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The Death of Cinema? We Think Not!

Updated: Jul 7

The cinematic landscape is undergoing a profound transformation. Traditional cinema, once the dominant force in mass entertainment, is now facing significant challenges, from poor box office returns to shifting audience preferences. Meanwhile, independent cinema is experiencing a resurgence, offering diverse content and unique experiences that mainstream cinema increasingly fails to provide.

The auditorium of our close friends and greatest inspiration, Campbeltown Picture House.


The mid-20th century, often referred to as the Golden Age of Hollywood, established cinema as a cultural cornerstone. Films were not just entertainment but events that defined eras and influenced societies. From the grandeur of epics like "Ben-Hur" to the intimate drama of "Casablanca," movies captivated audiences worldwide. Theatres became communal spaces where people shared collective experiences, an aspect central to the magic of cinema. The advent of television was the first significant disruption, but cinema adapted with innovations like widescreen formats and immersive sound.

Recent years have seen a troubling trend for traditional cinemas, namely poor box office returns. While blockbuster franchises like Marvel and Star Wars can still draw crowds, many other films, struggle to break even. Most recently, “The Fall Guy” and  “Furiosa: A Mad Max Saga” both failed to perform as hoped, with “Furiosa” earning just $32M back of its reported $168M to $233M budget over the US Memorial Day weekend, compared with $160.5M for Top Gun: Maverick in 2022 (worth $172M in 2024).  The recent double strike by actors and writers certainly didn’t help, with slates slashed and productions delayed, but other factors have also contributed to a long climb back to the success the industry enjoyed before the COVID-19 pandemic. Lockdowns laid the ground for these issues, forcing theatres to close and significantly altering consumer habits. Post-pandemic, audiences have not returned to theatres in pre-pandemic numbers, opting instead for the convenience of watching streaming services at home.

Gift shop '12 Feet Deep' for local artists and creators at the Montrose Playhouse.


There is a widening category for many people between "skip this one" and "see it in theatres" that films can be classified into: the "wait until home release" category, where people are intrigued by a film's strong reviews, but decide to wait until they can digitally rent or stream the film rather than spend money on premium format movie tickets and concessions. Consumers now prioritize convenience and accessibility over the traditional movie-going experience. The cost-of-living crisis has affected traditional cinemas as well, and they have found themselves in a vicious cycle where they have tried to offset rising running costs with increased ticket and concession prices which have further reduced their audiences. Cinema going, as an event in people’s lives, has become a disposable and unexceptional pastime, since it could be argued that none of the former glamour of a movie show remains.


That convenience and relative affordability of streaming platforms like Netflix, Apple TV, and Disney+ have dramatically changed how people consume movies. The increased occurrence of high-end home cinema systems combined with the ability to watch new releases from the comfort of home have made traditional theatre-going less appealing. Even without the presence of such systems in most homes, The pandemic accelerated existing trends, forcing theatres to shut down and pushing major studios to release films directly to streaming platforms.

 

In contrast to the struggles of traditional cinemas, independent cinemas are thriving by offering the diverse and innovative programming so lacking in the major chains. Indie theatres focus on showcasing films that are often overlooked by the Vues, Cineworlds, and Odeons, including foreign films, documentaries, so-called ‘event’ cinema, and experimental works. This variety attracts audiences seeking alternatives to mainstream offerings.

The iconic Screen 1 of the Glasgow Film Theatre.


Independent cinemas excel at fostering a sense of community. They have hosted special events, such as film festivals, director Q&A sessions, and themed screenings, and in doing so have created an interactive and engaging experience. This community-oriented approach can build a loyal customer base that values both a unique atmosphere and a personalized experience.


Independent cinemas also play a crucial role in supporting emerging film professionals, in both creative and technical areas. By providing a platform for new voices and experimental storytelling, by helping to engender an interest in the technical aspects of exhibiting and making films, they contribute to the growth and evolution of the film industry. Festivals like Sundance and Tribeca are prime examples of how indie cinemas can launch careers and bring innovative films to wider audiences.


Independents have demonstrated remarkable adaptability, particularly during the COVID-19 pandemic. Many quickly pivoted to offer virtual screenings, drive-in theatres, and private rentals. This flexibility not only helped them survive but also attracted new audiences. They continue to innovate, blending traditional and digital platforms to enhance the viewing experience.

The future of cinema likely lies in a hybrid model where traditional and independent cinemas coexist and complement each other. Independent cinemas provide a crucial counterbalance to the blockbuster-heavy offerings of mainstream theatres, ensuring a diverse range of films reaches audiences.

Luxury seating at the Highland Cinema in Fort William.


Streaming services, while often seen as competitors to traditional theatres, can also play a supportive role. Platforms like Netflix, Apple, and Amazon Prime have funded and distributed independent films, helping them reach global audiences. This symbiotic relationship can enhance the visibility and accessibility of indie films, benefiting both the filmmakers and audiences.

Streamers have also democratized content creation and distribution, offering a diverse array of films and series that traditional studios might overlook. This shift has redefined what constitutes a "cinematic" experience. Films like "The Irishman" and "Roma," both which premiered on streaming platforms, garnered critical acclaim and prestigious awards, challenging the notion that only theatre-released films can achieve greatness.


Despite the challenges faced by traditional cinemas, the core magic of cinema - storytelling, visual artistry, and the communal experience - remains compelling. Independent cinemas, with their commitment to diverse programming and community engagement, help preserve this magic. As the industry evolves, these theatres will continue to play a critical role in keeping the art of cinema alive and thriving.


The narrative of the "death of cinema" is not a straightforward tale of decline but rather one of transformation, of an evolutionary shift, just as it did in the 50’s with the advent of TV, and overlooks the industry's adaptability and resilience.  The lines between television, streaming, and cinema are blurring, creating a hybrid media landscape. While traditional cinemas face significant challenges, cinema as an art form is far from obsolete. It is evolving, driven by technological advancements and changing consumer preferences the rise of independent cinema offers hope and renewal. Similarly, independent theatres, with their diverse programming, community focus, and innovative approaches, are revitalizing the cinematic experience. As the industry navigates this period of change, the symbiosis between traditional and independent cinemas, along with the strategic use of streaming platforms, will shape the future of cinema. The essence of cinema endures, promising new stories, experiences, and opportunities for audiences and filmmakers alike.

The Broadway's original auditorium awaiting restoration. Photograph courtesy of our official photographer and filmmaker Gemma of Esther Morgan Photography.


Cinema's future may look different, but its core magic endures, promising new and exciting chapters in its storied history.

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