A Swedish radio program about economics recently did an episode about the pandemic's threat to cinemas. With them either being closed, or only allowed to take a small number of visitors, and with hardly any new big releases, they are in danger of going out of business permanently, both small independent cinemas and large international chains. The issue was approached from several angles but, inevitably, towards the end of the program the show's host asked the head of the Swedish Film Institute: "Are cinemas necessary? Can we not just see this as a change regarding the spaces where we consume films. Instead of going to the cinema we just stay at home."
This is not a question any other art form would have to deal with. "Are museums necessary? People can watch any art they want on the internet after all." is not something a journalist would ask, or "Are theatres necessary? People can watch plays on streaming services at home after all." Or, for that matter, "Are churches, mosques and temples necessary? People can still worship in their homes after all." Or "Are restaurants necessary? People can still eat food at home after all."
The obvious answers are that doing it together with strangers in a communal setting is a different experience from doing it at home alone, and would you want to live in a world where cities were empty of people, there was no place to go for fun or experiences, and everybody was just at home? That would be like living in a permanent state of quarantine, and the way society is evolving, it seems many would not mind. "Well, it is just so convenient to do it at home." they say, without giving any thoughts to what it might mean for society at large if we all did it.
This is partly a question about democracy. A healthy democracy needs responsible citizens who mingle and meet each other, friends and strangers, in common activities, whether sports, art, religion, festivals, or whatever it might be, and a democracy in which we all stay at home may not remain a democracy for very long. This does not mean that we should abandon the current lockdowns in the name of "freedom" or whatever; the pandemic is a mortal threat. I am talking about a longer time frame.
Talking specifically about films and cinemas, how and where you watch something has an important influence over the experience. It is not just the story of the film that matters. Watching a film at home, or at a small cinema, or a large IMAX screen, or on a plane, or projected on the wall of a countryside barn, or in a drive-in; all these various experiences will be qualitatively different from each other and will to some extent determine your relationship with the film you are watching.
Another aspect is that if a film is made with the explicit intention of being shown at the cinema, this will usually influence how it is made: how it is shot, staged, blocked, edited, paced, and designed, even acted. If you do not watch it in a cinema, you will not get the intended experience. That is just an unavoidable aspect of the art form. And if something is made with the intention of it being shown on TV screens or tablets, this too will influence how it is made, and the experience of watching it will yet again be different. The argument is not that one thing is better or worse, but that it is different, and that it is to misunderstand cinema itself to think that it does not matter where and how you watch something. (Common ideas of what it means that something is "cinematic" remains unsatisfying and flawed.)
But unlike the situation with the cinemas, many still seem to be conscious of the downsides when other kinds of public venues are closed down. That is why the suggested questions I provided above are hardly ever asked. But cinema is different. I have written about this before, the strange fact that the cinema, and cinemas, are being held in such low regard by so many, including those who claim to like it and enjoy it. There seems to be something inherent in the art form itself which puts it in the position where it is not considered proper art. The widespread belief that a film adapted from a book is always, by default, inferior is part of this disregard of cinema as art. A book and a film are two distinct things and not easy to compare unless you only consider the script; judging the film on how much its story departs from its source material, which is somewhat like judging Picasso as a painter based on how closely his paintings resemble the objects he has depicted. But how would you compare the acting or the camera movements in a film with the novel the film is based on? It is also the case that a large number of films, maybe even the majority, are adaptations of novels and short stories, yet most of these novels and short stories are long forgotten because they were not particularly good, whereas the films based upon them often are. It is safe to assume that those who think that the book is always better than the film have not given the issue much thought, but only think so because they for some reason believe that literature is self-evidently superior to cinema.
These days companies, journalists, critics, scholars, and ordinary viewers, refer to films and series as "content" and those who watch it as "consumers". It was perhaps inevitable, as this mindset has been with us for decades without necessarily expressed so bluntly and by so many. If you refer to something as "content" you are degrading and diminishing it, and, by extension, you are also doing the same to those who watch it, including yourself. When the accountants at Disney refer to whatever they offer as "content to satisfy consumer demand" they are no different from McDonald's. If you are fine with the monolithic position Disney has over moving images, it suggests that you would also be fine if McDonald's had a similar dominating position within the world of food; that if you went out to eat on the town, 90% of all available restaurants served only Big Macs and McFeasts. But if that thought scares you, then you should also be scared of the reality that is Disney's current hold over the world of films.
I am worried about the future of cinemas, and of cinema itself. The threat is threefold: the immediate risks of cinemas all over the world going under; the dominance of Disney; and the disregard for cinema as an art form that so many of its producers have, as do much of the audience, including critics and academics. But I will continue to defend it, and to delight in it.