Why Movies Still Need Cinemas

Cinema Paradiso, 1988 | Cristaldifilm, Les Films Ariane

Movies come to us, so why go to the movies? Never has this idea loomed larger than in the last few months. And, yet, there is no doubt in the mind of any film maker, of any film industry insider or of any film lover that, when this is all over, people will want to gather again in cinemas.

A movie is not just a movie. Watching a film is an experience. Watching a movie in the darkness of the cinema, laughing together or keeping your breaths together, is an active experience. It is the theatre energy, it is the disruption of your life in the most pleasant and transformative of ways, it is the way you transpose yourself in artistic complicity and admiration with the filmmaker and every crew and cast member, it is the way you are willing to submit so easily to new ideas, new depths, new dreams, but also to laughter, enjoyment and hope. And both spectacle and spectators are essential to conjure up that new world reflected by the big screen. When the lights go down, surrounded by other people, mostly strangers, a feeling of the unexpected, of the unpredictable, of freedom, of abandon (that only as children we live to the full) is triggered in you. It is an un-replicable experience. There is something vital about the hold the big screen has on us.

And when you emerge from the confines of the cinema back into the wide world, into reality, the link is not broken, because you want the experience to live on, so you talk to your friends, to strangers, opinions are shared, ideas emerge, arguments are exchanged, new friendships are sealed, love is rekindled. Over the irresistible power of movies.

In these most unusual and uncertain times, the streaming services and on-demand platforms have offered a respite from reality. The cinema is much more than that. The cinema, the movie theatre, remains a real event, it is not just an escape from, but part of reality, and in close relation to your own self, because, as Jean Cocteau said, “I am rather surprised whenever I hear people chatter on about ‘escapism’, a fashionable term which implies that the audience is trying to get out of itself, while in fact beauty in all of its forms drives us back into ourselves and obliges us to find in our own souls the deep enrichment that frivolous people are determined to seek elsewhere.”

Everybody can be considered an outsider now. Maybe this is the moment every movie lover, every film maker, every film person has been waiting for: to re-imagine the movie theatre in order to discover that cinema, as art, is now everyone’s to re-create, and re-discover.

The discussion is wide and very complex, therefore I have reached out to film creatives and film festival directors and asked for their opinions on why movies still need cinemas, why the public’s fascination with the big screen lingers and why online streaming is no substitute, and to recollect their most memorable cinema experiences.

Sullivan’s Travels, 1941 | Paramount Pictures

Sandra Lipski, founder and director of Evolution Mallorca International Film Festival
Movies and cinemas go together like the earth and the sun, one cannot exist without the other. Or can they? For me, a perfect date night includes dinner and a movie (in a cinema). There is something romantic and comforting about it. The Cinema is a place for people to gather and have a mutual experience, while simultaneously also a very private and emotional one; everybody in their own personal seat, hopefully in their favorite row. The smell of fresh popcorn, the crackling sounds of candy wrappers, it’s all part of the magical experience of “The Cinema”.

I can keep romanticizing about it, but the reality is online streaming is on the rise (well, it’s already here) and audiences need to create a new habit to make the communal cinema experience part of their busy lives. My husband (a cinematographer) just told me: “Every time I see a film in the cinema I remember it as an event in my life; I remember which cinema it was, what snacks I ate, how crowded it was, who I was with and the conversations we had afterwards. When streaming a film at home the ‘experience’ of it is soon forgotten. That is what makes the cinema such a special place, it creates memories that last forever.”

I am extremely excited about the increasing growth of Film Festivals around the world. These annual events can be found in nearly every (big and small) town. They attract audiences, filmmakers and actors to come to the cinema and celebrate independent films. Film Festivals have the power to be an excellent platform to unite people, create engaging conversations and unforgettable memories – that is why we should never stop going to the cinema.

Merie Weismiller Wallace, film set photographer
Mystic River, Nebraska, The Tree of Life
The lights go down, the audience falls silent, the music begins. There is no refrigerator humming nearby, no dog asking to be let out. The story begins, grand visuals on the big screen fill our eyes and captivate our minds, our peripheral vision is softly dark and frames the focus of our eager attention. Artfully we are whisked away and held well for a whole story as the movie reaches our hearts and minds; meanwhile, no one calls out from upstairs to ask us if we can put our headsets on or turn the volume down. On screen, actors full of heart and soul activate our hearts and souls and we feel strongly. One makes a joke, someone in the audience laughs out loud, and then we all do. Laughter is contagious! There is nothing like a great audience to enrich a film. Laughing together, yet we are wrapped individually in the story the writer crafted and the director invisibly shaped for just this moment. In fact artists of so many crafts wove the threads that spun the illusion we watch so intently. A point is made, an education played out, it has our undivided attention. Finally, the credits role, astonishing how many people it took to create that singular project! We walk out dancing, and singing the songs. We eagerly chat with strangers in the lobby, having shared a common experience. We tell our friends. Later, one of them sees it on an airplane and tells us plainly “yeah, it was ok.” Oh, a film is never the same on a small screen as it was when you lived it in a theater.

Theater going is one of the joys of free time. It is entertainment, a date, a family outing, always an event in itself. It must be affordable for people to be movie goers, and there is the catch that started the numbers dwindling… But get the cost just right and theaters will be filled again. Then word of mouth can once again ring out to fill the box office with the happy sound of music and our laughter.

Laurence Bennett, production designer
The Artist, In the Valley of Elah, Crash
I’m sure I feel like many…

Grateful that streaming gives ready access to a huge swath of more than a century of film from around the world; it’s a phenomenal resource.

But something irreplaceable is missing: the wash of anticipation, a quiet excitement – frisson – as houselights fade. Then, sensing and feeling others’ thoughts, reactions, and emotions, as we share the experience of watching and hearing a story on screen.

Cinemas must, and will, survive.

José Luis Rebordinos, director of San Sebastián Film Festival
Films are still mostly made to be shown in cinemas: On big screens, with good and high resolution image and sound quality, and to be watched in complete darkness and silence. In addition, the theatrical release is still an important part of the cinema business. This does not prevent that the development of new electronic devices have also allowed the development of the platforms and online exhibition. I believe that in medium-term, the best possible case scenario is a good combination of cinema in cinemas and online cinema, allowing viewers to choose when and how to watch the films, but with rules that allow the exhibition in cinemas to survive in good conditions.

Vasilis Marmatakis, film poster designer
The Favourite, The Lobster, Dogtooth
This is a small series of events/personal memories experiencing film as a collective cinema experience:

Karate Kid screening, Athens, 1984:
Daniel LaRusso gives the final crane kick to Johnny Lawrence. Everyone in the audience stands up cheering and clapping enthusiastically.

The Last Temptation of Christ screening, Athens, 1988:
Halfway through the film, far-right Cristian extremists enter the cinema tearing the screen down and smashing the seats.

The Rocky Horror Picture Show screening, Athens, 1989:
The audience shouts A S S H O L E and W H O R E repeatedly to the bewilderment of first- time viewers.

The Usual Suspects screening, London, 1995:
Ticket holders staring at the film’s poster by the entrance. A hand-drawn arrow points at Kevin Spacey.

Before Sunrise screening, London, 1995:
After the film ends, a young girl is found curled up on the carpet floor by the exit, sobbing.

Trainspotting screening, London, 1995:
At the late-night premiere screening of the film, the animated typographic intro titles is met with wild cheering sounds from the audience.

Fargo screening, London, 1996:
During the duration of the end titles, the audience claps standing.

Mulholland Drive screening, Athens, 2001:
The doors open for the evening screening ticket holders: the lights are on, the end titles are rolling, but the afternoon audience does not move.

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button screening, Athens, 2008:
There’s a collective AWE sound coming from the stunned audience when Brad Pitt appears young riding his motorcycle.

Dogtooth screening, Maastricht, 2011:
Every single head in the audience moves abruptly in sync during the scene of the breaking tooth.

Relatos Salvages screening, Sikinos 2018:
After a free open-air summer screening event in the port of Sikinos island in Greece, the mayor apologises to the crowd of (mostly) children; because of its title, he thought the film was a family comedy.

The Artist, 2011 | Studio 37, La Petite Reine, La Classe Américaine

Dana Paparuz, costume designer
La gomera (The Whistlers), Dupa dealuri (Beyond the Hills), Lemonade
I don’t think there is anyone working in the film industry, whether director, set designer, costume designer, etc., who gets involved in a project just to prove something to himself/herself. Ego doesn’t really have its place in this art born from the work of so many people, and for the people. Cinema is first and foremost an art, and art must be shared with others, it must be discussed and commented in an open way, face to face, not just online or through a written article. A good movie can open your mind, it can make you understand new directions, new meanings, and all these come more naturally when you can go to the cinema with friends and family, when you can share with them the feelings, the ideas, when you can discuss the film. Film can sometimes get a lesson go through better than in any other way, it can also be a way to relax or a way to get to know other people in a much deeper way when ideas about a film are debated.

For sure, when we read a book each one of us makes their own film in their mind, and depending on the imagination of each one of us, this film is more or less outlined and completed. But it is also true that when we see a film that impresses us, we realize that we have forgotten to think for an hour or two about the way we had directed that story in our minds, or maybe at least we were distracted from our everyday problems. And in front of the big screen, the experience is much more powerful, we can better and easier enter the space and the convention created by the team of artists that made the film. These feelings are stronger inside the movie theatre … they can’t be replaced by or compared to the ones in front of the TV, no matter how technologically-advanced the device may be.

I remember one of my first experiences at the cinema, it was probably still before my school years. At that time, you could hardly see a movie at the cinema, it was always a celebration, so it didn’t really matter what movie you went to as long as you were up to date with the latest release. In the 1980s, there wasn’t the question about films being categorized as not recommended for a certain age group, so I ended up watching a film about “boxing”, as it was described by the lady who was selling tickets, together with a few other adults and their children who were my playmates. It was full house, that’s how they screened the movies back then, and we children, in order to better see the screen, climbed on a fairly high radiator on the aisle. We had maximum visibility and there was no way we could miss out on any sequence. The bloody sequences during the fight between the two opponents impressed me so much that at one point I fainted and fell off the radiator. I hadn’t thought about that episode for a long time. Then, later on, after the 2000s, when I was watching Raging Bull, it all came back to me so clearly and only then did I realize what movie I had seen all those years back as a child. It had probably been one of the few good films that had escaped censorship in Romania at a time when everything was artistically censored. I wouldn’t want to say that this has been my most impressive experience at the cinema, but it is one of them.

I sincerely hope we can all return to going to the movies soon, and that us working in the field can go back to the movies sets. Movies without movie theaters … it makes no sense.

Ellen Freund, prop master
Nocturnal Animals, Vanilla Sky, A River Runs Through It
That is a very tough question and I don’t know who could answer, however I was just listening to Wim Wenders try to answer the same question and he described a world of rediscovering the grand feeling of being in a large movie theatre and having that experience rediscovered by an audience. I can imagine that feeling of awe. The other options are so much less unifying. He also said “we now need to learn from actors who have to reinvent themselves for every role”.

When I was starting to learn my craft I went to a movie every day, I loved being immersed in the stories and the visuals. These group experiences curated by filmmakers and historians shaped my career and my own vision of creating characters with the smallest items – a keychain or a shopping bag.

Maialen Beloki, deputy director of San Sebastián Film Festival
This period of lockdown has been a period of reflection on the society in which we live, and one of the recurring questions has been to ask ourselves what spaces separate us and make us an individual, and what spaces bring us together and make us a collective.

The film theatre was originally invented by the Lumière brothers as a place where many people could come together and collectively enjoy one of the wonders of the world. It has therefore been a collective and popular act since the outset.

When a spectator decides to go to the cinema, it’s not only a question of what will happen on the screen. Going to the pictures is a ritual where everything matters: from the moment the spectator decides to go and see a film (the walk to get there, sitting down, waiting for the silence, for the lights to go down…) to everything that comes afterwards (talking about the film, going for something with the friends you went to see the film with, thinking about it, merging the screen action with real life…).

The spectator entering a cinema enters a parenthesis: their one and only activity, for the duration of the film, is to watch it, nothing else. And today this in itself is almost a revolutionary act: the absence of distraction, looking upwards, into the horizon, with perspective (as opposed to home screens which, in the main, tend to draw the eyes downwards) and not interrupting the story. Taking a break from life to enrich it with the experience of cinema.

Akiko Stehrenberger, film poster art director and illustrator
The Last Black Man in San Francisco, Her, Funny Games
Online and streaming have been a saving grace throughout the pandemic (even with my work right now). But no, it definitely doesn’t come close (and never will) to the experience of seeing a film in a theatre. For me, half the excitement is waiting for something to come to the theatre, then enjoying how it feels like an event while seeing them with my friends, watching the previews, and discussing everything afterwards together. And let’s not forget looking at the posters!

As much as I love having a gazillion titles at my spoiled fingertips with streaming, they also don’t hold my attention very long because the lack of commitment is always looming. Half the movies I absolutely adore, I can’t imagine would be as moving at home. In a theatre, a slow movie builds tension and captivates you. At home, I start eyeballing the dirty dishes.

My fondest memories of going to the theatre was when I first moved to NY at the age of 21, not having known a soul. I went to the theatre by myself and sometimes twice in a day. For me, the theatre become my living room (which was absent from my 150 sq. ft. apartment which I shared with a roommate). It would be 4 years before I’d coincidentally start in the movie poster advertising business when I moved back to Los Angeles. Maybe those NY memories planted the seed unknowingly.

Alessandro De Rosa, film music composer and author of the book
Ennio Morricone: In His Own Words
It’s hard for me to say why it is important in general, but I can try to describe why sometimes it’s important to me. During the recent lockdown I have been watching many movies and series from home (I live in Italy at the moment) and also I took the chance to think about habits and rituals as a society, about our way of being together, or at least my way to live in the society and experience movies and their functions.

I think that in the early days of cinema, going to the movies was first of all a “technical necessity”, i.e. the only way for people to access this medium, but then it soon became a social ritual, a place for people to join around the big screen, a modern version of the bonfire that lit our ancestors when telling stories in the dark of the night, dreaming and shaping their belonging to their tribe. In other words, I think that beyond providing entertainment and story-telling, movies can create a collective imagination, a bridge between people that can go beyond the movie itself: before or after going to the movies we have dinner or meet up with new or old friends, maybe with a new love that we met right there, at the cinema, and with whom we compare and comment on what we have just seen. So I definitely see a social component in movies and cinemas.

Moreover, cinemas involve not only our minds, but also our senses: the big screen can give the sensation to become a child again, immersed in a world of giants where characters, landscapes, everything is huge, while a powerful audio system makes you vibrate and convibrate, shiver and sigh. In this regard, I think that such a full body experience remains a unique and hardly replaceable characteristic of cinemas and this way of movies’ fruition (and from this point of view, who knows how much movies will change when and if the Virtual Reality will take hold…). On the contrary, I noticed that watching movies at home makes me focus more on storytelling, structure and screenplay, and makes my experience more ….intellectual (??). I don’t want to say this is negative or positive from all points of view, but it’s different.

I think of three experiences that happened in different times of my life:

Recently I was in Hungary giving a lesson about Morricone and the scene from Once Upon A Time In The West by Sergio Leone was projected. I had seen and analyzed that sequence hundreds of times while writing the book with Morricone: five demons appear from the back-country, and Leone, with a beautiful camera movement, shows Henry Fonda’s face for the first time. I thought I knew that sequence very well, but that day, in Hungary, seeing it on a very big screen, it was a completely new experience for me, and it felt as if only then I really got to perceive those images in their full strength.

Another beautiful memory is from my childhood, and the outdoor cinema that used to take place in the summertime in the village I lived in, Solaro, in northern Italy. Similarly to how it is portrayed in Nuovo Cinema Paradiso (Cinema Paradiso), those are very happy and nostalgic moments to me: even more than the movies themselves, what I carry with me are those moments in which, for better or for worse, the whole village meets in one place for a couple of hours and shares the same magic.

In 2010, I experienced a similar sensation in San Francisco: While walking around and exploring the city, I ended up in the Union Square area. It was a relatively cold and windy night, and from far I thought I heard a music I knew, a beautiful song sung by Bing Crosby. When I finally turned the corner and got to the square, totally unexpectedly for me I saw a lot of people gathered in the middle of the square around a big screen on which they were projecting Rear Window by Alfred Hitchcock. The audience was so varied: children, elderly and young people, families, homeless, all watching this masterpiece together. I described this unique moment in the last novel I wrote with my brother: “The guitar which survived the desert” (“La chitarra sopravvissuta al deserto”, it is not translated in English yet). That unity, in spite of differences and distances… that night I seemed to see a photograph of the United States of America.

Note: I would like to credit Francesco De Rosa, Alessandro De Rosa’s brother, for the translation of Alessandro’s text from Italian.

Newton Thomas Sigel, cinematographer
Bohemian Rhapsody, Drive, The Usual Suspects
The communal experience of seeing a film on a large, immersive screen, in a darkened environment, cannot be replicated at home, or streaming on an iPad. Watch Kubrick’s 2001, or Apocalypse Now on a 50’ screen with 300 people in the room and then watch it at home on your TV and hope the phone doesn’t ring, or your daughter needs something just when we get to Kurtz’s hideout. Which experience do you think will be more impactful?

Singing in the Rain, 1952 | Metro Goldwyn Mayer

This piece is published courtesy of classiq.me

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