Recently, Cineworld announced that it would close its 546 cinemas, putting 5,500 jobs at risk. It was a sadly inevitable move after a year’s worth of films had been rescheduled to next year and audience numbers dropped to a trickle of keen enthusiasts. In a year where Netflix gained 16 million subscribers and Odeon cinemas now operate at reduced hours, is the future of cinema now on our laptops?

Cinemas had been struggling before the pandemic. Despite major box office records in recent years, cinemas were having to compete with streaming services’ seemingly endless content and ever-persistent video piracy. Increasingly, they were having to deal with an image of popcorn-strewn floors and audiences on their phones. Still, cinemas were feasible. 

As critic Grace Randolph recently stated, the current state of the film industry can be seen in two films: Christopher Nolan’s Tenet and Disney/Niki Caro’s Mulan. Whilst Nolan tried to be the saviour of cinema, Tenet has only just passed $300 million worldwide according to Forbes. This doesn’t take into account Tenet’s reported $200 million budget, advertising or the cinema’s percentage. Audiences didn’t take to Tenet’s exploration of time inversion. Those cinemas that were open had severe social distancing restrictions in place and the film never quite found its audience: it neither bolstered audiences nor united them. Tenet was not the film to save cinema.

This result is at least measurable compared to Disney’s Mulan, which moved to PVOD (Premium Video On Demand) before becoming available on Disney Plus. However, if you look at Disney’s figures there seems to be some confusion. According to Forbes, as of September 20 Mulan had made $57 million worldwide in cinemas with an estimated $269 million worldwide in PVOD. With these figures, you would have thought that Disney would be shouting from the rooftops but Disney has been uncharacteristically quiet. Streaming services only show viewing figures, not how much money an individual film makes. The truth of Mulan’s figures won’t be known until Disney’s shareholders’ meeting in November, making it difficult to empirically measure Mulan’s success.

Mulan had one other problem: a socially conscious audience. In a series of controversies, star Yifei Liu shared an image supporting the Hong Kong police, followed by criticism of the film’s mainly white production team, capped off by filming taking place in Xinjiang, where an estimated one million Uighurs are reportedly being held in concentration camps. In a time of increasing social protest,, audiences want to see stories that authentically reflect the world around them. #BoycottMulan flooded social media and this, ultimately, may have substantially affected the film’s box office.

It’s important to look at these films’ box offices because the film industry is, at its heart, a business. For cinemas to operate successfully they need a volume of films and audiences. Tenet and Mulan showed that the current models for distributing films are not viable. Studios aren’t willing to sacrifice films that need to make hundreds of millions of dollars just to break even, nor can films have the budgets they previously had and afford the additional COVID security.

In the time of COVID, streaming is the safest option. No studio wants an outbreak because audiences went to see their films, and there are still many people shielding. By turning to streaming services, studios may, in fact, open up the financial reality of streaming whilst being able to monopolise on previous releases. There is, as ever in films, another potential knight in shining armour: the independent film.

Independent films have famously always been the dark horse of cinemas. Their minimal budgets, new talent and undiscovered stories have made them a box office and award season darling. Look at the top ten list of any PVOD platform and the more successful films tend to be independent films with a low price point suited to the current climate, something Mulan’s PVOD price of $30 did not consider. Crucially, independent films often tell richer, more diverse stories that highlight current events. Look back on the same PVOD lists after the deaths of George Floyd, Chadwick Boseman or Ruth Bader Ginsburg and you see audiences paying for films that explore these individuals’ lives and the world they lived in.

The future of cinema, like many industries, is entirely dependent on how the pandemic develops. If 2021’s films are able to go ahead then there may be hope for cinemas. But do we want cinemas to return to what they were? Audiences, their tastes and their values are changing. The pandemic has shown that audiences are willing to adapt in order to be entertained and informed. Will cinemas move with audiences or will they be left behind?

Carol Jones

Carol Jones writes 'The Good Grief Notes' column for the Oxford Blue, where she also writes about culture and women's rights. She studies DPhil Music Composition at St Catherine's and works as a freelance composer.