Cinemas under threat

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I had a very reasonable question put to me after I gave an overview on the media to the Epidemic Response Select Committee. My old colleague Geoff Lealand asked why I had not included film among the media I discussed.

The answer was that, in my pre-occupation with news, I simply had not thought about it. And I was wrong to omit it.

Cinema is a long-established resident of the media landscape. It is both a mirror of culture and a vehicle to aid our understanding of the culture of others.

And, like other sections of the media, it is having a hard time under the Covid-19 lockdown.

Like most New Zealanders of my generation, I grew up in the cinema. More so than many, in fact. My cousin and I went to the the usual boy’s own films at the 2pm matinee and at 5 pm joined my aunt and my other cousin for a more edifying example of the cinematic art.

However, I don’t pretend to know much about the current state of the industry. So I asked Geoff Lealand, a noted cinema historian, to fill the gap I had left in my select committee submission. Here is his addition:

Because I have taught Media Studies for many years, I have a very expansive notion of what ‘the media’ might encompass. It is not just the news media.  It can—and should— include all channels of communication, from billboards to the New York Times.  Certainly it must include film; not just the study of individual films but also how they get made (production), how they get to be seen (distribution), and who gets to see them, and where (consumption).

Over the past few weeks, there has considerable attention been paid to the plight of journalists who have lost their jobs in uncertain times, and rightly so.  But there has been little discussion about the challenges both film-goers and cinema owners have confronted during lock-down.  Tony Wall captured some of their anxiety in a Business Stuff feature (April 23)

It seems that NZ cinemas could reopen under Level 2, under constrained conditions, but as with much of the speculation about our return to a state of normality, we cannot be sure that film-going will be as it once was, for both owners and audiences.  In Australia, for example, they do not expect cinemas to open their doors again until July

I have no financial interest in any New Zealand cinema, but I certainly have a serious investment in the important social and cultural role they play in New Zealand life.  As with other aspects of the media landscape, there has been much talk about the death of the film-going experience.  This is not the case: the reason why I set up my website, more than ten years ago, was to celebrate the great diversity of cinemas in New Zealand towns and cities.  At last count, there were 107 such venues, ranging from weekend screenings operating out of the local town hall (as in Russell), to sumptuous venues such as the Roxy in Miramar (Wellington).  My all-time favourite  is Everybody’s Theatre in Opunake in South Taranaki (pictured above); a lovely, refurbished old cinema run and staffed by locals.

My website doesn’t include overseas-owned chains such as Event Cinemas or Hoyts, which offer a generic experience of big-budget, franchise films.  Whether they survive the economic downturn is unclear, for they rely on a steady supply of Hollywood block-busters, which are now in short supply.  It may be that smaller, independent cinemas are better placed when things return to some kind of normality, for they can call on a wider range of film sources and titles. Their audiences tend to be more loyal than the fickle teen audience, and they can better regulate social separation and other constraints.

Some art house/independent cinemas—such as the Academy and the Bridgeway in Auckland—have been innovative, delivering films online by subscription.  But many small cinemas cannot do this, and have no cash streams to pay rent, retain staff and cover other costs.

I am impatient for the days when we can go to the cinema once, and for the Hamilton  Film Society to kick back into action, but I do fear there may be fewer places to see films. –– Geoff Lealand

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