In 2018, Ireland had the highest per-capita cinema attendance of any country in Europe, averaging 3.3 visits per person and just edging out France’s average of 3.2. This really surprised me, because I go to the cinema a lot more than that. I go to the cinema most weeks, and it’s not unusual for me to see two or three films in a row on the same day. Last year, the Pálás cinema in Galway had a Jeff Goldblum day, and I went to see The Big Chill, The Fly and The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension and really regretted not seeing Independence Day because I was at such a loose end, and I don’t even like Independence Day. I once saw Justice League, Murder on the Orient Express and Suburbicon on the same day for some reason. I pretty regularly miss out on seeing films in the cinema that I’m interested in, and yet I regularly beat the Irish annual average in a week without even thinking that I’ve been going to the cinema “a lot”.
This means that just by myself, I’m skewing that average up a bit. I can’t imagine going to the cinema three times a year, but there are obviously loads and loads of people that go far less than that. I think for some people, going to the cinema is something you mostly do as a child, the way lots of people think of libraries or bowling. It makes me sad.
Cinemas are special places, and they offer a special experience. And I’m terrified of them dying.
Ever since Netflix started releasing its own films – directly to the site and, with rare exception, without any theatrical release – the debate about streaming vs. theatrical distribution has lit up the film industry. There are people I admire and whose work I love on both sides: Christopher Nolan has no interest in the Netflix model; Ava Duvernay thinks the theatrical model is elitist; Spielberg wants there to be a window between theatrical and streaming release for Oscar eligibility and Soderbergh argued against a theatrical distribution for High Flying Bird.
It’s a debate that I can see both sides of very easily: streaming platforms like Netflix are, by some measures, much more accessible than the cinema, because they’re cheaper and not location-dependent. You can watch the film where you want, when you want, on whatever screen you want, and pause or rewind it as you please. Cinemas are routinely full of bad behaviour that negatively impacts your viewing experience, like talking and using phones. The Red Letter Media guys talk all the time about how cinemas are dying and we should let them die, because cinema audiences don’t know how to behave politely and besides, you can have the same experience at home if you have a decent TV.
But I also feel like the debate is beamed in from another planet. I’ve lost count of the times I’ve seen critics and filmmakers and random people on Twitter say that cinema tickets cost twenty dollars. But the average ticket price in the United States in the first quarter of 2018 was $9.16. Since most big movies are American, that’s cheaper than in a lot of European and Asian countries, but around about ten US dollars is not unusual there, either. The “twenty dollars” crowd generally live in major metropolitan areas – like Los Angeles or New York – where tickets are more expensive in general, and presume their experience is universal. When I briefly lived in London, a cinema ticket in the city centre was extremely expensive; at my local cinema in east London, it was about eight pounds; back home in Ireland, the most I’ve ever paid for a regular ticket – not a special event – is like twelve euro, and that’s in Dublin. When I was student, I usually paid about seven euro. Between off-peak tickets, mid-week deals, discounts for students, pensioners and the unwaged, and sneaking in your own sweets instead of buying them at the cinema, reports of the cost of cinema attendance seem to me to be greatly exaggerated. I saw The Sound of Music for three euro on a Saturday morning, intermission and all.
The cheapest plan on Netflix currently available in Ireland is €7.99 a month (the “standard” plan is €10.99). For that price, you get access to all the movies and TV shows on Netflix. That’s definitely cheaper than going to the cinema regularly. I don’t have figures on how many films an average Netflix subscriber watches, because Netflix doesn’t release those kinds of numbers, but even at one or two a month, it’s cheaper than going to the cinema. It’s also signing up for a monthly bill you will have to pay regularly, as opposed to the one-off cost of seeing a film in the cinema whenever you happen to afford it, but on balance, Netflix is cheaper than the cinema.
The problem is that I don’t think those are comparable costs. The selection of films in the Netflix catalogue is extremely limited, and only becoming more so: even though they spent a load of money getting the exclusive rights to Orson Welles’s last film, the only other Welles film they have is the one that happens to be public domain – The Stranger – because that’s just not the kind of thing they’re interested in investing in. The true cost of the streaming model is signing up to Netflix and Amazon Prime and Criterion’s streaming service and having enough money left over to sign up for Disney+ and whatever Warner Brothers are cooking up, all in the form of a monthly bill.
Yet the accessibility argument is at the core of the pro-streaming side of the debate. I say “pro-streaming”, but no-one is actually anti-streaming in the sense that they don’t believe movies should ever be available to stream online. (Although if you watch a David Lynch movie on your phone, he will be very mad.) The pro-streaming side is the side that’s at best indifferent towards and at worst actively hostile to the theatrical model. That’s Netflix’s whole business model: destroy brick-and-mortar cinemas, make Netflix the only true home to cinema. Here’s a statement they released on Twitter when Spielberg made noises about changing Oscar eligibility rules:
We love cinema. Here are some things we also love:
-Access for people who can’t always afford, or live in towns without, theaters
-Letting everyone, everywhere enjoy releases at the same time
-Giving filmmakers more ways to share art
These things are not mutually exclusive.
Netflix loves pushing the idea that in the streaming vs. theatrical debate, it represents social justice, liberalism, youth and diversity, and cinemas represent elitism, gatekeeping, and outdated entitlement. Owen Gleiberman summarises this nicely for Variety: “Spielberg is the ‘old white male’ trying to hang onto his entitled way of doing things, while Netflix — representing speed, access, democratization, a multiplicity of voices — is the force of techno-woke rebellion opening up the world to greater possibilities.”
But none of that is true, not really. Netflix claims to want to give filmmakers “more ways to share art”, as if it doesn’t make its writers and directors sign restrictive contracts that prevent their work being distributed anywhere else. Netflix claims to love accessibility, as if it isn’t a paywalled service that requires access to high-speed broadband to use at all. Netflix claims to care about towns that don’t have cinemas, as if making sure that more and more cinemas close down in exactly those kinds of small towns is an improvement. Netflix claims to love cinema, as if a corporation is capable of love for anything but profit.
I am not a rich old man, and I love the cinema. The accessibility argument feels almost like a red herring when I regularly hear people, as Gleiberman does, suggest the following future for film-watching: “If you knew, this weekend, that you could watch Captain Marvel in your living room just two weeks from now, for a charge of, say, $75, would you go out and see it in a movie theater? Or would you wait to see it at home?” He phrases it like it’s a temptation – “everyone can craft their own example… But it’s obvious, when you think about it, where this all goes” – as if I would ever pay 75 dollars for literally anything, let alone to watch a film on my laptop. But to the extent that the accessibility of the cinema is a problem, and I certainly agree that it is, it’s a problem that is solved by making the cinema more accessible, not trying to make it irrelevant.
Cinemas should be publicly funded, the way that other arts institutions like theatres and museums are. This could take the form of publicly-owned cinemas in areas where there aren’t any, and state funding of wider releases of independent films, and subsidised tickets for low-income people and children. There’s nothing wrong with watching films at home: some of my best viewing experiences ever were curled up on the couch watching TCM, or late at night on my laptop. I’ve never seen The Social Network or The Apartment or The Last Temptation of Christ or Back to the Future or American Psycho or ET in the cinema, and that’s literally a list of my favourite films. But everyone, everywhere, should be able to attend the cinema, because it is a different experience to watching a film at home.
At home, I can pause a film. I can look at my phone. I can see how much of the film is left. I can look up who some actor is and miss a bit and have to rewind. I can give up ten minutes in. I have complete control.
The trouble is I don’t particularly enjoy having complete control. It actually stresses me out. I have the choice not to concentrate, and so even with a film I’m really enjoying, the temptation is always there to look away to something else. When I go to the cinema, I’m there, 100%. I’m committed. The lights are down and I don’t look at my phone for two hours. I get to not look at my phone for two hours. I get to laugh out loud the way I’m so much less likely to on my own, because even if I’m by myself, I’m surrounded by other people. I get to have my attention be undivided in a world where our attention is increasingly always more and more divided. I’m at the cinema, and I’m not doing anything else.
A frequent statement in the streaming vs. theatrical debate is that certain films “must” be seen in the cinema – generally referring to big, spectacle blockbusters – while others less so. I couldn’t disagree more. Some of the films I’m most glad I got to see in the cinema, to be 100% there for, are tiny indies: would A Ghost Story have pulled my insides apart so expertly if I could check the running time during the scene where Rooney Mara eats a whole pie? Would I have sobbed so ferociously through the end of The Florida Project if I wasn’t in a dark room where no-one could see my face?
But nothing has reinforced my love of the cinema experience more than getting the chance to see re-released classics. No-one would put Casablanca or Airplane! or The Graduate or Taxi Driver in the category of must-be-seen-on-the-big-screen, but seeing those films in the cinema after having seen them on my own elevated each of them, made me see each of them in new ways. I’ve seen The Shining loads of times without feeling like I was missing anything, but the first time I saw it in the cinema – almost drowning in the sheer loudness of it, swept up in its meticulousness – I suddenly got it for the first time, understood it both thematically and aesthetically. I loved it with muscles I’d never used.
At its best, the cinema is one of the last sacred spaces in contemporary society: where a group of strangers come together and experience something, surrender themselves to something, are open to be moved by something, are ready to sit in silent contemplation with one another as the credits begin to roll. Of course it’s not always like that – I still remember the glare from the phone of the girl sitting next to me at The Force Awakens while she texted through Han Solo’s death, or the guy behind me doing a bad Sylvester Stallone impression all through Creed – but given a choice between watching a film at home and watching it in the cinema, I pick the cinema every damn time.
And I think the most elitist thing you could do is say that poor people, or rural people, or disabled people, or anyone who can’t regularly go to the cinema for any reason, should be content with streaming.