How have cinemas survived?

The Coronavirus lockdown has threatened cinemas like never before, but it’s not the first time their future has been in doubt. From Nazis to Netflix, clued-down looks at how theatrical film exhibition has survived more than a century of challenges.

The World Theatre, Kearney, Nebraska. Photo by Edwin Hooper on Unsplash.

Cinemas are currently facing an unprecedented crisis. In Britain, for the first time in over 80 years, every screen in the country has been forced to close, putting thousands of jobs and the future of an entire industry at risk. According to the Hollywood Reporter, global box office losses could reach $17 billion if the lockdown continues to the end of May. With streaming services already nipping at the heels of theatrical exhibitors, it’s impossible to say what the landscape of film distribution will look like mere months from now.

However, this is not the first time that cinema operators have had to weather a storm. Movie-going has been a ubiquitous pastime for more than a century, and in that period the silver screen has faced repeated slumps in attendance and challenges from other media. From Nazi air raids to the rise of Netflix, cinemas have always been forced to adapt to sudden calamity and rapid changes in consumer habits – and so far they have managed to survive.

Photo by Krists Luhaers on Unsplash.

Cinemas first emerged in the last years of the 19th century and quickly became the diversion of choice for the young, urban working classes. By the outbreak of the First World War in 1914, there were 4,000 locations across the UK, and their grip upon the nation’s social life was only tightened with the advent of talkies and Technicolor in the 1930s. In the words of historian AJP Taylor, cinema was ‘the essential social habit of the age’.

The first challenge to this supremacy arrived with the Second World War. When Britain declared war on Germany on 3 September 1939, every picture house in the country was immediately closed by order of the Government, fearing their vulnerability to aerial bombing. This quickly provoked outrage; the playwright George Bernard Shaw, for one, penned an angry letter to The Times asking, ‘‘what agent of Chancellor Hitler is it who has suggested that we should all cower in darkness and terror ‘‘for the duration’’?’ The importance of cinema for both civilian and military morale was quickly recognised, and within a month every screen across the country was once again open for business.

In the end, the war years turned out to be something of a golden age for the country’s cinema industry, as the miseries and privations of war encouraged audiences to seek refuge in the glamour of the movies. Attendance grew steadily throughout the conflict, eventually reaching an all-time high of 1,635 million in 1946 – this was despite the 160 cinemas destroyed by enemy action. Film exhibitors may not have appreciated it at the time, but these were halcyon days, as the postwar era brought renewed attacks upon the dominance of the silver screen.


The BBC had issued the world’s first regular television transmission on 2 November 1936, and within two decades this new technology became a common feature – arguably the feature – of family living rooms. The growth of television, combined with the spread of central heating, made staying at home a more attractive prospect for Britain’s movie-going masses. Audiences declined steadily from 1948, as did did the number of cinemas. From a peak of 4,700 venues in 1946, this fell to 3,050 by 1960 and 1,971 by 1965.

To combat this precipitous decline, the film industry turned to the sort of spectacle and technical innovation that couldn’t be equalled by their small screen competition. Colour pictures became more common, while the 1950s also saw a brief craze for 3D movies along with the introduction of various widescreen processes like Cinerama, VistaVision, CinemaScope, and Ultra Panavision. While these developments helped movies to retain their edge, the first real victim of the television boom was the once-mighty newsreel industry, which could not hope to match the immediacy of TV news. British Paramount News closed in 1957, followed by Universal and Gaumont British in 1959. In 1960, the Newsreel Association of Great Britain and Ireland ended all operations, whilst the fatal blow was finally dealt in 1969 with the closure of British Pathé.

Photo by Sean Benesh on Unsplash.

The innovations of the fifties may have slowed the rot in theatrical exhibition, but the worst was still yet the come. Audiences continued to tumble precipitously, and fell to a record low of just 54 million admissions in 1984 – a collapse of 95% from their 1940s heyday. Indeed, the 1980s are widely recognised as the nadir of the British cinema industry, as the advent of home media with VHS and Betamax brought Hollywood blockbusters into living rooms just months after their big-screen premiere. Meanwhile, TV soaps and sitcoms arguably replaced cinema as the nation’s favoured mass entertainment; on Christmas Day 1986 over 30 million viewers watched Eastenders‘ Dirty Den serve divorce papers to his wife Angie.

As audiences fell, so too did the number of screens to serve them. By 1984 there were just 660 sites left in the UK, often in an unloved and dilapidated condition. The following year, film academic Geoffrey Nowell-Smith warned, ‘there is now an imminent danger that British Cinema as we know it, will have effectively ceased to exist within the decade.’ Amid this downturn, hundreds of grand movie houses were demolished or converted into bingo halls, pool clubs, or places of worship (the preservation of these often ornate, art-deco constructions continues to fuel controversy).

Things seemed dire, but salvation was close at hand. Imitating developments in American suburbs, AMC opened the UK’s first multiplex in Milton Keynes in 1985. Called The Point, it was a futuristic, pyramid-shaped structure of glass and steel. Inside were ten cinema screens and a snack bar selling an indulgent range of food and drink, while the courtyard outside had ample space for parking the family saloon.

the point
The Point, Milton Keynes. Photo by stone40 licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0

The Point brought about a revolution in British cinema’s fortunes, and how it did business, as a wave of new establishments based on the same model were rapidly constructed. These buildings were cleaner and better maintained than many of the decaying old city-centre cinemas with which audiences were familiar, and their greater number of screens meant that they could, in theory, show a broader range of films. By 1990 there were 41 such cinemas with 411 screens between them, while nationwide cinema admissions had nearly doubled to 97.37 million.

Thanks to continued investment, audience attendance rose consistently over the following decade, and since 2001 the annual total has never dipped below 150 million. Of course, there were some losers in this brave new world. The explosion of out-of-town multiplexes did cause closures among independent cinemas which were unable to adapt their existing buildings. Meanwhile, many cinéastes have argued that rather than expanding consumer choice, these multi-screen behemoths have actually restricted the selection of films on offer, dedicating their plethora of screens to the latest American blockbusters and little else.

Duke of York’s Picturehouse, Brighton. Photo by Jake Hills on Unsplash.

But the fact remains that the multiplex saved the humble cinema from terminal decline, and the industry has enjoyed reasonably good health ever since. Indeed, despite the rise of fresh competition in the form of HD television and streaming services like Amazon Prime and Netflix, cinema admissions have remained relatively steady over the past 20 years, while in 2018 British cinemas had their best year since 1970, selling 177 million tickets. Cinema sites have also continued to multiply; more than 30 opened in 2019 alone, bringing the total across the UK to 840.

While theatrical film distributors, particularly those in France, wring their hands about the threat from Netflix, there is little evidence that cinema’s days are numbered. In fact, a recent study in the US by consultancy EY found that those who stream movies more regularly are also the most enthusiastic cinema-goers. Perhaps in recognition of this, Netflix has recently been increasing its presence in cinemas, partnering with Curzon in the UK to handle limited big-screen releases of Netflix-produced movies like Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman and Noah Baumbach’s Marriage Story. All this suggests a future in which cinemas and streaming giants can coexist in relative harmony.


Admittedly, the 90-day window that has traditionally existed between a film’s premiere in cinemas and its arrival on home media is increasingly looking like an archaism within our on-demand culture. But just as cinemas have continually evolved over the last hundred years, they will persist in doing so against the new challenges of the digital age. Phil Clapp, the CEO of the UK Cinema Association, argued as much in a recent letter to the Financial Times, observing that, ‘the supposedly imminent demise of the cinema sector due to streaming has its echoes in the predicted impact on the business of TV, VHS and DVD.’

Throughout the catastrophes and innovations of recent history, cinema-going has proved to be a difficult habit to shake for the British public. The ongoing outbreak of COVID-19 has challenged the industry like never before, but there is something special about the cinematic experience which keeps audiences coming back. When the lockdown is finally lifted and we all emerge bleary-eyed from our homes, it won’t be long before we head back into the welcoming darkness of a movie theatre.


In defence of: Physical Media

As online streaming services increasingly become a fact of everyday life, I’m often asked why I continue to purchase blu-rays and DVDs of both new and old films. I frequently face accusations of being a dinosaur, a Luddite refusing to accept the winds of change. I’m told that online streams or rentals are cheaper, easier, more convenient, less cumbersome, more mobile, more exciting, more dynamic, more vogue… If I may, I’d like to take a moment to refute a few of these claims, and explain I believe that physical media is, for the time being, the best way to enjoy films and television at home. Of course, I’ll be assuming that none of you are thieves hell-bent on the destruction of the film industry as we know it, and will therefore only be focusing on legal means of enjoying cinema.


1. Ownership

My first and most personal point is that I remain a strong believer in ownership. I enjoy knowing that once I’ve bought something, it remains physically in my possession. This doesn’t just mean that I love opening and closing a little box whenever I stick something on, but it means I don’t have to worry about my favourite films or TV shows suddenly disappearing from the library. How often have you been browsing Netflix, only to discover that the film you were looking for has vanished? No matter which subscription service you’re on, be it Now TV, Amazon Prime, or Sky Movies, you’re always subject to the whim of their licensing agreements. Once you’ve bought yourself a blu-ray player and some discs, they will be there forever, until human civilisation has long passed and we are ruled by fascistic ape-like overlords.

2. More control

A lot of the time, the film you’re after simply won’t be available anywhere; this is especially a problem when looking for foreign or independent cinema. Even if you want to maximise your chances of finding a film and you sign up for everything, that’s an awful lot of subscriptions to invest in and keep up with. Furthermore, what gets added to the online libraries and what gets excluded often seems random; recently I made an effort to re-watch all four series of Blackadder on Netflix, only realising half-way through that the final two series weren’t available. I’m sure there’s a perfectly complicated reason for this, but investing in a good physical library of DVDs prevents this sort of disappointment, and gives you more control over what you can and can’t watch at any time.

3. Picture Quality

I’m going to get a bit weird and nerdy here, so you might want to skip this bit if you don’t really care how good the picture on your TV is. But I like my films to look good. A poor projection in the cinema can really ruin the experience for me, and watching at home is no different. Before buying a film on blu-ray, I do a lot of research on the quality of the transfer and how it compares to previous releases. I like to know where a film is sourced and how accurately the colour timing, grain, and aspect ratio have been recreated. With a blu-ray or DVD release, I can find out this information before buying and I’ll know exactly what I’m getting. On the internet, it’s really a matter of luck which version of the film you get – it’s often an ancient standard definition scan. And if your internet is a bit dodgy that’ll ruin the picture too, helpfully bringing me to my next point…

You’ll need one of these.

4. You don’t need a good internet connection, all the time

This isn’t true in all cases, but the majority of online television services require a decent internet connection to stream or download anything, particularly in high definition. With the spread of super-fast broadband, this may seem like less of a problem, but for anyone who can’t afford the best ISP or lives outside of the M25, you can expect your films to keep pausing, cutting out, and dropping in picture quality. And if I can’t watch the TV when my internet is down, what the hell else am I supposed to do?

5. Special features et al.

In a good home-video release, the actual film is only half the product. Deleted scenes, making-of documentaries, and audio commentaries can give an amazing insight into a side of film making that we rarely get to see. Some films may even have alternate cuts or a variety of sound options (that was an exciting sentence). Of course not every film or TV show gets this kind of deluxe treatment, neither do they all warrant such an investment, but to have a peak behind the scenes of classic popular culture is invaluable for both film fans and historians like myself, and something you’ll only really get on a quality hard-copy.

6. But at what cost?

If you’re looking at face value, a brand new blu-ray is going to set you back about £15, even more for a box set, at the time of writing. I’ll admit, this is a lot of money. But if you’re willing to wait a little bit, or shop around for deals, you’ll rarely have to pay full price for a new film. For those purchasing classic films, or anything more than a couple of years old, things become quite affordable. Both Amazon and HMV do excellent multi-buy deals on blu-rays and DVDs, giving you the option to shop both online and on the high street. Of course, the total cost of assembling a vast library of blu-rays at home will probably work out more expensive than a Netflix subscription, but for such a superior level of choice and control over your own catalogue, I’d say it was worth the difference.

Those are my top six reasons for sticking to discs in the age of streaming. I’m not a stubborn man, and I realise that physical media has a horrendous environmental cost; I genuinely long for the day when the film industry doesn’t have to waste vast swathes of energy and plastic so that I can watch films in the best way possible. But for now at least, there simply isn’t an alternative which has convinced me to make the switch. Shiny discs and shopping trips to HMV may seem like anachronisms in a world where everything exists on a screen in front of you, but for video-philes and anyone with a penchant for bonus documentaries and the last two series of Blackadder, they’re a necessity.