You could smell the stale popcorn and rancid carpet from the other end of the high street but that unmistakable Odeon odour always set my pulse racing. That was before we lost the vast art deco interior to corporate greed and short sightedness. The carving up of the beautifully ornate auditorium into three miniscule screens ruined the ‘going to the pictures’ experience. It became a sad portent of things to come.
A couple of years after the needless vandalism, not one but two hangar-sized multiplexes landed on the outskirts of town rendering the old inner-city Odeon obsolete. For several years, my beloved fleapit stood like a towering 1930s headstone to a lost era. OK, so the place may have reeked of terminal decline, but the building itself added some much needed glamour to our gloomy little provincial town. My mother would always make an effort to dress up even when we were on our way to see some schlocky 80s horror movie. The grandeur of the architecture warranted our respect.
For all their gloss, multiplexes have killed off any last vestiges of movie magic. The retail parks that house these soulless edifices repel rather than welcome visitors. There is no sense of occasion and no reason to stick around once you’ve been herded back into the lobby. Movie going has lost the power to thrill and it is this deadening of the experience itself that should concern filmmakers like Christopher Nolan. The director, whose blockbuster Tenet failed to revive cinema attendance figures during the pandemic, is furious about Warner Bros’ decision to release all of its 2021 films simultaneously in cinemas and on the streaming service HBO Max. Ironically, it is Tenet’s poor showing that is thought to have partly formed Warner Bros’ decision.
Nolan’s chief concern appears to be that punters will choose to stay home rather than make the effort to go out, thus missing the spectacle of films designed specifically for the big screen. Understandable perhaps for a filmmaker of Nolan’s reach but his reluctance to accept that the way we consume content is changing reminds me of the BBC’s intransigence over complaints about the licence fee.
If Nolan is so confident about cinema’s appeal, why is he worried about competition from streaming services? Surely it’s a win-win for moviemakers and punters alike? Ardent film buffs will probably still want to schlep across town to see the latest Hollywood bombast, while those with only a passing interest in CGI may well decide to stream from the privacy of their own home.
If it’s simply a matter of scale then Nolan obviously hasn’t visited his local Currys superstore lately. The ‘small’ screen has ballooned to gargantuan proportions over recent years. TV is no longer cinema’s fuzzy, diminutive cousin; indeed many of the mega tubes on offer rival some of the smaller multiplex screens. 4K televisions have also become much more affordable only adding to cinema’s crisis of identity. With pin sharp 4k projectors also vying for our attention, it’s possible to recreate that epic scale filmmakers like Nolan seek to preserve. Indeed some of the newer models are now so technologically advanced that they are as good (if not better) than some cinema projectors.
The real question now is why anyone would choose to go to the cinema when the cinema has effectively come to us. And frankly, the experience of watching movies at home is far less stressful.
Yes, you might miss the communal thrill of listening to other people rustling but at least you won’t have to book a seat in advance and run the risk of being stuck behind a giant with big hair. At home, you can sprawl across the sofa in your pyjamas, ban the use of noisy popcorn and go to the loo with impunity without missing vital plot points. If your friends start gossiping or texting during the film, you can ask them to stop without fear of being assaulted in the car park after the show. And if the volume is too high, you simply use the remote rather than having to stuff tissues in your ears. The same applies to room temperature; multiplex owners seem to think we all live in Death Valley and have set their air conditioning units accordingly. I’ve lost count of the amount of times I’ve had to beg front of house staff for a blanket just so I can make it to the end of a movie without freezing to death.
Then there’s the small matter of cost. Taking the family to the cinema is not only bad for your pocket, it can seriously damage your health once you’ve factored in all those buckets of overpriced popcorn, stinky hotdogs and nachos smothered in plastic cheese. As you can see, staying home certainly has its appeal.
Rather than complaining about the competition, Christopher Nolan and his ilk should be campaigning for cinema chains to up their game. He could start by demanding that multiplexes make a bit more effort to woo customers; architects need to start building attractive spaces and ditch the corrugated out-of-town warehouse look. Ticket prices also need to tumble if cinemas are to compete with streaming services and no more stealth taxes on so-called ‘event movies.’
With the demise of large high street department stores, cinema chains might want to consider moving back into town centres, converting monolithic edifices into the sort of pleasure palaces they once sought to destroy. Offering customers healthy meals before and after the show, instead of all those sugary overpriced snacks might also help. Snacking during feature presentations has to end, as do all those noisy commercials; no one pays £18 to be shouted at for half an hour.
Lastly, cinema managers ought to start listening more to punters’ concerns. May I begin by suggesting they turn the volume down and the heating up. Why should I have to dress for the Antarctic and wear noise-cancelling headphones every time I want to see a warming comedy?
Look, I’m only trying to help but even if all my ideas were put in place tomorrow, which seems unlikely (trust me I’ve tried) I fear it may already be too late. The pandemic has speeded up the inevitable and I fear cinema going may soon become a distant if poignant memory. If multiplexes go the way of town centre Odeons, perhaps Currys ought to think about moving in. If my predictions are right, sales of projectors are set to soar.
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James Innes-Smith is the author of The Seven Ages of Man – How to Live a Meaningful Life