Deserts of the cinema: pandemic accelerated or resolved?
I recently went to my first indoor movie screening in over a year and sat among 6,000 (mostly) foreigners.
It was the premiere of Dave Chappelle’s new documentary at the Tribeca Film Festival, This time this place. Thousands of New Yorkers and tourists flooded Radio City Music Hall to learn about the history of Chappelle’s pop-up comedy show and its impact on the small town of Yellow Springs, Ohio, during the COVID pandemic -19.
The pandemic has changed all facets of our lives. One of its biggest impacts was, of course, our inability to come together. For those of us who love movies, that meant more movie theaters. Not being able to watch a movie in a real movie theater was the least of our worries during the pandemic, but not having that option was something much more important: a loss of “the normal.”
For those of us who have been fortunate enough to discover arthouse and independent films in local theaters, the pandemic has put the importance of these cinematic experiences into perspective. The absence of that experience, however, also brought to light another loss that has long been an unfulfilled gap in the film industry: theatrical deserts.
What happens to cinemas?
The use of streaming services has increased, as has the price of movie tickets, and the number of movie venues in the United States over the past few decades has dropped dramatically from around 8,000 in the 1990s to just under 5,800 in 2020. The Arclight has closed in Los Angeles. and Alamo Drafthouse filed for bankruptcy after trying to expand beyond Austin, Texas. This trend was already well underway, COVID only accelerated it.
The location of a movie theater is determined by the perceived economic value of the population of that region. Suburbs and affluent neighborhoods have easier access to independent cinemas and megaplexes. Yet going to the movies remains one of the most affordable forms of entertainment for everyone.
In an age when content consumption is at an all time high, the art of storytelling has arguably never been better or more important. At the same time, after a year of isolation, there is an impalpable excitement and a desire to find oneself. In the midst of all this, the question arises: how will theatrical distribution respond to these changes and demands?
So what are movie deserts?
A cinema desert is a populated area that is underserved by movies and cinema. It is a city that has no cinema within a reasonable distance, if at all; or, maybe he has a cineplex but only plays studio franchises and major releases. Even in higher density cities, like Detroit or Los Angeles, theater complexes are not located in low-income neighborhoods, where public transportation is most accessible and used the most. Not many people will take a two-hour round-trip bus for a two-hour movie.
For a movie theater to thrive, it must be located in a sufficiently populated area, with a sufficiently high per capita income, and show films that appeal to the widest possible audience in order to generate enough ticket sales and concessions to stay in business. These Econ 101 motivators have led cinemas to become large communal concession multiplexes and release films in the studio with prior awareness, mainly in suburban towns and high-income towns.
The result is lower income and lower density, urban and rural areas become movie deserts.
Going to the movies is not just entertainment; it also facilitates community and social interactions, factors that contribute to what sociologist Pierre Bourdieu calls âcultural capitalâ, a crucial element for upward mobility.
Theatrical deserts do not only affect the populations located in these areas. Filmmakers and content creators are unable to reach this untapped and often desired part of their target audience.
I know what you are thinking: streaming and mobile have already solved these problems. No, they didn’t. Watching TV and streaming movies is a silo act as well as an algorithmic program to deliver content according to your own tastes and prejudices.
The pandemic, however, has given way to an opportunity to end the movie deserts by replicating the active, engaging, social, and community-based movie viewing experience with content that goes beyond popular stories for consumer consumption. mass. We like to call it “social cinema”.
What does social cinema look like?
Social cinema is human-centered. It starts with a host and is audience-oriented, like Pastor Greg Clover, head of the First Presbyterian Church in Clarksville, Tennessee. Pastor Greg hosts a monthly series of film screenings in his church and in a local educational space. The closest independent theater to Pastor Greg and his community is 90 minutes away.
âWe looked around Clarksville and realized that our few theaters were only showing the blockbusters, which is wonderful, sure, but we were missing the opportunity to see the independent film, the foreign film, the art film on. big screen with an audience of other members of the community It’s in a town of over 200,000 people, âsaid Pastor Greg.
People want to leave their homes, to be entertained, to feel that they are part of a community – a human instinct that is particularly evident in the post-pandemic. Recently, ticket sales for hosted movie screenings (a combination of in-person and virtual experiences) have increased by 20%, according to the latest data from Kinema.
Participating in the cinematic experience, whether in a movie theater or outside the confines of a traditional movie theater, has lasting power. Social cinema is the new frontier.
Why now is the time for social cinema
While social cinema fills regional gaps in the current theatrical model, it also thrives in entertainment capitals. Take Sean Glass, a musician and filmmaker who set up a small movie theater in his living room in downtown Manhattan.
âI started to organize a weekly series of short films to present the arthouse cinema of my friends and artists whom I respect. There is no model of exhibition for the short films, so I’m creating one, âGlass said. “I wanted a space for this, which could also bring representation to so many quality films that have otherwise remained underground.”
The pandemic has changed traditional film release patterns. Whether it’s the lack of scheduled independent films that drives people like Pastor Greg to create their own pop-ups, or the desire to purge for highly specialized tastes like Glass does, social cinema is part of the future of theatrical distribution.
Why social cinema has the power to change everything
Watching Dave Chappelle on the big screen, laughing with a thousand strangers was magical. Or maybe it’s just science. “When people watch a movie together, their brain activity is, to a remarkable degree, synchronized,” wrote science journalist Greg Miller.
It was also a reminder of what makes the movie experience great. The anticipation, the excitement of being surrounded by other people who share your passion. This sense of camaraderie and belonging is hard to replicate.
The pandemic has forever changed the way movies reach audiences. Our on-demand viewing demand gives streamers more power than ever to negotiate deals directly with studios, distributors and filmmakers. The future of movie distribution will be a mix of IRL and URL.
So, how to adopt this new model on a large scale? Through cinematic platforms that not only offer content creators the opportunity to share their stories with audiences who know no boundaries, but also encourage an immersive and interactive viewing experience, online and in person. This includes platforms that allow anyone, anywhere, to host their own movie events and take the nascent âwatch partyâ idea to the next level. Platforms that encourage communities large and small to come together and collectively watch and share their thoughts on film projects in real time. Platforms that bring life and belonging back to the cinematographic viewing experience.
The closure of some cinemas due to the pandemic has not created cinematic deserts, but in some areas it has accelerated it. We’ve reached a critical point where we can reverse that acceleration by reinventing what a movie theater is and who has access to it by changing who can own it.
Letâs not let the flame go out; we turn it on again.
Christie Marchese is the founder and CEO of Kinema.
The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.