The sofa is your multiplex: how to keep cinema alive in the age of coronavirus

·4-min read

A sold-out screening of a new blockbuster, filled with hundreds of punters – it’s a scene that might feature in a public health information message about coronavirus. No surprise, then, that cinemas were among the first public places to shut down during the outbreak. Yet cinema provides exactly the kind of escapism the public demands at times like these. Here are a few ways Hollywood is keeping the communal medium of film-watching alive during a time of self-isolation.

Mainstream streaming

Releasing new films directly to streaming platforms is hardly a new idea. Longstanding outlets such as Curzon Home Cinema – where arthouse distributor Curzon Artificial Eye has made many of its films available for streaming parallel to their theatrical releases – now find themselves better equipped for this unprecedented cinema blackout than many bigger studios. (Last Friday’s diminished schedule left Curzon with the week’s biggest new release in Hirokazu Kore-eda’s wily French oddity The Truth – the unlikeliest of triumphs over the mainstream.)

But the big guns are latching on. Having seen the cinema runs of their films cut short by the pandemic, Universal took the unprecedented step of releasing the jolly Jane Austen adaptation Emma, the schlocky libs-versus-Trumpers horror The Hunt and Leigh Whannell’s acclaimed spin on The Invisible Man to streaming platforms months ahead of schedule, smashing a hitherto rigid window between theatrical and home distribution that might be hard to reinstate.

The advantage is that word of mouth about films can keep travelling and audiences can keep discovering the films. Attempting to martial a collective viewing atmosphere, meanwhile, Whannell held a live group watch of The Invisible Man via Twitter, answering viewers’ questions about the film and film-making process as they went – a virtual Q&A that made it feel less like the film was streaming into a void.

The rise of the Netflix Party

Related: Netflix Party: could this group-watching tech gimmick be a lifesaver?

Film-makers aren’t the only ones making streaming a less solitary experience: Netflix Party is now the hottest thing in appropriately distanced socialising. Like a Skype chat or Google Hangout, Netflix Party – an extension of the streaming service – enables friends to log into the same showing of any film on Netflix, share live chat and commentary throughout. This, admittedly, is not an option for those cinema-goers who frown on any chatter or phone use while a film is playing – but then this is Netflix, not a Robert Bresson retrospective at the BFI. Load up Burlesque or Dirty Dancing, open a bottle of wine, and imagine your mates are laughing along with you on the couch instead of via an app. It may not be ideal, but it approximates some sense of cinema’s togetherness.

Attend a film festival … in your living room

Beginning with South by Southwest and extending, well, who knows how far into the future, coronavirus has played havoc with the ever-crammed film festival season, with one fest after another postponing or calling things off altogether. (Organisers of Cannes currently insist it will go ahead a month later than usual, in late June, but nobody’s banking on it.) Many of the big all-star events will bide their time until they can roll out the real red carpet, but many smaller festivals who have cancelled events are opting to provide digital editions, so that new films that would otherwise have been premiered to live audiences can be discovered on streaming platforms. Following its cancellation, the BFI’s annual LGBTQ+ film festival Flare is offering Flare at Home, with highlights from this year’s programme (alongside a selection of past queer classics) available via the BFI Player streaming service for what would have been the duration of the festival. Others are expected to take a similar tack, ensuring new films find an appreciative audience – from across the country, to boot. This may become a new normal.

The drive-in makes a comeback – maybe

If quarantine, social distancing and lockdown rules are relaxed, could the humble drive-in cinema have a moment? The concept may seem quaint even to older millennials who associate it with the Grease era, but the tradition of going to see a film in your car, in a suitably raked parking lot with sound through your own audio system, could be just the right compromise for film lovers who want to go out and self-isolate at the same time. Drive-ins are few and far between in the UK – though plans have been made to launch one in Manchester this week – but many of America’s 300-plus drive-ins have reported a surge in business. Others, however, have dutifully shut down like their indoor cinema brethren. This isn’t a sure solution just yet, but keep it in mind.

Perhaps, in future times of lesser lockdown, outdoor screenings may represent the most viable way of going out to the movies – be it in a car or in a park. (On a picnic blanket two metres away from the next couple, naturally.) Until then, however, it looks as if the sofa is your multiplex.

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