Since its inception in 1885 with the Lumiere Brothers’ public screening of La Sortie de l’Usine Lumière à Lyon (Workers Leaving the Lumière Factory in Lyon), cinema has been a collective experience, the modern equivalent of gathering around the campfire for storytelling. It continues to shape our perceptions, our attitudes, and the larger culture by providing a sort of shared mythology. However, the COVID-19 pandemic with its social restrictions has altered the ways in which films are delivered to the audience and how we process them, just as the 1918 influenza epidemic affected the nascent film industry of that era.
Scholars believe that there is much to learn by comparing and contrasting the effects of these and other outbreaks on cinema worldwide. In this roundtable discussion by six of those scholars, UC Santa Barbara professors Stephen Groening, Maggie Hennefeld, Brian Jacobson, and Jocelyn Szcepaniak-Gillece examine how the study of pandemics past – most especially the 1918 epidemic – sheds new light on how the current health crisis is reshaping the world of cinema, and whether or not those changes are likely to become permanent. Moderated by Patrice Petro, the conversation addresses such topics as questions of financial risk and exposure in the media industries as the balance of revenue sources shifts; the challenges to the movie theater’s traditional role as public space; and how reliance on streaming services has changed our fundamental understanding of cinema. The participants also explore how fears of viral infection are reshaping the literal and figurative “atmosphere” of moviegoing, since it remains to be seen if audiences (particularly older segments) will return to movie theaters in pre-pandemic numbers.
Finally, the panelists describe various strategies employed by the major studios and film distributors to adapt to changing circumstances. The consensus is that while there will always be a substantial audience of hardcore moviegoers who insist on seeing films on the big screen, the burgeoning popularity of services like Netflix, Hulu, Amazon, Disney Plus, and others will continue. A pattern has already developed whereby many new releases have a brief theatrical run, after which (and in some cases during the run) they appear on digital platforms. Though initially confined to independent films this release pattern has become increasingly the pandemic-induced norm, and may eventually be limited solely to big budget blockbuster titles as marketing and distribution costs continue to skyrocket.
The specifics of the long-term future of cinema are as yet undetermined, but a close study of historical antecedents may help us to discern its outlines.