Covid and the boom in streaming platforms are being touted as a huge threat to cinema-going. But so was telly. And surely we’re all desperate to leave the house and make a big social occasion of it all?
So are we in or out? Is this going to be the old normal or some new normal that the business still hasn’t yet grasped? As we look forward to what’s on offer in cinemas this autumn, we see new films mixed in with a deja-vu raft of old product delayed from the distant “before times” of pre-Covid. These films are beginning to feel like pizzas removed from the freezer cabinet, thawed out, and then unhygienically put back in the freezer. And of course we are all still absorbing the fact that Covid conforms neither to the accepted news cycles or movie distribution release structures. There could still be a fourth or a fifth wave. Cinemas could still be shut down again.
Covid might have changed the movie world temporarily or permanently or not at all, but as we fret fruitlessly about the discomfort of wearing masks in cinemas, the revolution could have already arrived in the new economy of streaming – which had been changing the game anyway.
The tradition on occasions like these is to quote the ancient maxim of screenwriter William Goldman: “Nobody knows anything.” But there is one thing we do know: streaming is putting enormous pressure on the theatrical release model. The biggest upset came with news that The Green Knight, a much-trumpeted new Arthurian fantasy drama starring Dev Patel, has been yanked from UK cinemas. Reports suggested that it was due to Covid, but it may end up getting a sweeter deal for a release on a streaming platform.
It’s an unhappy omen. If the forthcoming James Bond film were to be pushed back again, there could be rioting in the streets. Or, at any rate, an unruly crowd of 007 fans, film journalists and industry professionals might run through central London gibbering. That title No Time to Die was once ironically hailed as the most horribly appropriate ever – but that was in the era before we all appreciated what a serious situation Covid was going to be. Now the inherent comedy of the title has to be passed over in a tactful or determined silence. Bond is the gold standard of British cinema. If the unthinkable happens and this too is dumped on to Netflix or Amazon (although Amazon, the new owners of MGM, which partners with Bond producers Eon, theoretically do not have the right to tell Eon what to do) then it really will be a step change.