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Sinematic Debates: Will Online Streaming Soon Make Cinemas Obsolete?

9 July 2020

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Sinematic Debates: Will Online Streaming Soon Make Cinemas Obsolete?

In line with Singapore’s current mood for debates and contentiousness, the Sinema team decided to channel some of that spirit to discuss a hot topic in film today: Will online streaming soon make cinemas obsolete? 

The COVID-19 pandemic has challenged almost every facet of what normal used to be. For film, the pandemic forced the closure – both temporary and permanently – of cinemas across the world, with streaming services predominantly taking over the reins. To some, this feels like an acceleration of the inevitable, especially with the sheer convenience offered by the Internet. To others, there are simply no replacements to the movie-going experience. 

After a vigorous selection process (we used random.org), two of our writers, Matt and Stacy, will do their best to represent each side and see who presents the more convincing argument – even if they are personally more inclined to the other side. Each writer is given three blocks of 300 words or less to present their arguments, with slightly more leeway for their respective conclusions. 

Let us know where you stand on the topic by commenting and casting your vote on this article’s Facebook post!


Stacy: 

The first commercial movie ever screened dates back to 1895. What started off as a humble showing of cinematic work back then is presently a multi-billion dollar industry with millions of lives depending on it to feed their families. That is a scale that is so large, we might not be able to even fully fathom it. How exactly did this transformation happen? Many reasons, of course, but the main one being – cinemas.

(Image credit: history.com)

Bit by bit cinemas started popping up all over the world as movies and entertainment became more accessible to the layman. A sense of community began fostering amongst movie-goers which propelled the popularity of cinemas. Each year, more and more cinemas open around the world, with the current total standing at almost 200,000 screens

The industry of cinema, whether it’s the creative or the commercial side, has stood the test of time and has only increased in value. This is not just because of the act of watching movies in theatres. It’s the whole experience – from travelling to the cinema to queuing up to getting the unhealthy snacks to finally settling into your seats. It’s going to take a lot more than a global pandemic to eradicate the need for physical theatres, which has after all stood through two epic world wars.

Matt: 

While physical theatres have definitely played a large role in the development and growth of the film industry, I don’t see how their role as the middle-men cannot be brought online. There is definitely room for cinemas to exist in this future; the atmosphere, experience, and sense of community can never be duplicated. However, I see their roles being more of a niche rather than a norm. 

While we don’t feel it as potently here in Singapore (yet), the emergence of media conglomerates such as Disney and Warner Bros has led to an absurd depth in vertical integration with these companies in control of almost every part of the business chain. While it would be illegal for these conglomerates to straight-up purchase theatre chains in the United States, it does not discount the clout and pressure these titans have over theatres given their film output being large, popular blockbusters. There are, after all, so many time slots in a day and it would be far-fetched to suggest that large franchises such as Star Wars would not drown out the competition. 

Premiering the latest films online would push the choice back to the consumer, while presenting more opportunities for more filmmakers to stand out. Meanwhile, without the overheads that running a theatre might incur, the overall cost for the average consumer might be reduced as well. That is exactly the type of landscape that would propel the film industry towards the future. 

Stacy: 

Perceiving theatres as only the middle-man is severely trivialising its role in the system. While it’s the medium in which creators present their work to the audience, it’s an entire experience in itself. In fact, it’s not uncommon for movie-goers to go to the cinema first and only then decide what movie they would like to watch. In this instance, it’s the theatres that are the priority; not the movie.

I tend to agree with the notion that premiering films online would give some of the power back to the consumer. However, the two are not mutually exclusive. While some movies can release online and are probably made with that intention, the choice of releasing their films in theatres is still the priority for most moviemakers. What separates the two has mostly to do with scale and budget of a production.

(Film still of ‘No Time to Die’, currently slated for a November release in Singapore / Image credit: Universal Pictures)

Perhaps that is why the team behind the Bond franchise decided to postpone the release of the latest Bond movie, No Time To Die, rather than to shift its release online – theatrical releases just creates more business. Money is only made through the consumer. If filmmakers believed that cinemas were obsolete and the money is with online screenings, this pandemic would have been the perfect time to do so. 

We must also consider the technical reasons why both consumers and producers are hesitant to make the permanent jump to digital platforms. How can we negate the main pull of theatres – their massive screens and surround sound systems. These equipment completely transform the viewing experience for consumers and allow filmmakers to go to town with special effects and sound effects. If you ask me (and I’m sure most people), I’d much rather watch my favourite films on a theatre screen than my pathetic 13-inch laptop.  

Matt: 

Catching films in the theatres is definitely a completely different experience than watching them on the small screen. Still, I disagree with how cinemas are essential to the ecosystem. You have pointed out three points why. First, heading to the cinema first before picking a film is definitely a relatable habit. However, I would argue that this speaks more of a social experience rather than necessarily a “film” experience – much like how we might head to a board game cafe or an arcade.

Secondly, yes, most filmmakers would want to see their films on the big screen. However, more often than not, the decision to postpone or bring their films online lies with the studios rather than the team. A recent example would be Christopher Nolan’s (ongoing) battle with the studio. Studios simply do not want to jeopardise a business model that has worked for them for almost a century. However, as I have discussed earlier, it’s a model that only largely favours them. 

(Christopher Nolan’s next film, ‘Tenet’, has faced several postponement for release by the studios despite his preference for an earlier release date / Image credit: Tenetfilm Instagram)

This leads to your third point of technical reasons. As I point out earlier, there is definitely room for cinemas to continue to exist exactly because of their equipment and atmosphere. I reinforce my point that cinemas will be a niche rather than a norm. We have the technical capabilities to bring and even premiere films online. Studios are already seemingly making the shift in China while conglomerates have and are establishing their own streaming services. These, together with the overall convenience of the Internet, might force all studios and filmmakers to evolve for the future.

Stacy:

Yes, heading to cinemas to watch movies is a social experience; that is how the business has evolved over the years and will continue to do so which is not necessarily a bad thing. A congregation of people watching their films and sharing the experience is what gives films the coveted cult status that they crave – it’s what all artists crave for, that their work stands the test of time and becomes the catalyst for social interaction (such that they are enjoyed by like-minded people). 

Modern technology is a huge part of the artistic experience. Can films such as James Cameron’s Avatar, Will Smith’s Gemini Man or Creed really be enjoyed in the same way on a home TV screen or a laptop compared to the full cinematic experience? For films like these, which are the norm, not the niche, the theatrical experience is essential for its holistic viewing.

(Film still of ‘Avatar’ / Image credit: Twentieth Century Fox)

With the advent of in-home screenings/premieres, another rising issue is piracy and we have to look no further than the furore caused by The Dallas Buyers Club in Singapore. Needless to say, this has been and will continue to be one of the biggest problems of even the above mentioned global conglomerates. If they were to move toward private in-home screenings, it would be worse. With people illegally downloading full movies or sharing Netflix passwords freely, movies will be lost to piracy and intellectual property theft in no time – while the real victims then become, the true fans of cinema, the university theatre art majors, and writers such as you and I.

In conclusion, I can state with conviction that even if one were to go to the cinema alone for a film, it’s still preferable to watching a premiere in their own home. Cinema is part of the film viewing experience, not incidental to it and it will never be replaced, for the most part. From movies-in-the-park at Fort Canning in Singapore to a Golden Village theatre in town, there will never be a shortage of patrons for whom the movie-going experience is an irreplaceable staple of their lifestyle. However, it’s not outside the realms of reality for a minor part of the industry to shift to online streaming. While that is inevitable, it’s not enough to replace theatres en masse. Remember, some of the best memories are made in the cinema and it’s the experience that people remember.

Matt:

I’m glad that you brought up piracy because it’s an issue that I concede today’s technology is still unable to fully overcome. There were reports that piracy has declined with the advent of streaming services but it seems to have made a resurgence due to ever-increasing subscription prices and with content locked behind different services. Things get even thornier when the issue is dissected country by country, such as with Indonesia’s numerous Internet cafes being notorious for making available thousands of films for download.

Still, I remain adamant that cinema’s move to the Internet is inevitable, and that the onus of responsibility in tackling piracy lies with the studios and conglomerates. It’s an issue that has shown to be curbed if the content is priced reasonably. These profit-maximising companies may be stubborn in their ways now but the ever-increasing convenience provided by the Internet is bound to force them to adapt. 

I return back to the importance of cinemas. We can both agree that they provide a vastly superior experience. However, the current model and place in the landscape might prove to be too unsustainable. Films used to be presented with in-cinema narrators and live orchestras, providing completely different experiences than what we have now. However, they were soon made obsolete with technological advancements. 

(A film still of ‘Lost in Russia’, which had its premiere cancelled in China because of the COVID-19 outbreak and was made available online for free / Image credit: Huanxi Media)

We are at that same crossroads now. While the adaptation to a mostly-online model will be painful – especially for filmmakers and actors – it’s a sign of the times that we all have to accept eventually. Films would have to be less spectacle (which, frankly, isn’t a bad thing) and be made with your 13-inch laptop in mind. 

That, to me at least, is an exciting evolution that I’m keenly looking forward to, especially when (in my theoretical future) I can still head to the handful of cinemas still around to fully enjoy the blockbusters. I will emphasise again the advantages with cinema’s future being online streaming – mainly in that it will lead to more choices for the consumer and more opportunities for filmmakers to stand out, while possibly leading to a trickle-down effect for the consumer without the overheads of theatres.

I would like to conclude by addressing the social aspect that physical cinemas bring by paralleling it to something that was dear to me: arcades. They similarly provided an unparalleled social experience and better equipment. However, the overall price and convenience of home-versions of these arcade games (and of gaming in general) proved to be too much for arcades to be sustainable. Yet, friendship made in those noisy halls are still around, with the community of these games flourishing exactly because the barriers of entry have reduced. It’s, admittedly, a rather unfair comparison but I do see this as the future of cinemas as well. I hate to see them go but it seems an inevitable fact that we film lovers will have to struggle with for the sake of progress.


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