Will lock down alter how we like to see films?
It is a curtain I distinctly remember.
Huge, suspended from several feet above the ground with vertical columns of stitching gathering folds towards the bottom. Each horizontal fold resembled a concave arc. The bottom of the curtain had tassels. Every line of stitching, running down from the top ended in a small red light. At the appointed hour, the auditorium lights faded; the chatter in the audience receded to a hush, an instrumental hit – usually by The Ventures – played and the curtain with red lights rose slowly, revealing white screen behind. There was drama to it and a sense of magic about to visit enveloped us.
This is among my strong memories from childhood and it played out every time we visited a clutch of cinemas owned by the same promoter, in Thiruvananthapuram, Kerala. After every show, the curtain was brought down and the next screening commenced with that mood-setting, repeated. Truth be told, I have to juggle my memory to remember the many films seen. But the sight of that curtain embellished with red lights, going up to engaging music – I don’t forget.
In the roughly five decades that have followed since, my generation saw the cinema experience transform. As it drifted from passion to business, one of the first casualties was that curtain. Among the last songs that I recall, played specifically for the curtain, was the theme from the 1971 movie `Shaft’ and selections from Giorgio Moroder and Kraftwerk. Then, the attention to detail began fading and the curtain rose amid general chatter in the hall, pop hits of the day playing in the backdrop. Eventually the curtain stayed up day-long or rose for each screening with no fanfare. By then probably, the movie theater had become the business model of today; milking a piece of built-up real estate for revenue.
The multiplex trend took long to reach India and Kerala. But once it did, after some time spent savoring our first lot of two screen-cinemas, we moved fast to establishments with multiple screens. Where refreshment used to be a cup of tea or samosa grabbed during intermission, a whole industry of refreshments came to roost on the premises. The sound of chips beings crunched and fingers groping popcorns in cardboard boxes became part of viewing. Cellphone calls also entered the frame. Meanwhile ticket prices altered dramatically.
Years ago, there used to be the front row seats, first class, balcony, dress circle and boxes. As a school boy supported by parents, I enjoyed the balcony perspective with family. By high school and college, when friends grew more important than family and the idea of supporting oneself was gradually instilled, balcony gave way to first class and front row. Employed, one reverted to balcony and even sampled dress circle and box. As multiplexes grew, the seating system lost its linkage to tradition. There were no fancy names for seats connecting cinema to the tradition of theater; only distinction by capacity to afford. The richest lounged on deck chair-like seats eating popcorn and slurping soft drinks. Those unable to afford as much, took the other seats. A family of four visiting the theater could easily cost a thousand bucks now. My first job in the late 1980s paid that much as monthly salary.
Cinemascope and 70mm were high technology in my childhood (in fact, black and white films were still around). Today, despite the proliferation of mobile phones for distraction, the cinema house is a veritable convergence of technology albeit tastelessly executed; its curtain raising-moment is a thundering cacophony of audio advertising the power of resident sound system. Where starting a theater was once linked to passion for medium, owners transformed to large companies owning multiplex chains.
The competition among theaters and its competition with other audiovisual platforms like streaming have been fueled by both convenience and immersive viewing experience. Arguably the need for countering an array of distractions is more with streaming platforms; a mobile phone for instance is usually in shared or public space and if you are seeing a film, it has to compete for your attention suitably. The influence of this authorship was visible in streamed content, which typically tended to be more weaponized (designed to grab attention) than content intended solely for the theaters.
Until the last Academy Awards, streaming platforms were kept at a distance by the film fraternity. The 92nd Academy Awards took place on February 10, 2020. At that time, going by what has been reported from China, a nation known for its secrecy, COVID-19 was two to three months old. A month later, on March 11, the World Health Organization (WHO) said that the disease, which now spanned many countries, could be called a pandemic.
By late March 2020, large numbers of people worldwide were in a state of lock down to check infection. With social distancing advocated, cinema halls were forced to shut. On the other hand, streaming platforms became busy; television, computer, tablet and mobile phone had become the new cinema hall. The disease’s impact on the global box office was estimated at a few billion dollars. Multiplex chains were in financial distress. Newly released films that saw their theater run threatened by COVID-19 were quickly shifted to streaming platforms. Some others decided to release straightaway on streaming platforms. There is hope that when the present health crisis is past, people may revert to theaters. We are bound to have differing opinions on that. While history shows instances of crisis easing to a return of the old, crisis also leaves its imprint.
A key aspect deciding the future of cinema halls will be the quality of viewing experience. We definitely crave immersion. But it is abjectly incorrect to argue that all content becomes immersive when shifted to big screen. A film like 2013’s `Gravity’ certainly comes alive on big screen. But there are hundreds of other titles, you can comfortably watch on the cell phone without diluting the experience. Further, with the proliferation of technology and conveniences ranging from snacks to waiters serving you at your seat, the movie theater is not anymore a temple for immersive experience. It is a business model. The audience is a study in profitable distraction. Nowadays, great theater experience also has much to do with who you were lucky enough to have as audience alongside.
Another shift has been of the generational sort. A generation of youngsters out there used to life with mobile phone, don’t appear to have any problem focusing amid multiple stimuli. Seen so, the pairing of mobile phone and decent headphones isn’t too bad a deal for immersive experience. You can sit by yourself and see what you want. It reduces the cinema hall to tradition and traditions fade or settle to being optional.
Maybe it’s time for digital curtain on small screen, set to music of your choice.
(The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai.)