I was thinking about why people still go to the cinema, and how as I was growing up it very nearly all went horribly wrong.
It seems obvious to me you should go to the cinema but I’m probably a little bit biased having four hungry mouths to feed. Children I mean, not actual mouths on my face.
We hear a lot about how the arts in general need to be subsidised and kept alive because they’re culturally important. Whether you agree or not you have to admit it’s pretty impossible to replicate the theatre in your front room, there’s no wings, no lighting and nowhere to put the actors, the Italians aren’t going to come and hang all those priceless da Vinci’s around your living room for an evening let’s face it.
A cinema however, as I keep reading, is perfectly capable of being set up in even the smallest two up two down. The phrase “home cinema” has now entered the lexicon, making me wince every time I hear it. The industry should have nipped that one in the bud, trade marked it or something because a 36″ television and cheap all in one surround system is categorically not a cinema.
Now, the sarcastic among you are already saying to yourself, no it isn’t because there aren’t kids on mobile phones and someone chewing popcorn in my ear. I can also pause the film to make a cup of tea and sit in my pants scratching myself. If all this is true, why do 170 million people a year still go to the cinema?
Mind you, at the peak in 1946 1,635 million people went to the pictures. That is an incredible number, approximately 30 visits per person each year. If things were like that today we’d be having around 2.5m admissions annually in Uckfield. We simply wouldn’t get them all in and I’d be Uckfield’s richest man, dictating this to my flunky whilst lighting cigars with £20 notes. Of course they also had war and rickets, but come on, it must have been the sweet life to be a cinema owner in the late 40’s.
And maybe that’s why cinema exhibition got in the terrible state it did by the 1970’s. They’d all had it too good. I distinctly remember a breed of independent cinema owner I came across as a kid. Big cars, swaggering attitude, I think I remember fur collared overcoats but that may be fanciful. What I do remember though, is when my dad took me to one of their cinemas, they were almost without exception shit holes. Not a penny had been spent on them since the first week of Gone With The Wind, old-fashioned, cold and uncomfortable.
There’s a not so fine line between traditional and neglected. A very large number of cinemas were simply neglected which must have contributed to the decline in admissions, it wasn’t all the fault of television. In 1946 the cinema was probably warmer and more comfortable than your house, a situation that changed rapidly after the war. The big swaggering exhibitor though, he just continued to suck his sites dry and not reinvest. As long as he could make the payments on the Wolseley all was fine.
When they finally woke up and smelled the popcorn it was probably too late, but that didn’t stop them knocking the cinemas about and converting them to multiple screens, usually in the most appalling and cheap way possible. It wasn’t only independents who were guilty, circuits too constructed tiny orange painted boxes with postage stamp screens in the cavernous old stalls and continued on as though nothing had happened.
To compound the issue films got worse and worse. By the 1970’s, while Hollywood was experiencing the flowering of Martin Scorsese, Bob Rafelson and Francis Coppola turning out seminal films like Taxi Driver, Five Easy Pieces and The Conversation we were busy making Adventures of a Plumbers Mate and a never ending torrent of lifeless TV sit-com spin offs. Take out Kubrick (who was American) the genius of Nic Roeg and Monty Python, all you’re left with is a few arty films no-one saw and Get Carter. Don’t believe me? Here is Time Out’s 100 greatest British films.
No wonder my dad was stressed all through the 1970’s. He had started in the heyday as a rewind boy and had eventually realised the dream of owning his own cinema. Instead of packed houses coming to see British talent like Stewart Granger, Anna Neagle and Michael Wilding we were struggling with Man About The House and, I kid you not, Can You Keep it up for a Week? Yes, there was Star Wars and Jaws, but there are 52 weeks a year to fill.
With shit cinemas and shit films, is it any wonder people stayed away in their millions? Dad put everything on the line in the mid seventies to refurbish, convert to two screens and stem the tide, still believing as he did that things must get better. His foresight saved us and thankfully we’re still here, rather incongruously given how many big towns lost their cinema. The fact we lost all our “bars”* had a lot to do with it, but that’s a story for another day. We’ve also reinvested heavily over the years and never let the place get rundown. Simple really.
The opening, by an American company, of The Point in Milton Keynes in 1984 is seen as the turning point that brought people back to the cinema. Clean, comfortable cinemas with good sound and projection? What a novel idea. Fortunately this gave British exhibition the kick in the pants it needed.
Although it still took large operators like Odeon, years to catch up as they held on to outdated practices for far too long. Having been cock of the walk for so long, these new fangled multiplexes confused the old boys still holding the reins.
I’m convinced that period of lazy cinema owners and lazy film makers is still having an effect today, in many ways the habit of cinema going was not passed on to the next generation the way it should have been. Clearly new and ever more dazzling ways to “consume” movies has an effect but the cultural habit was lost and it was entirely of the industry’s own making.
Yet, we’ve just had our biggest weekend of all time (and I have the records to prove it) so clearly there’s still an appetite for cinema in large numbers if you give people what they want.
Is there a good reason to go to the cinema? Absolutely. Last Monday night I watched Apocalypse Now! in screen one, with a sparkling new digital print and uncompressed six channel sound. I know that film inside out and back to front, I can tediously quote you every line, I know every cut and every sound on Walter Murch’s amazing sound mix. Yet, I hadn’t seen it in the cinema for probably 20 years and to my surprise I saw things in it I hadn’t noticed before, simply because it was on the big screen.
Since I was a kid I’ve had the privilege of watching audiences up close, often night after night with the same film and I can tell you that nothing compares to the palpable frisson an audience enjoying themselves gives off.
The noise coming from Bridesmaids as the ladies in the cinema wet themselves is almost as deafening as the dumb ass robots hitting each other in Transformers. E.T and Elliot escaping, Michael Dorsey revealing himself in Tootsie, the farting cowboys in Blazing Saddles, the entire audience leaping back as one at the end of Fatal Attraction, the almost inconsolable sniffling at the end of Titanic, and the dancing in the aisles over the credits of Mamma Mia.
You can do all that at home, sure. But it’s not as much fun. And to think we nearly screwed all that up for a cheap knob gag.
*Barring was an old boy network created pecking order that kept cinemas from playing films until the bigger boys had finished with them.