HOW DO INDEPENDENT CINEMAS MATTER?
Richard Cupidi asks how in this era of streaming, do independent cinemas continue to matter? When it’s cheaper and faster to deliver a “film product” directly to your smartphone, why sustain the bricks and mortar of an independent cinema?
In this era of streaming, how do independent cinemas continue to matter? When it’s cheaper and faster to deliver a “film product” directly to your smartphone, why sustain the bricks and mortar of an independent cinema?
And yet they still matter – hence the 40th anniversary of New Park Cinema. Reflecting on its importance, one of my students cited New Park as the prime reason she continues to live in Chichester. In this short essay, I’d like to suggest why indies matter and how we can help sustain their future.
At its heart, cinema-going is an extraordinary foray into a darkened space with strangers, an invitation to collective experience, a sharing of emotional landscapes in a communal dreamtime. It is a tangible event, with heft and memory attached.
Unlike streaming, watching a film at the cinema (without distractions or interruptions) focuses our attention completely on the performance. It is an immersive experience – no tea breaks or tweets on the couch. As director Steve McQueen commented: “I didn’t make this [film] for an iPhone or a laptop, popping in and out of the fridge every five minutes. That audience experience can never be replicated anywhere else …that’s cinema.”
Watching films on a large screen also delivers a richer visual texture, inviting viewers to appreciate scale and scope and detail and mise-en-scène. Only in the cinema can you experience immersive soundscapes which often give films their emotional pulse and are completely lost through the anaemic speakers of TVs or smartphones. And have you ever tried reading sub-titles on a small screen?
Of course, some of these considerations apply to commercial cinemas. However, independent cinemas are profoundly different in other important ways – their films are selected for quality and audience benefit. Theirs is a more reflective cinema, not driven by bottom-line economics or CGI epics sandwiched between popcorn buckets and Coke. As you probably already know, cinema chains in the US/UK make more profit from concession sales than ticket sales.
Equally, independent cinemas are becoming social spaces – places to meet people, have food and drinks, relax and even work in. They are live spaces, not just part of a delivery system. They host interactive events such as film Q&As; and film showings with live music; they host film clubs and provide screens where aspiring film-makers can show their work.
Independent cinemas are also becoming appreciated as cultural spaces, as combined venues for other creative and community events – performances, music, spoken word, bookshops, galleries and informal learning. In this era of isolating media technology, without context or contact, the need for dedicated cultural and social spaces is more important than ever.
So, how can we sustain the future of independents (besides buying tickets and telling our ‘actual’ friends)? As cineastes, we need to emphasise the exceptional qualities of independent cinemas. As citizens, we can champion their provision as significant cultural and social spaces. As individuals, we can employ social media to promote them, generating a more mixed demographic along the way. Independents cinemas themselves can increase their social and cultural capital by forging interactive links with other creative and arts organisations. Seek alliances, apply for charitable status, increase your clout.
Another strategy, modelled on the current practice of screening theatre and opera, would be to invite streaming services like Netflix and Criterion to show some of their original films via independent cinemas. Because the Streamers are all about capturing viewers, this could be a mutually beneficial relationship.
More ambitiously, independents could consider building new cinemas employing cinematically-grounded architecture designed to accommodate a range of social and cultural activities. Great idea, but where’s the money? Well, in these begging-bowl times, independents need to go beyond their traditional resources and look to crowdfunding and similar schemes for financial support. Such a course of action would certainly require time, dedication and skill, but it might also give independent cinemas enough autonomy and flexibility to guarantee their survival. Indies need to proclaim their worth and think bold – they deserve it. And so, here’s to another 40 years of independent cinemas.
Richard Cupidi is a highly regarded contributor to the cinema’s Film Education programme. He also runs adult education courses and day schools and is also co-devisor and presenter of the cinema’s Film Quiz at the Minerva Theatre. The highly innovative ‘Dreamworks’ film course place in the Studio at New Park from 10.30-12.30 every Thursday is his too.