The news that Cineworld may be about to close all of its cinemas has shaken the industry in a way that Sensurround, the in-seat special-effect invented for 1970s disaster flick Earthquake, never did – at least not in my flea-pit. This is why social media, posting photos of everyone else’s flea-pits, responded so speedily and with such love.
“Star Wars, Pete’s Dragon – the floors were sticky … A magnificent bastard of a cinema … Smokers got the right half of the auditorium … Fatal Attraction would be the standout memory .... It was smokers on the left … My love of movies started right here … It was called the Ritz when David Bowie’s parents met there … Superman, E.T., Ghostbusters, everything except The Fly because I was under 18 and got chucked out … Europe’s largest screen … What a brutalist beauty!”
My favourite stardust memory of the past few days, though, has been this: “Saw Convoy with my dad but he deliberately made us 15 minutes late so we missed Rubber Duck taking Ali MacGraw into the back of the truck.”
Who you gonna blame?
If this is the beginning of the end for cinemas, who you gonna call? Probably not Ghostbusters, I don’t think they’ll be able to help this time. Who you gonna blame? James Bond.
In the reminisces, 007 pops up often as the first silver-screen hero to have been glimpsed from the cheap seats, but it’s Bond’s latest outing which has brought multiplexes to crisis-point.
Already itself much-troubled, with the original director and screenwriter quitting, Daniel Craig injuring himself and crew being hurt in a controlled explosion, No Time to Die should have opened in the spring but became the first major film to be hit by Covid. Now the re-scheduled November release has been scrapped, leaving cinemas devastated.
They only turned on the projectors again three months ago. Now the 128 Cineworld theatres in the UK and Ireland, employing 5,500, are facing closure. Other chains must be just as vulnerable, which makes you fear for the product. No screens surely at some point equals no movies.
Or no blockbusters. During the pandemic, smaller films have continued to be released and when cinemas were dark we were able to stream them. But no studio was going to throw away a biggie like this. They’ve been waiting for Covid to blow over, like it was a tornado or a 200ft wave or an alien attack, so their heroes could brush themselves down, crack a funny, save mankind – and get it queueing round the block again. But Cineworld cannot wait. This may be the time the blockbuster dies.
Are blockbusters worth the hype?
It does seem astonishing that a single film falling off the schedule can wreak such havoc and this makes you wonder if Hollywood employs Bill and Ted in the forward planning dept, if not Dumb and Dumber. Mark Millar, the Coatbridge-born comic-book writer and creator of the Kingsman and Kick-Ass films, has criticised the industry for being over-dependent on a small number of blockbusters, which are themselves over-dependent on bumper ticket sales. “A slew of mid-budget movies could have salvaged [cinemas] but studios don’t make those any more, sadly,” he remarked.
Would you miss blockbusters if studios stopped making them? I don’t think I would. When are they worth all the hype? It is not very often – after weeks of anticipation, build-up, searing interviews on The One Show, full-page ads, roadside hoardings, searing interviews on Lorraine – that I gasp in hushed tones: “My senses are overloaded and so is my XXL bucket of popcorn! This is what it must have been like watching the very first blockbuster, Cecil B DeMille's the Ten Commandments back in 1923”. That wasn’t my reaction while enduring The Meg.
The first big action-thriller released after the nationwide lockdown was Tenet. Now, the director Christopher Nolan may be able to walk into a studio and come out with $200m, but his films are challenging. This one was extra-extra-challenging and left audiences yearning more than normal for the simple kiss-kiss, bang-bang pleasures of a Bond flick.
Pleasure dome memories
But the dire threat posed to cinemas will put intense pressure on No Time to Die when it finally appears next year. Maybe the dramas off-camera, including the desperate-seeming “Get Fleabag!” holler resulting in Phoebe Waller-Bridge joining the production, will all be forgotten by then and the movie will be terrific. Or perhaps the 25th outing for 007, who has survived at least three outbreaks of deadly nerve gas in his different incarnations but will be required to rescue theatres and not just the world this time, will buckle and break, just like Daniel Craig’s ankle during filming.
Almost all of the memories sparked by the Cineworld announcement are from an earlier age of movie-going when, even in modest-sized towns, picture-houses made an effort to live up to the term “pleasure-dome”. I have many of my own, beginning with tenure as an ABC Minor and the thrill of cupping a hand over the membership badge and seeing it turn luminous green. And I can reel off the cinemas where I saw Emmanuelle, Last Tango in Paris and that stone-cold art-house classic, Confessions of a Window Cleaner.
But if you need any more evidence that the pandemic is turning the world upside down it’s that we’re even getting nostalgic for multiplexes. We’re terrified that these unlovely, breeze-block, same-everywhere structures – devoid of atmosphere, ambience and even the merest trace of architecture – might not exist anymore.