Cinemas will reopen on July 2, and while this should be a time for celebration, the crisis is far from over. Our film editor gets personal and issues a warning: we run the risk of losing our favourite kinos if we don’t mobilise.
Sixteen weeks ago, I went to the cinema for the last time. I can’t remember a time, even as a non-professional cinemagoer, of going without a cinematic experience for this long.
Hardly a tragedy on the grand scale of things and many will feel that the only appropriate response to this sentence is to crack out the tiny violins and to stifle an almighty scoff at this firstiest of all the first-world problems. But, for a film critic used to going to about five to six press screenings a week, the kino-less landscape has become something of a cheese grater scraping across my soul. Dramatic, much? Slightly, but when the closure of your favourite kinos comes off the back of the Berlinale, where I willingly mainlined a grand total of 83 films this year, this abrupt cold turkey has felt all the more challenging.
Cinemas are places where people can be together. Moviegoing experiences are transportive and wonderful coping mechanisms. The absence of a cinema experience has meant that a proper break from reality hasn’t been readily available at the time when we needed it the most. After all, there’s nothing quite like sitting in a dark theatre, ignoring everything else, and watching a movie to counter the soul-sapping intensity of world events.
I miss the armrest rigmarole of not knowing which one you can lean on without inadvertently annexing your neighbour’s elbow support. I miss that electric moment when the lights go down and people finally shut the hell up to ready themselves for the opening credits. I miss the immersive sound that home high-quality sound systems can only imitate. Hell, I even miss the nacho aroma, despite thinking that the person who thought noisy snacks in a cinema was a good idea should be hanged, drawn and quartered. Most of all though, I miss the audience. It’s easy to complain about others at the movies, and for good reason – some are sociopathically glued to their phones, others have never heard of sotto voce when providing ongoing commentary, and an intrepid few even bring Tupperwared curries to screenings, thereby releasing an objectively-pleasing-but-wholly-inappropriate whiff of Indian cuisine into the aisles that made me want to baste the delusional patron with his delicious-smelling lunch and lob him into the nearest lion enclosure.
Random audience member with your prepacked lunch at the Berlinale 2017 – I have forgiven, but I cannot forget.
But for all those annoying parts, there’s nothing quite like watching a movie in the company of a great audience – a group of people who gasp, cry, clap, roar with laughter or audibly die inside when they’re having to witness what Judy Dench has been reduced to in last year’s colossal fucktastrophe Cats. Cinemas have the capacity to create an energy and a collective communion, one that can’t be replicated with sofa-streaming. Above all, cinemas facilitate genuinely magical moments, ones that truly stick with you. The first time a date held my hand was in a cinema during 10 Things I Hate About You, and I thought my heart was going to leap out of my chest. The film’s quintessentially 1990s soundtrack was already doing a fine job, but this was something else.
I remember skipping school for the first time with Simon Messenger to see the then-newly released restored version of The Exorcist. (If my mum reads this, the 20-year prescription time won’t save me, and Simon – we haven’t spoken in years, but that doesn’t mean I’m not sorry for outing you.) There was that time when, at the end of Le Fabuleux Destin d’Amelie Poulain, the audience stood up unprompted and, in unison, gave a rapturous round of applause throughout all of the closing credits. It was the first time I’d witnessed this in a public screening and the sense of joy and collective engagement was heartrendingly palpable.
Later on, as an accredited member of the press at the Berlinale, I went to the press screening of Raoul Peck’s I Am Not Your Negro, which coincided with Donald Trump’s inauguration day. The contrast between James Baldwin’s powerfully prophetic words and the rise to power of a horrifically racist flan felt simultaneously fortuitous in its timeliness yet terribly disturbing. And then there was going to see Call Me By Your Name with the person I’d fallen in love with. I’d already seen it, so was prepared for the emotional hurricane it would produce, but that foreknowledge didn’t prevent me from bursting into floods of tears for the second time when I heard the invaluable life advice Elio’s father loving imparts to his son. To this day, I remember desperately trying to silence my heavy sniffing and hide my ugly crying face as best I could, not wanting the person next to me to witness so early the extent to which my face is frequently subject to a hefty leak.
“Cinemas will suffer as a consequence of lower footfall, and many run the risk of closing down permanently.”
We’re nearly out of the woods, as kinos reopen their doors at the beginning of July. I can’t wait, but the truth is that we’re really not out of the woods yet. The C-word (COVID) has forced the film industry to a standstill, turned film fans into housebound streamers, and future ramifications for films, cinemas and cultural institutions in general are vast and pretty dire. Faced with an unprecedented situation, kino owners had to close shop. Even if they’re now reopening, the long-term repercussions of the crisis – especially on indie cinemas, who, unlike big cinema chains, don’t have a capital cushion to fall back on – are already troubling. As the owner of Wolf Kino in Neukölln told me earlier this year at the peak of the pandemic, it’s an “existential threat”.
“But cinemas are opening again! Where’s the collective relief? Why should we completely dismiss that win?” Granted, this is a time for celebration, but it’s also a time for warning. Some cinemas were already barely surviving, and with upcoming social-distancing measures and reduced seating capacity (on top of growing video-on-demand tactics from distributors), business revenues will suffer as a consequence of lower footfall, and many establishments run the risk of closing down permanently. Generous estimates suggest that if distancing measures continue after a three-month period, staying open will become financially unsustainable.
Rekindling enthusiasm for cinemas will also be hard. The way we consume films has greatly evolved over the years, and while home video can’t replicate moviegoing, the facility of having thousands of films at the click of a button on our personal screens has seen theatre attendance severely drop. Streaming platforms have greatly benefitted from the lockdown and studios have also started embracing day-and-date releases (when a film becomes available in theatres, DVD and VoD all on the same day, with no exclusivity window for cinemas). This means that streaming services and cinema are now fully competing on a whole new level because of shifting releasing tactics from distributors, and the release calendar will most likely continue to be impacted by this practice in a post-corona world. As a consequence, cinemas will have to rely even more on the love of cinemagoers for their local establishments, and that’s seeming like an increasingly tough ask these days.
Recent surveys have indicated that consumers are intensifying their behaviours, especially digital ones. Further studies have shown that there is a persistent dread over public venues and that an overwhelming majority of anxious consumers would rather watch new movies at home rather than in the cinema. Frustratingly, the new safety measures will feed into this, as the distancing parameters will transform and potentially siphon some joy out of the cinema experience: you’ll have to buy tickets in advance, stay apart from everyone, wear masks… Small things, really, but they may lead some patrons to think it’s all too much hassle and that watching Netflix at home is much easier and cosier.
But make no mistake – this is a state of emergency for cinemas. The first casualties have been reported: because of the loss of sales over the Corona-closure, the hygiene requirements, and the projected profitability erosion of limited seating, the Colosseum has gone bankrupt. The former Prenzlauer Berg tram car hall which opened as a cinema in 1924 (and which was once the premiere cinema in the entire GDR) will not reopen its doors.
“Now’s the time to help cinemas negotiate their survival during challenging times and show them how much they matter.”
Berliners might be luckier than most, as the city has always celebrated cinema and its cinephiles have so many great freiluftkinos options over the summer, but we need to support the kinos themselves. These much-loved movie houses are an essential part of Berlin culture, and rare are the cities with so many diverse and wonderful options. Now’s the time to help cinemas negotiate their survival during challenging times and show them how much they matter.
So, for the love of Joel Schumacher’s bat nipples (RIP, maestro), head back to Wolf Kino in Neukölln and enjoy the cosy social atmosphere of their café before venturing into one of the bespoke screening rooms. Return to the intimate charms of Lichtblick and don’t forget to admire their poster sofas. Rush to the confined joys of Kino Central, dawdle over to the steely bowels of the Filmhaus on Potsdamer Platz for Arsenal’s expertly curated programmes, and don’t forget the joys of Babylon’s wonderfully themed monthly series.
There’s also Friedrichshain’s Tilsiter Lichtspiele’s sepia-toned café, Il Kino’s colourful lobby, and Rollberg’s excellent weekly horror fix Creepy Crypt. I could go on. There’s even a new(ish) kid on the block, as Charlottenburg arthouse fave KLICK will resume operations after 16 years (if you don’t count its brief, year-long resuscitation in 2017). So that’s some good news. Let’s keep that positivity rolling by using this crisis to galvanise a sense of community around theatres and find a way to celebrate our local cinemas. Book tickets online, continue to buy gift cards and head to their screening rooms – that’s the best way to help threatened businesses weathering the storm and show vital institutions that the comforts of home cinema are a poor substitute for proper magic.
Be safe, support your local cinemas, don’t miss the return of our weekly This Week at the Kino column next week, and see you at a big screen showing soon.