From big screen to digital stream

The uncertain new state of cinema

With many new films releasing directly to streaming services, the issue facing cinema in 2021 isn’t whether viewers will return to theatres after COVID-19 protocols relax. The issue is whether there will be any movies worth seeing.

As a film student, going to the cinema has always been a special, weirdly ritualistic experience. It’s one of the things I missed most last year when COVID-19 forced theatre closures across the province. Watching films at home, even with the shades drawn and volume blasting to imitate a theatre environment, never felt the same. 

If you had asked me last year what I thought about new films going straight to streaming or video on demand, I would have ranted about the superior quality of the theatre experience. 

However, as many studios and independent production companies were forced to trade theatre releases for streaming premiers, I realized going to the theatre may never be what it used to be and the pandemic isn’t to blame.

The franchise rat race

With theatre doors open again, some wonder whether this shift towards streaming is here to stay. Will the theatre experience we once knew ever be the same?

Filmmakers and fans have been asking this question for a few years. It’s not just a pandemic thing. The film industry has been changing for quite some time, refocusing from original content to reboots and sequels.

Why bother going to the theatres if most of what you find is formulaic superhero movies or Disney remakes of films you’ve already seen?

By contrast, the appeal of streaming is easy to understand. You can stay at home and enjoy a wider variety of content than the cinema offers. And if you watch multiple new films, streaming is cheaper. 

The current rate for a Netflix membership in Canada starts at $9.99 per month, while a ticket to a regular admission movie at a Halifax Cineplex is $11.75, with prices climbing for UltraAVX 3D and DBox – special viewing experiences to enhance a person’s viewing through larger screens and louder sound or seats that vibrate with a film’s action. 

Where did original film making go?

An increasing number of original and independent films seem to have found homes on streaming platforms. There, it’s possible they find larger audiences than found during theatrical releases. 

This is because even when an independent film does get a theatrical run, it is often limited to select theatres. Not all of them make it to Halifax screens. 

Here, our cinematic viewing options are increasingly limited. Cineplex’s programming often skips independent movies altogether, leaving indie films to screen almost nowhere in Halifax. Film fans in Halifax used to have the Oxford Theatre on Quinpool Road, which showed these indie films until it closed in 2017. 

Carbon Arc Cinema now stands as Halifax’s only independent cinema, though it doesn’t have its own venue. The cinema screened films weekly at the Museum of Natural History prior to the pandemic, they’ve been screening films virtually since March 2020. 

But streaming services are not without their own flaws. It is a quantity-based industry. Streaming services churn out new content every few days. In an environment where so many films are produced and released, it’s easy for good ones to get buried.  

  So, how do we find the balance between quality and quantity of content? 

This is something viewers and streaming services are still working out. In the meantime, big blockbuster films will continue dominating while the box office sees financial results.

My verdict is in

I’m not mourning the death of the cinema just yet, but this pandemic made it clear that there are alternatives to traditional theatre releases. 

If the industry cares to support the release system it was built on, studios and independent producers need to maintain the appeal of going to a big screen theatre with original and exciting movies. If they accomplish this and release them in theatres before streaming services, they may have a fighting chance at rebuilding.

All in all, going to the occasional theatrical release is still a fun experience. And watching films that you can’t see on the big screen through streaming sites is its own reward. 

Perhaps coexistence is not such an outrageous thought after all.

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Alex Rincon

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