“Only in cinemas”. We used to take those words for granted. Not any more.
I haven’t set foot in a cinema since the end of last year, and watching John Krasinski’s A Quiet Place Part II this week, at a press screening in Leicester Square, was the best kind of shock to the system. At home, we tower over the screen. In the cinema, the screen towers over us, allowing us to pore over visual details we might otherwise miss or thrill to the vibration of sounds we can’t mute. If what we’re viewing is part of a franchise, we can collectively chuckle, or shudder, at nods to earlier films (during AQPII, the shot of an innocent toy on a shelf was greeted by a tidal wave of sighs). Best of all is that moment, following a spectacular and cathartic finale, when everyone staggers out wearing the same happily shell-shocked expression. Going to the movies is tribal. I’ve missed my tribe!
We all know who or what to blame for the problem. Last year, before the arrival of vaccines, we hoped Covid could be cut down to size by super-directors (Christopher Nolan) and superheroes (Wonder Woman). That’s not how it panned out.
No-one was able to save cinemas from lockdown. Instead, behind the scenes, a different sort of rescue mission took place. Nolan was part of it, along with Sam Mendes, Edgar Wright and Eric Fellner. They wrote to the government, requesting support for the sector. Their efforts led to the situation we’re in now (only two individual UK cinemas had to shut permanently as a result of the virus). But let’s be honest, “Government support” is paid for by the public. We all deserve a medal for protecting the big screen experience.
Wright, as you might expect, is very buoyant right now. “I’ve seen hundreds of films in this last lockdown and even though I have a nice set up at home, it tells you everything you need to know that I was back at the big screen on Monday afternoon,” he tells me.
The film he went to see was one he already owns on Blu-Ray. “It was Brian De Palma’s Blow Out and the vivid experience of seeing that film large, loud and with strangers, was just glorious. Everything you want in a trip to the cinema.”
Director Will Gluck, whose blockbuster family movie, Peter Rabbit 2: The Runaway, opened on Monday, says the pandemic has given him a new appreciation for the big screen experience.
“Often when you’re watching something on the small screen, you have your phone nearby. I remember being furious when I saw executives who were watching my films take a text. Now we all do it. We watch and consume, without ever focusing on one thing. Cinemas by contrast are a phone-free zone. There’ll be a beautiful scene, with beautiful music, where nothing’s really happening and you just have a moment to reflect. It’s kind of funny that we’re now using the cinema – which is bombarding us with sound and vision – to slow down our world, so we can think”.
Gluck, a blockbuster junkie, says he’s desperate to see A Quiet Place II. That and Top Gun: Maverick, the long-awaited sequel to the Tom Cruise classic. “There was a moment when Top Gun: Maverick was going to open the same week as our movie. I know for sure my dad would have chosen Top Gun!” Gluck says.
Phil Clapp, Chief Executive of the UK Cinema Association, is over the moon about the backlog of “big” movies that Covid has created.
“The challenge, now, is which films NOT to play,” he says. “It’s great. In the multi-plex, every screen will be showing something we know there’ll be an audience for. That wasn’t always the case, pre-Covid”.
For him (and many other cinemagoers) the year’s key film is No Time to Die. Apparently, even after countless release date changes, the Bond film is still the one to beat. “Bless it!” says Clapp. “We’re expecting an awful lot, but I think we’re right to.” He’s also excited about Dune, Eternals, Spider-Man: No Way Home and Edgar Wright’s Last Night in Soho.
Last Night in Soho is Wright’s brain-tingling homage to Sixties London, starring Anya Taylor-Joy and Diana Rigg. “Without getting dewy eyed about it, Edgar went above and beyond in his support for us. A lot people I know want to say thank you to him and can’t wait to screen that movie,” Clapp says.
Clapp does admit it’s harder for cinemas to make money right now, with capacity limited, at least in the short term. The need for social distancing means that even on a good night, cinemas will only be about 50 percent full. The costs of operation have also increased - there’s the need for additional staffing, to ensure customers stick to social distancing, plus the extra health and safety measures.
For me, no trip to the cinema is complete without a heaving bag of pick ‘n’ mix (where else can an adult get away with eating strawberry shrimps?). Clapp, though, explains that even that has changed. “It’s pre-packaged now, so people can’t stick their dirty little mitts into the sweets.”
There are new one-way systems too. “It’s not intended to be the Krypton Factor,” says Clapp. “It’s just sensible stuff, like exiting through the fire escape”.
Still, some punters may find all these new rules a faff. They’ve been streaming films for months (subscriptions for Disney+ went through the roof in 2021). What if people decide that home is where the heart is and that the couch, after all, is best?
An upbeat Clapp (who I’m tempted to re-name Happy Clappy) points to the success of Godzilla vs Kong. In America, the blockbuster was available to stream on HBO Max, where it did well, but it also put a gazillion bums on seats in cinemas.
“It’s not a competition between us and the streaming sites,” he argues. “People with a voracious appetite for films use streaming and want to go to cinemas. We’re more worried about bars and restaurants. That, and the reinvention of golf and darts as shared communal experiences.”
Who in God’s name would rather play golf than see Emily Blunt blast spider-fast aliens to smithereens?
Frankly, a more pressing concern is that we’re still not out of the woods, re Covid. Right now, the Indian variant is the UK’s biggest nightmare. It’s behind you. Worse, it could be inside you. To put it bluntly, B.1.617.2 is way more terrifying than the killer from Spiral: From the Book of Saw, or the Satanic harpy in The Unholy. And the virus is going to make a lot of people think twice about a trip to their local cinema.
We need those horrendous variants to fizzle out. If and when they do, the cinema’s the place to go. All hail big screen wonders: may they never cease.
A Quiet Place Part II is only in cinemas from June 3. Last Night in Soho is only in cinemas from October 29