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What the Tech: Could another summer without blockbusters actually be a good thing for cinema?

The pandemic has pushed back the release date of the next James Bond film again, but could there possibly be a positive side to all of these delays?

Covid-19 has done something that Goldfinger, Jaws, and even Blofeld never could; it’s defeated James Bond, and not just once, but three times! First scheduled to arrive in cinemas in April 2020, the release date of No Time to Die was then shifted to November of the same year, once again to April 2021, and this week the news broke that it has been pencilled in for an October release instead

I’ve been looking forward to seeing the film ever since its announcement, and that enthusiasm remains undimmed. I haven’t quite found myself in the position of poor Alan Partridge, desperately re-enacting The Spy Who Loved Me after his prized VHS cassette was accidentally taped over, but I reckon I could still make a decent attempt at the new film despite not having actually seen it.

I can exclusively predict for you that Bond, James Bond, will embark on a perilous mission to neutralise a threat to his beloved Queen and country; a mission that will necessitate glamorous international travel, thrilling car chases and brutal brawls with a dozen or so disposable henchman, before he eventually crosses swords with a grotesque supervillain who plans to destroy the world as we know it. Despite a close brush with death he will escape at the last minute, turn the tables on his adversary, and save the day with a beautiful woman in his arms and a cold vodka martini (shaken, not stirred) waiting for him at the bar.

That’s the formula that’s made Bond the most successful long-running franchise in cinema history, and much like his famous cocktail preference, there’s no reason to change it. People want to see the new one not because they want to be surprised, but because they know exactly what they’re getting and they like it.

At first it’s sad news to many of us that we’ll have to wait even longer to watch the new entry in the series, but it has made me pause to consider: could the massive disruption to cinemas this year (and last) somehow actually be a good thing? Could the pause from the assembly-line of Avengers films actually allow us to widen our tastes, and gain an appreciation for cinema as art?

Many industries have suffered from pandemic precautions, and the close-quarters nature of a crowded cinema meant that it was an unfortunate but necessary casualty. Blockbuster films, where most of the money is made, were particularly hit because they’re expected to bring in large audiences. It wasn’t just No Time To Die that got delayed; last year was the first since 2009 in which not a single Marvel superhero film was released.

It goes without saying that this marks an earth-shattering change compared to business as usual. In 2019, the final year before the pandemic erupted, every single film in the US Box Office top ten was a remake or sequel, apart from Joker which was nonetheless based on a well-known comic book character that has been seen multiple times on the silver screen. But the movie industry wasn’t always so heavily built on blockbuster franchises, and even as they first emerged, they weren’t the all-consuming juggernauts they now are.

Steven Spielberg’s Jaws is retrospectively seen as the first summer blockbuster film, a smash-hit scary movie that was nonetheless had the touch of an auteur. Star Wars followed two years later in 1977, solidifying the format even further (and inevitably leading to innumerable prequels, sequels, spin-offs, TV shows, and cuddly toys aplenty).

Importantly, however, this wave of sure-fire money-makers didn’t completely shut-out introspective and thoughtful dramas; Kramer vs Kramer was the biggest hit at the box office in 1979, and this sensitive piece examined the topical issue of divorce and single parenthood with bravura performances from Meryl Streep and Dustin Hoffman. This was a film that prompted introspection from individuals and discussion among audiences; and I don’t believe that the human race itself has changed so profoundly in the intervening forty years that there is no longer the demand for this kind of cinema. It may be a question of supply.

While it’s perfectly natural to desire escapism and comforting formulas at this time, it would also be refreshing to see a new type of cinema emerge that examines these era-defining issues that we’ve faced together over the past year; the interminable isolation that has tested the limits of our mental endurance; the sense of a lost youth for those barricaded into university dorms; the wrenching loss of face-to-face contact with our family and friends even at Christmas; the biting uncertainty given by insecure jobs at this time more than ever; and of course death itself and the fear of it. These unprecedented times could yet create unprecedented art, in the cinema and beyond.

To put it in other words, those of Orson Welles’ character in The Third Man, a cinematic masterpiece from the time before blockbusters: “You know what the fellow said – in Italy, for thirty years under the Borgias, they had warfare, terror, murder and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci and the Renaissance. In Switzerland, they had brotherly love, they had five hundred years of democracy and peace – and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock.”

In an era where people are becoming increasingly polarised, being informed about the news of the day through malevolent social media algorithms and thus developing completely incompatible world views, it’s worth remembering that everyone still goes to the cinema, and so it is well-placed to address the collective issues we now face.

I hope that this coronavirus crisis, in which studios have lost money hand over fist from bloated blockbuster budgets, prompts major studios to stop dumping all their eggs in the blockbuster basket and realise that high-quality, thought-provoking films not only have the potential to make financial sense (being lower investments and thus lower risk) but are also important in a much wider social sense for the new world that will emerge from this unprecedented trauma.

 

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