At the start of the month, it was announced that the independent cinema in my home city, Belmont Filmhouse, alongside another in Scotland, would permanently close down due to financial struggles. While this impacted me financially due to the fact that this was also my workplace, the emotional impact it left on me was devastating. This cinema was somewhere that I called my second home, the place where I discovered some of my favorite films over the past decade and where I gained a passion for film curation and world cinema. Within one day, all of that was taken away from me, and I didn’t have anywhere else to go. The sad fact of the matter is that during a time when there is a struggle to keep businesses going due to a cost of living crisis, my cinema is not going to be the only one that has to close its door for good. I want to reflect on the state of cinema over the past few years and see how the pandemic has had a negative impact on independent cinema, both in terms of the venues and the films.
In less than a month since the closure of my independent cinema, I have already felt the impact of having fewer choices of cinemas in my city. This weekend, “Triangle of Sadness” is opening wide in the UK, and it was going to be the major new release at Belmont Filmhouse. Instead, there are now zero showings of the film in my city due to the big chains focusing on “Black Adam” and the range of horror films released this Halloween period. If an English language film that won the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival and stars a big name such as Woody Harrelson fails to show on a single screen in my city, it highlights the range of other films that may not be showcased. When the big cinema chains are soon going to allocate a lot of screens to “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever” and “Avatar: The Way of Water,” where are fans going to go if they want to see other films this winter season? With the upcoming UK releases of films such as Lee Jung-jae’s “Hunt,” Charlotte Wells’ “Aftersun,” and Agnieszka Smoczynska’s “The Silent Twins,” all three premiering at major film festivals, there is a chance that without the support of independent cinemas that these films will not have a big reach across the UK.
It can be easy to see how well select films have done and assume that independent cinema is surviving in a post-pandemic landscape. In particular, the horror genre continues to be one of the most profitable genres in the film industry due to the target audience and small budget required to make those films. From legacy franchises such as “Scream” and “Halloween” to new original flicks such as “Smile” and “Nope,” all of these films have seen successful box office returns. Outside of the horror genre, there is also the obvious success of “Everything Everywhere All At Once,” which became the first film distributed by A24 to make over $100 million at the box office. However, what these films have in particular that other independent films lack is a spectacle that is truly enhanced on the big screen. From jump scares to vibrant visuals, these are big stories that benefit from being viewed on the big screen, and that is why audiences turn up to the cinemas. It simply would not be the same watching a horror film in a brightly-lit room at home, which is why even with streaming options, many fans still chose to purchase a ticket for “Halloween Ends” instead of watching it on the same day on Peacock.
When it comes to independent films not based around the action or horror genre, it is, unfortunately, proving to be more difficult to get audiences to pay for a ticket nowadays. A recent example of this is the rom-com “Bros,” starring Billy Eichner. One of the first gay romantic comedies released by a major studio, this film deserved to do well financially to continue having stories like this told on the big screen. Universal Pictures proved to have faith in the project, giving it a world premiere at TIFF and marketing the film quite heavily. Critics also responded well to the film, with an 88% score on Rotten Tomatoes and a 75 score on Metacritic. However, “Bros” has so far only managed to earn half of its original budget back at the box office, and the film is already available to rent at home, highlighting the current issue around the lack of support for independent films at this current time. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic shutting cinema doors for nearly two years, audiences have become accustomed to watching films on the small screen through streaming services and will only make the trip to the cinema if they deem it necessary. Just over a decade ago, “Bridesmaids” managed to bring in nearly $300 million at the box office, and in this landscape, it would be tough to see that film be as successful as it is if it ended up releasing in 2022 instead. If nothing changes soon, then in the next ten years, there is a chance that we won’t even see films such as “Bros” on the big screen, as the only option will be through streaming services and online rentals.
Many people in my city are working as hard as they can to try to save my local cinema, and the support I have seen from fellow critics, filmmakers, and cinema lovers has warmed my heart. However, this is more than just the case of saving one or two independent cinemas. If people want to have the option of going to one of these independent cinemas and supporting local filmmaking, they have to turn up now more than ever. It’s good to have campaigns going to try to financially save the building now, but it will only stay open if people use the space once it’s reopened. This is the same situation with independent films, in which I would highly encourage more people to go out and see the likes of “Bros” on the big screen. If we don’t put our money into these smaller businesses and projects, they will soon no longer be part of the cinematic landscape, and these stories will be deemed unimportant enough to be told.