Last year, I had the absolute privilege of attending the Toronto International Film Festival on a professional basis. It was my first time attending any film festival as a critic and I could not have asked for a more all-encompassing or thrilling experience. What a beautiful city full of wonderful people, and what an incredible festival. I could wax lyrical all day about what a formative moment this was for my career and the particular joys of being in a room full of industry contemporaries as we experienced the collective joys of the medium together.
But every time I think back to TIFF, there is one thing that mires my golden memories. I attended exclusively press and industry screenings, meaning everyone I watched a film with was a critic, journalist or professional from the world of entertainment. And every single screening I went to, without fail, would be spoiled by someone getting their phone out. I’m not just talking about a quick glance at the screen to check the time either. Every screening would feature, often more than once, one person just casually browsing on their phone, the brightness at a level that proved intensely distracting for those in surrounding seats. I remember one instance where someone was told to turn their phone off and they audibly sneered, choosing to leave the screening (which had been very hard to get into due to high demand) rather than put it away.
It did not escape me that my contemporaries, the people who are the lost vocal on social media about keeping the sanctity of the cinematic experience alive, were the ones spoiling the privilege of a press pass to browse Twitter during a packed screening of Widows, weeks before the general public would get a chance to see it. Of course, we can #notallcritics and the like all we want here, but in terms of fighting a losing battle, I couldn’t have asked for a more apt metaphor than that.
Much has been made in recent years about the need for cinemas, moviegoers and industry professionals alike to preserve the unique thrills of the cinematic experience. As someone who was moulded by trips to the movies from a very young age and who would spent her weekly pocket money on seeing arthouse films because that was what super cool people like me did as a teen, I think highly of said experience. I like to be overwhelmed by a screen, to have my undivided attention focused on the story unfolding in front of me. As much as I am a loner when it comes to the cinema, there is often nothing better than that moment where you’re smack bang in the middle of a room full of strangers and you are bound together by the joy of seeing something truly special for the very first time as an unofficial community. This is culture, history, pleasure, and so much more for me. At least, it is when it’s done well.
However, I am also all too aware that often that experience can kind of suck. My local arthouse cinema is a precious gem of our community but I also spend more time in the multiplexes keeping up with big releases, and therein lies myriad problems. We’ve all been there and met the same people who seem unable to read social cues or follow the helpful instructions broadcast before the movie: The ones who never turn off their phones; the parents who bring children far too young for the film on show; the surly teens who won’t shut up; the brats who spill their popcorn and make it near impossible for the overworked and underpaid staff to get things properly cleaned up in time for the next screening. All that trouble and 40 minutes of ads and the ticket prices keep rising and the experience hasn’t improved alongside that? Can you blame people for just sticking to their nightly ritual of Netflix and chill?
A ticket to the movies is fast becoming a luxury, and that’s before you take into account the cost for a family. Odeon Leicester Square were forced to defend their price hikes last year when it was revealed the newly renovated cinema had a top ticket price of £40. When prices keep rising but average wages don’t, how do you justify the cost? For a lot of people nowadays, there’s not much pleasure to be found in spending all that money for an experience that has become increasingly stressful and not much help for the film itself. Streaming services offer convenience, comfort, affordability, and a glut of content beyond anything we could have imagined even a decade ago.
Our attentions have never been more divided, the urge to consume more frantic than ever. I talk about pop culture for a living and I know that I’ll never be able to experience even a fraction of what’s available right now, which leads to a particularly irritating strain of neurosis I’ve never been able to shake off. Combine that with crushing labour pressures, the gig economy, and the smothering need to always be working, and it’s not tough to see why you would choose to stay at home, watch a boxset and keep your phone on. Of course, there are plenty of people who just don’t like to follow basic etiquette rules lest their starved attention span be forced to think for a few moments, but when I see people who should know better keeping their phones out in a cinema, I have to accept that maybe the times just don’t allow for the old experiences anymore. It doesn’t help that most multiplexes don’t have the staff or inclination to check on screenings and get customers to turn their phones off, once again making people wonder what’s worth saving about the cinematic experience.
A lot of cinemas are having a really tough time right now. Profit margins are tight and made all the worse by companies like Disney demanding bigger and bigger cuts of the grosses. The priority isn’t on offering customers the best experience possible; it’s about packing in as many people as they can and hoping those handful of event blockbusters keep them in the black during the dry season. It’s a flighty business plan at best, as even with the record breaking numbers of Disney and the MCU, box office numbers have stalled across the board, particularly in America. Where is the incentive to improve, to make the experience worth preserving, when this struggle has only gotten worse? Besides, for general moviegoers who make a trip to the cinema perhaps five or six times a year, and primarily for those blockbuster event titles, this is probably way less of a concern to them than for nerds like me.
But despite it all, I still find myself happiest in a cinema, when the stars align and the experience is everything I want and need it to be. Streaming services can’t and most likely won’t fill gaps that only the cinema can do, at least for now. My arthouse cinema supports the sort of films that don’t get to stream on Netflix. They make the experience worthwhile, but I’m keenly aware not everyone has access to that. And frankly, I’m not ready to yield to the growing notion that our only options are one media monopoly or the other. The only question now is if that future is truly inevitable.
Header Image Source: Fox