As I write this post on New Year’s Eve day, my yearly duties as a film critic are complete. I’ve seen all the films, made all the lists, and voted in my awards. And so, here in my final missive of the decade, I feel compelled to address the question that seems to be taking up more and more real estate in the imagination of cinephiles: Is cinema dying?
This anxiety is not without basis. Visit your local multiplex, and you’ll see multiple screen taken up by studio franchises, with adult-driven or independent films occupying a lone, tiny theater. Meanwhile, the rising popularity of streaming services like Netflix, Amazon, Disney+, and others are making it harder and harder for regular folks to justify going to the movies at all. Of course, these two problems feed each other. The harder it is to get consumers to go to the movies, the more studios will invest in expensive, effects-driven movies – Martin Scorsese called them “theme parks” earlier this year – and relegate serious cinema to hidden corners of the media landscape.
So does that mean cinema is in fact on the way out? Nope. If anything, it’s getting stronger. While it’s certainly true that it is harder than ever for independent, adult-oriented films to get wide theatrical distribution, there are more places than ever for them to be seen. Consider “Marriage Story,” which, had it come out a decade ago, would have likely had only a short run in theaters and then rely on Oscar nominations to get it into the conversation. Instead, it had a high-profile release on Netflix and became a source of dinner party debates and Twitter memes for weeks. An even better example is “Atlantics,” the bracingly debut film from French director Mati Diop. This melding of social comment and magical realism about low-income workers in Senegal competed for the top prize at the Cannes Film Festival, but foreign films rarely play outside of major cities. Due to Netflix, anyone in the world with a subscription can watch it right now.
Still, most arguments that cinema is dying refer to the 1970s, considered by many to be the high watermark of the form. Back then, the studios invested heavily in young, talented directors, who made films that were both popular and critically-acclaimed. Films like “The Godfather,” “Dog Day Afternoon,” and “The Conversation” could probably be made today, but they would have much lower budgets and smaller releases. As a result, they wouldn’t have the same impact. In that way, 1970s seems like a superior era of filmmaking.
Just not for everyone. The hero auteurs of 1970s were massively talented but they were all young, white men. We have our share of great white, male filmmakers today (Coens, Tarantino, Anderson, Fincher), while many old masters are still vital (Scorsese, Spielberg, Malick). But for the firs time ever, marginalized voices from across the world have the opportunity to tell their stories and find an audience. Consider the rising careers of Jordan Peele, Greta Gerwig, Lynne Ramsay, Chloe Zhao, Guillermo Del Toro, Boots Riley, and Sofia Coppola. There would not have been room for these directors in the 1970s studio system; today, their films make an impact. They bring new textures, feelings, and history into a cinema accessible by all. It’s thrilling to think of a child seeing themselves represented onscreen for the first time in Peele’s “Us” or Gerwig’s “Lady Bird.” Now imagine the contributions they might make to cinema when they grow up.
According to the experts, cinema has always been dying. It has fought for its existence against the crusading moralists of the 1920s, McCarthyism, the advent of television, VHS, and more. Each time, it has persisted. The movies keep coming, and the tougher their opponent, the better they seem to get. 2020 can’t come soon enough.