has comprehensively transformed my viewing habits — and has brought into clear focus the inequities and imperfections of what we used to call normal.
In April, staring into the abyss of a government-mandated ban on cinemagoing, a small group of friends and I almost inadvertently fell into a film club arrangement. Once or twice a week we all (separately) watch a film nominated by one of the group, then jump online for a video debrief and discussion. Not only has it been a genuine joy, it has reinvigorated the way I watch, discuss and think about films. On the face of it, none of this is new — the technologies involved in watching high-definition films and video-chatting with friends have been widely available for years. If there were any lingering doubts that the millennial cultural-technological regime has accelerated processes of disintermediation and decentralisation,1 there can be no question now.
But if the technology has existed for years, why is it only in the last three months we’ve put it to good use? Fundamentally, the pandemic has forced us to overcome the inertia of old habits. We’ve long had the ability to approximate parts of the cinematic experience at home — but now we have the necessity to keep ourselves out of harm’s way. As a result, it’s become clearer that the reasons we go to the cinema — the big screen, the 360-degree sound, the ability to see new releases, the idea of financially supporting a creative industry — need not be the sole domain of the highly concentrated, tightly controlled theatrical exhibition industry. As just one example, the program for the Melbourne International Film Festival’s 2020 edition dropped in July, and although it’s modest in size (113 films compared to 400 or more in a normal year), it’s full of the kind of local and international highlights one would expect from a world-class film festival, including premieres, special presentations, Q&As, restorations and retrospectives. MIFF 68½, as it’s called, will be delivered via an online streaming platform, ensuring MIFF can be enjoyed widely, and legally, from the comfort of homes across Australia. Purists would say it’s not the same, and they would of course be absolutely right. But does it matter?
Watching at home certainly comes with its share of downsides and distractions, but as we move further into a truly hypertextual mediascape where, as Francesco Casetti suggests, film is a discourse “that hosts other discourses, that collaborates with other discourses, and that generates other discourses,”2 we’ve never been better prepared (or more willing) to weave the cinematic experience into everyday life. If the global film industry survives this pandemic and learns anything from its near-death experience, it will embrace the opportunity to increase accessibility, decentralise film festivals, and make bold and progressive programming decisions. Ultimately, I hope the new normal is anything but the old normal.