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Cinema is more than a building. Here’s to its return in 2021

Empire editor Terri White takes us through the year in cinema – which has mostly been spent on our settees. In its absence, we've realised how special cinema is, she says
Photo courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures/ TM and © DC Comics

Whoever you are, wherever you are, 2020 will have left a bruise. One that you’ll tend to for the months and years ahead. A reminder of what we’ve endured, will continue to endure. As individuals, as communities, as industries. Film is no different. The faint outline of this year will be visible long after the blood leaves the soft tissue.

The doomsayers were up out of their chair as soon as the first whispers were heard of a flu out of Wuhan. Then came the first lockdown in March and the year’s films scattered out of the slate. Film was on its knees, they said. Cinema was dead! How could the industry survive in the face of a global shutdown of productions and total closure of cinemas? It was, and is, a fair question. But survive it has and survive it will.

Yes, right now, the bruise is fresh, tender to the touch. We ended 2020 with most of the country’s cinemas dark – either as they’re in tier three, or because (as in the case of Cineworld and Picturehouse) they’d already taken the business decision to close. Some of us are desperate to see the films – Black Widow, Bond – that should have played this year. Others are confused as to why cinemas – with their stringent Covid safety measures – aren’t allowed to open while gyms, saunas, spas and shops can.

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Film has had to reckon with how much the size of a screen truly matters. Studios, distributors and filmmakers have tried new ways to get films to an audience. Whether that’s a streaming platform – Borat Subsequent Moviefilm was acquired by Amazon Studios and put out on Prime Video – or their own VOD service (Mulan, for example, was on Disney+).

Going one gigantic step further was Warner Bros, who announced last month that in the US, all of their 2021 movies would be released concurrently on their streaming platform HBO Max and in theatres, thus completely destroying the usually-sacrosanct theatrical window. Cinema chains slammed the move, as did several furious filmmakers.

No other major studio has yet followed suit, but watching movies at home will continue to play a part in 2021. Cinemas can only operate at full capacity when social distancing is no longer required (so presumably when immunisations are society-wide) and many studios need full cinemas to even begin to turn a profit on a film. Put bluntly: studios won’t want their big films in empty cinemas and cinemas won’t want to open without big films. It’s a vicious, cinematic circle. But with huge movies having been delayed from 2020 into 2021, and shooting for 2022-and-beyond films starting up again, continual postponement isn’t a possibility.

But wait. Take a step back and there’s more to this story. For in many respects it’s been a good year for film. A great year for film, even. Recent years have looked pretty much the same: franchises (Capes! Dinosaurs!) forming the bulk of the box office and indies as the garnish. Only two big-hitters resolutely stuck in 2020 – Christopher Nolan’s Tenet and Patty Jenkins’ Wonder Woman 1984. And the absence they sat in left an opportunity.

Awe-inspiring debuts and poetic indies stepped up and into the spotlight. Without distraction, we were gifted the likes of Saint Maud, Rocks, Portrait of a Lady on Fire. We clung to these beautiful films in the bleakest moments. Beacons of light in the storm. Would these films have cut through without Covid? Yes, but arguably not with the punch and reach and resonance that they did. We can expect more non-tentpole gems – Ammonite, Nomadland, Last Night in Soho – garnering attention in 2021.

And even if we watched more movies on our settees, it only deepened our appreciation of cinema. A cinema is so much more than the four walls of a building. Going to the pictures is so much more than watching a film on a big screen with the volume turned up. It’s a collective experience. A visceral experience. One we’ve never needed more or missed more. Now is the time we remember our favourite moments – the times we’ve laughed, cried, jumped out of our skin and over the back of our chair into the row behind.

We’ve realised how special it is to sit shoulder- to-shoulder with strangers, new friends and lovers alike. The magic that descends when the lights dim and the screen fires up. The half-second before it begins.

And there in the dark, you can’t see the bruise. Just the light that makes the pictures dance in front of you. The light is still there, waiting for us, as the new year begins.

Terri White is editor-in-chief of Empire magazine.