It takes a monumental event to alter the pace of change. With the advent of streaming services and improvements in home viewing equipment, cinema business in the UK was on slightly rocky ground even before COVID-19. Odeon, Cineworld, and Vue managed to weather the full lockdown earlier in the year, but the much needed return to normal business hasn't materialised, and this week UK cinema's big hope for 2020 walked away to.
It was expected that one of the biggest films of the year would be Daniel Craig's last Bond instalment No Time To Die (2020). Despite its bland trailer, anticipation for the film was still high. Full lockdown saw its release date moved from April to October 2020, and as Autumn arrived cinema chains were hopeful that Bond would come to the rescue and start pulling in much needed punters, even with social distancing still in place.
But COVID-19 proved too much even for 007 and the release date for No Time To Die was moved again this week to April 2021. Having spent $250million on their movie you can't blame MGM for wanting to maximise their profits, and its arguable whether No Time To Die would have earned as much money if it came out this month. But with cinema chains in the UK now taking a long hard look at their financial viability its questionable whether many of them will still be operating at all next April.
It was announced this week that a quarter of Odeon's 120 UK cinemas will only open Friday to Sunday, while Cineworld have confirmed that it will temporarily close all of its UK and US theatres affecting 45,000 jobs. All Prime Minister Boris Johnson could offer up was a thin request that the public keep going to cinemas; considering his handling of the pandemic to date its hardly likely to be advice many people heed.
The only major releases still trying to entice people in to cinemas at the moment are Tenet (2020) and Bill & Ted Face The Music (2020). The next two months don't have anything scheduled that will likely tempt in the masses. Denis Villeneuve's take on Dune, Eddie Murphy's sequel Coming 2 America, and Wonder Woman 1984 are all expected to be big December Christmas releases, but with so many blockbusters moved to 2021 already the chances of these films seeing the light of day in 2020 seem slim.
So where does this leave cinema in the UK? The future is uncertain but it doesn't seem like the threat of COVID is going anywhere soon. A return to cinema business as we knew it pre-March 2020 is some way off yet. But when cinema does return how many of its patrons will be there waiting for it? How many people who have been forced to undertake their movie watching at home will have realised that its actually preferable to travelling to a theatre and paying out £15.00 for a ticket when they get there?
If the comments boards of various news websites are anything to go by the British public weren't particularly enamoured with cinema going before COVID arrived, 'I stopped going to the cinema years ago. I got fed up with high ticket prices and being surrounded and distracted by noisy eaters, people who couldn't stop talking, and people would couldn't resist checking their phones' offered the highest rated comment on BBC News article on cinema's plight.
Its a sentiment that's been bubbling for a while. With business rate steadily increasing in the UK and film companies choosing to spend more and more money on their lavish productions, cinema chains are left trying to coin in as much money as they can to pay for both. It seems the increasing ticket price isn't being reflected in the quality of the experience though. To keep profits as high as possible, cinema chains don't want to spend out extra wages on suitably trained staff to 'police' screenings. The majority of cinema staff in the UK are young workers happy to work weekends or evenings for lower wages; they aren't the sort of staff who should be expected to confront anti-social behaviour in a cinema screen.
On the flipside of this is the home film viewing experience. For a reasonable outlay you can purchase a 50" high definition television, a surround-sound system, and a subscription to Netflix, Amazon, Disney Plus, or Sky Movies. You then have what amounts to your own home cinema set-up, no annoying patrons, no expensive snacks, and breaks when you want them. It was little wonder people were turning away from cinemas.
But now, add in the chance of sitting near a potential COVID-19 carrier in a screening and its hard to see why anyone would choose to go to the cinema at the moment to see a film they've probably never heard of. Its going to take some monumental movie releases to get people to change their mind.
Its now entirely feasible that in the near future a trip to the cinema will be just a once or twice a year special occasion, to a special venue further away from home. Such establishments will only screen the top blockbuster releases, your Star Wars or Marvel instalments, and charge a premium for it; £30 a ticket or more could be the norm. The rest of cinema will have to find its home on the various home streaming services. Elsewhere, niche cinemas such as the Prince Charles Cinema or the Curzon will have to find a home showing cult or classic movies from the past, catering to those cinema fans who remember the way it use to be, though even these fans will dwindle in number as the years roll by, replaced by the smart-phone generation who have no memory of regular trips to the Odeon and who therefore could care less for it.
It may have been the case that this was always going to happen anyway. Home viewing technology will only continue to improve while cinema tickets will only get more expensive, the roads you drive on to get there will only get more crowded, and the general patron will no doubt find new ways to annoy others on top of the old ones.
This could indeed be the beginning of the end for traditional cinema going. And whoever the new Bond is who steps in to Daniel Craig's shoes, they'll be lucky if they get to see their adventures on a big screen surrounded by an audience of enraptured fans. What a sad day that will be.