On the evening of Monday 16th March 2020, the social media accounts of cinema venues became alight with news of closures and film release postponements in response to the evolving coronavirus health crisis. Film festivals were being cancelled, postponed or moved online. On Friday 20th March cinemas in the UK were officially ordered to close their doors to the public.
As quickly as the re-active cancellation notices appeared across social media streams – pro-active messages emerged at a similar rate. Of course there were purely economic responses: some films were hastily premiered on streaming platforms at premium prices. But elsewhere, free online film screenings were scheduled, live online film Q&As were set up, portable mobile screens were seen in the streets of Spain, drive-ins opened in Germany, and Secret Cinema launched its ‘Secret Sofa’ initiative.
The economic impacts of coronavirus on global, national and local film exhibition economies are seismic, and the longer-term effects are currently unknown. But what crystallised in those early days were the values, principles and experiential qualities on which a future film exhibition economy would be built in a post-virus landscape.
Replete with references to collectivity and simultaneity of experience, what continues to prevail is that the experience of film watching is central—the cinematic moment of reception is critical to audience viewing pleasures. Just as the ‘event’ release of a new blockbuster film is time-based, so too are these online film viewing opportunities, with audience members encouraged to share their experiences live in online spaces by posting pictures or streaming videos.
When coronavirus is no longer with us, the effects and impacts of the pandemic will not only resonate in the subject matter and themes of cinematic texts, but crucially in the shaping of new cinematic experiences. We are already seeing instances of itinerant cinema, there will also likely be an increase in the use of alternative venues as screening spaces and an expansion of site-specific cinema as permanent auditoriums will undoubtedly have been forced to close.
Whilst the spaces of cinema may look different, collectivity, simultaneity and liveness will be the central driving tenets of film exhibition. And despite the pervasive ‘anytime-anywhere’ rubric of film streaming platforms, what has manifested in the past few months is that when it comes to film viewing consumption, time, place and shared experience matter.