The Death of Cinema

13 September 2017

It seems increasingly hard to justify going to the cinema. While ideal for filling a lazy Sunday afternoon, or a classier date option than the new go-to, ‘Netflix and chill’, the entry price often abates any urge to actually go.

After seeing an enticing trailer, my automatic mantra is: “I will watch this when it comes out on DVD”, which really means, I will watch when Netflix adds it to streaming. This may explain why, with each passing year I have seen fewer new releases, and instead passed the time with streamable content, like World of Compulsive Hoarders.

Venturing back to the cinema never fails to blast a seismic shock through attendees’ wallets. Currently, one of Melbourne’s most popular cinemas, HOYTS in Melbourne Central, charges an adult $21.50 for a ticket. Students are blessed with a meagre three dollar discount, gaining entry for $18.50. However, a ticket may not be the only cost of attending the movies. There is always the option to continue your wallet’s workout by purchasing grossly over-priced popcorn and soda that feel foundational to a proper cinematic experience. Once lured inside those sacred cinema walls, the deep and dark hole in your savings will force you to think a cruel but instinctive thought, ‘this all could have been avoided if I had just watched something at home’.

With today’s abundance of viewing platforms, going to the cinema can feel like a careless allocation of cash. There are countless streaming sites, movies on television, and even still (yet rapidly dwindling) spots to rent an actual DVD. These alternative methods for video consumption boast that they are money-saving with more selections and a personalised viewing experience.

The 1890s saw the birth of moving pictures. These one minute, soundless, black and white films, were shown solely in storefront spaces or traveling exhibits until 1905, when the first successful permanent theatre was opened in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Shortly after, the formal film industry was established, and cinematic art became forever bound with commercial marketability. While films have always sought to attract large audiences, the movie industry’s drive for profit has only exacerbated over time. Today, marketing budgets for major releases far outweigh the actual production costs – blockbuster films attract the masses through their merchandising power, not necessarily through the content of the film. The effect is that the industry often proves impenetrable for independently produced films, and as argued by Forbes, blockbusters headlining the cinema have become “recycled, bloated, arbitrary [and] homogenised”. It is possible that because streaming platforms offer an easier foothold for independent films, they may provide viewers with the niche preferences they crave.

Netflix arrived in Australia in March 2015. After its first three months, Netflix garnered more subscriptions than all other major Aussie streaming services combined. Today – only two years later – one in three Australians have subscriptions. Yet, more shocking than Netflix’s booming success is its impact on cinema attendance. And for the opposite reason than one would expect.

The years before Netflix, 68 per cent of Australians attended the cinema at least once during the year. The year after its great invasion, cinema attendance increased to 71 per cent. In fact, there has only been one period where Australian cinema attendance dropped, in the ’80s, due to the birth of video-hire. But by the end of the decade, attendance had normalised to pre-1980s levels and has remained stable ever since, despite other technological developments.

Global statistics flaunt similar findings. In 2016, global box office revenues saw a one percent increase from 2015. Additionally, the amount of cinema screens increased by eight per cent worldwide. These statistics reveal that despite increasing ticket prices and technological advancements in viewing modes, cinema attendance remains vibrant. While I am initally asonished by these figures, I must admit that I am absolutely one of the 71 per cent that continues to attend despite loathing the price. The reason? Attending the cinema has an inherent quality that streaming can never replicate nor decimate.

Watching a film in the cinema renders a viewing experience categorically different than that of watching a DVD or streaming. The cinema is not simply one mode of many for viewing an image on a screen; it provides an experience that other viewing platforms cannot. Going to the cinema converts the viewing experience into a complete, all-encompassing physical state. A person is not solely watching and listening, they are constantly engaging in the act of watching a film. Watching a motion picture in the cinema is a full commitment that alters the mental state or frame of mind in which a person watches.

The central concept of going to the movies is that watching the given film will be the only thing that takes place within the cinema walls. This forces viewers to devote their complete attention to the film, unlike how many do when watching on their own television or computer. There is no pausing to fix a snack, no multi-tasking with texting and no ability to rewind. Watching a movie in the comfort of your own home, with your own rules, can be nice, but it strips away the distinction between watching and doing something else. Going to the cinema keeps the art of watching a sacred, singular act.

Furthermore, this act is imbued with cultural and historical meaning. Despite radical changes in technology, the mechanics of this act have remained relatively the same for over a century. A close friend’s favourite part of going to the cinema is, “feeling like I could be attending during any time period”. There has proven to be timeless magic in the cinema’s symbolic structure: standing in line for a physical ticket, purchasing popcorn with synthetic liquid butter, and sitting in a dark room in the presence of total strangers.

I’ve come across a feeling exclusively found at the cinema: after the conclusion of a remarkably good picture, there is this palpable lingering radiating from audience members. It’s a reluctance to accept that the film is actually over. When the lights flash on and everyone shyly looks around, you might make eye contact with someone and feel strangely close. It is a feeling of solidarity, in which you realise the reality that you just left individually, happened to everyone else around you as well.

However, the hoops one must jump through to feel this magic is not what creates it. While attending the cinema is a truly special viewing experience, it is a privilege that not all can afford at $18.50. But with a dash of craft and some extra planning, you can score a ticket for the price of an average Melbourne schooner ($8). For example, Cinema Nova in Carlton offers $9 tickets on Mondays, or $7 if you go before 4pm. Waverly Cinema in Mount Waverly offers $6 tickets at randomly selected times, pre-scheduled on their website. Otherwise, tickets are normally $8.

Netflix is great, and some nights watching World of Compulsive Hoarders feels perfectly satisfying. But going to the cinema is a subtle rarity; it’s a entity that has out-lasted the technology designed to displace it. The cinema remains victorious in providing the most engaging way to consume cinematic art.

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