The release of Tenet on Wednesday (26 August) is carrying far more than high box office expectations for its impending opening. It’s also seen by many as the first test of the post-lockdown cinema industry at a time when the traditional film release strategy is being reviewed.
To understand the current situation we must look at cinema history. In the 1980s most cinemas were relics of vast picture palaces, the majority built for cinema’s golden age in the 1920s. Following the introduction of television, most closed and many limped along as they struggled to balance audience and studio demand for films with maintaining vast spaces.
The studios needed the screens and the screens needed the blockbusters. In response, studios introduced the “release window” business model. It allowed them to invest in developing multiplexes, often bland colourless boxes which were built expediently for the purpose of giving fast-turnaround theatrical release and kudos to Hollywood product. The release window allowed studios to squeeze maximum box office revenue from their film before it moved to home entertainment.
Over the past 20 years, studios relinquished control of multiplexes to investors. They now face the rise of streaming and many now have vested interests in these platforms, like Disney+ – it will premier one of its parent studio’s long-awaited remakes, Mulan, after its cinema release was pulled because of the pandemic.
While the potential revenue of a streaming-first strategy like this is largely untested, it inevitably drives a stake into the hearts of many cinemas, which are mostly funded by blockbuster film releases and sustained by the exclusive release window. Hence why so many have delayed reopening post-lockdown – there are no major new releases to pull in (socially distanced) audiences.
Multiplexes are vast, hugely expensive to develop and maintain, and they seldom connect with audiences. If you ask anyone about their cherished cinema memories, chances are those who have visited an independent (or yesteryear’s picture palaces) will say it happened there. The multi-screen cinema is too anonymous to make memories, and too unwieldy to make decent revenues. Few cinemas were able to maintain the financial float to see them through weeks of lockdown. For multiplexes burdened with high rents, the strain may well prove too much.
But resoundingly, people still want the big screen experience. Classics are proving perfect for drive-ins as they tap into nostalgic, shared-but-unique experiences. Streaming is not yet a viable threat – the Cinema Advertising Association found cinema attendance only increased alongside streaming subscriptions.
The multiplex may therefore be on its last legs. Balancing spectacle with a different immersive experience, increasing interactivity, and screening alternative content like esports and theatre – alongside the inherently personal touch of independent screens – will drive the immediate future for UK cinema.
How quickly current exhibitors can respond and adapt is questionable. There will be significant casualties en route but we should see more vertical integration, where collaboration between intellectual property owners, streaming services and carefully selected cinemas could become the new norm – a model that is already common in European countries and Asia.
While undoubtedly being the memorable 2020 summer release, Tenet carries far too much weight of expectation as the post-lockdown cinema saviour. But it will be the cinemas which recognise what really connects them to audiences that survive long into the future.
John Sullivan is founding director of cinema consultancy The Big Picture, The Light Cinemas and NightFlix drive-in cinemas
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