Post-viral cinema

Curator's Note

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 Spaindrive-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. 


Thank you Sarah for a great collection of images that represent the extraordinary efforts of exhibitors who, like most businesspeople, have had to put on a brave face against what seems like dire circumstances. Your own analysis is optimistic, with this crisis as a moment of renewal, even if it means the closure of venues. I'm concerned that - again like in other aspects - this setback for commerce will result in further disaggregation of 'elite' and 'ordinary' audiences, with cinemagoing becoming even more inaccessible for all but a small group of wealthy & healthy people. On the other hand, many more people are able to watch from home, but the forms of liveness afforded to them are very different.

Cinemagoing offers, at best, a very light experience of sociability, and online it seems to demand a substantial amount of audience labour to go beyond that. As Tara Judah wrote recently, what's missing is 'the in-between bits', the interstitial and unintentional experiences that happen as a consequence simply of being there. I posted recently about my experience of a couple of online events and how the limit to this abundance of streams is our own finitude. As the Black Lives Matter movement demonstrates, however, while death may get all of us in the end, it chases us at different speeds, enabled by the necropolitical systems that divide the world between "those whose lives can be wasted and those who cannot" (Flavia Dzodan). Perhaps I'm too morbid, too much of a killjoy, but it would seem like the form of shared experience more needed to reckon with the forces of necropolitics is that of the riot, rather than the cinema.

Edit. After posting this I realised it posed a false dichotomy - either riot or cinema - which rehashes the ages-old prejudice that sees pleasure as an enemy of politics. That's not the point, I think. Cinema pleasure can be a precursor, a companion, and a sustainer of the riot. But the rarefied version of cinemagoing promised by post-viral 'exclusive' arrangements is not going in that direction.

Sarah, thanks for your piece on the curious state of cinemagoing. I've followed with interest the renewed growth of drive-in movies in the US which connects well with the other live cinema events that developed during pandemic. I'm especially fascinated with the Secret Sofa and how in all of these cases it seems that audiences are seeking a social experience of moviegoing. I'm curious to what degree your research indicates that audiences are self-aware of the social, communal nature of the experiences they seek out through moviegoing.

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